Native American Heritage Month is personal for two MONAH employees

Native American Heritage Month is personal for two MONAH employees


The word hung in the air like a gunshot.

The volunteer who had just said it cringed, appalled that the outdated and inappropriate term for Native Americans had come out of her mouth.

Jazlyn Sanderson, director of the Museum of Native American History, was nothing but kind. The museum, she assured, is a safe place for non-Natives to learn.

Later, Caitie Holt and Alaynna Littlefeather, both Native Americans, echoed her sentiments.

“Our staff understands that there is a lack of education about Indigenous culture and will gladly answer questions so that interactions with the Indigenous community are healthy and respectful,” says Holt, whose heritage is Cherokee Deer clan. “We hope all our visitors will come to our doors with eager hearts and open minds to be receptive to the stories told through our artifacts.”

“Indigenous history and culture in itself has a never-ending evolution, and it is our duty to constantly learn and teach those changes to everyone who comes to visit,” agrees Littlefeather, whose heritage is Diné (Navajo). “What I really would like non-Native people to understand is that it is OK to be ignorant of Indigenous knowledge, so long as they are willing to be receptive to the information we try to relay.”

MONAH was founded by David Bogle, whose heritage is Cherokee. It stands on the ancestral lands that were home to the Quapaw, Caddo and Osage people and traces 24,000 years of Indigenous history from all of the Americas, Sanderson explains.

“We begin the story in the Paleo Period — ice age — and our galleries end in the early 20th century. The story never stops there,” Sanderson explains. “The [museum store] highlights the many diverse contemporary Native groups and their artwork.”

Sanderson is not Indigenous and says she navigates the Native world with “care, patience and understanding” plus an open mind and heart. “I show up to learn every day about topics on Indigenous culture, art and history.”

Holt, the museum’s curator, and Littlefeather, product and finance manager, “bring so much to the table at MONAH,” Sanderson adds, “and I am constantly learning from their perspectives.

“Whether the topic is about art, cultural knowledge, history, and sometimes language, I am always here to learn from them,” Sanderson says. “Alaynna’s upbringing is so different from my own, so she is always telling me a story from her childhood (and sometimes adulthood) of her Diné culture, [and] I am always here to absorb what she shares with me. From time to time, she will teach me a Diné word, which is awesome.

“Caitie’s upbringing is incredibly similar to my own; we often find common people we know from different places in our lives, it is that close,” Sanderson goes on. “Even still, her reconnection to her family’s Cherokee history is beautiful, and I learn more about Cherokee culture through her rediscoveries. I also learned a few Cherokee words from her, too!

“Both of them bring so much creativity and passion to our projects here at the museum, so I am always grateful for their perspectives.”

In recognition of November as Native American Heritage Month, Holt and Littlefeather shared their very different stories with What’s Up!

“To this day, people firmly believe in a very specific image of the American ‘Indian,’” Littlefeather says. “This image is the brown guy with a feather in his hair and a painted face. We come in different shades and features and even grow up with different customs. It’s an exciting thing to teach others the rich diversity and history of Native American tribes.”

In Her Own Words:

Caitie Holt

I grew up in Siloam Springs, right near the border of Oklahoma. I am the youngest in my family of five in a Christian household, and we are all very close. We all create art, and several of us pursue our passion for our careers.

My mother spent a few years researching our genealogy, and my family became registered Cherokee citizens in 2015. My father, my siblings, and I are descendants of the Cherokee Deer clan through my ancestor, Nancy GaHoga Lightfoot. During the first years of learning our genealogy, my family spent time traveling through Oklahoma on weekend trips to learn more about my Cherokee ancestors. My father attended Northeastern State University [in Tahlequah, Okla.] in the ’80s. Years later, I received a legacy scholarship to attend NSU in 2017.

When I started my first semester at NSU, I became immersed in the Cherokee culture simply because NSU was at the Cherokee capital. What I have learned from my Native heritage is a lifestyle, how I treat other people, and how I treat nature and the animals within it. I will confess there is still a lot about my heritage that I do not know because of how far removed my family was from it until 2015. I still have so much to learn, and I try on a daily basis to live a life that honors my ancestors and the traditions that they carry. I have plans to learn the language and teach it to my future lineage. I want to restore what was lost within my family.

I was born with blonde hair and blue eyes, unlike the rest of my family members who had dark skin, dark hair and brown/dark gray eyes. With this being said, I grew up with privileges that my siblings did not always get. I remember my sister being bullied for her skin color, and I never endured that hardship. I was often asked if I was adopted.

Now, it is easy to think that I would wish for darker skin like my siblings and many other Cherokee, but that is not the case. I understand that regardless of the gene pool, I still carry my ancestors’ blood, and that is what truly matters.

I celebrate my heritage every time I come to work at the museum. One of my duties as curator is providing educational tools and sharing Indigenous values with the community and the education system. It brings me joy to do so. I believe it’s important to recognize that I still have a lot to learn and am always open to opportunities for growth as the curator and as a reconnecting native.

One of the common misconceptions about Native American history is that we are extinct due to historical traumatic events. Children and adults alike ask the question “Are Native Americans still alive?” and it is a joy to say that yes, we are. This interaction not only provides education but also awareness of Indigenous people that they are coexisting with. Answering this question allows future acknowledgment for Indigenous communities all over the world, creating the opportunity for our visitors to foster a relationship with Indigenous people.

In Her Own Words:

Alaynna Littlefeather

It’s customary in Diné culture to always introduce myself the proper way by announcing my clans. This is done so that we are able to reconnect to our kinship and always remain close to our relatives.

Yá’át’ééh shik’éí dóó shidine’é. Shí éí Alaynna Littlefeather yinishyé. Tł’ógí nishłį́, Tsin sikaadni bashishchiin, Kinyaa’áani dashicheii, Hashtł’ishnii dashinalí.

Hello my family, my people and my friends. I am called Alaynna Littlefeather. I am from the Zia Weaver People (mother’s clan), born for the Clamp Tree People (father’s clan), my maternal grandfather is from the Towering House People (maternal grandfather’s clan), and my paternal grandfather’s clan is from The Mud People (paternal grandfather’s clan).

I grew up on Diné Bikéyah (Navajo sacred land) since my first breath and lived within a sweet spot of Diné, A:Shiwi (Zuni), Hopituh Shi-nu-mu (Hopi) and Acoma communities. No matter where I looked, the Indigenous representation was all around. Road signs, grocery stores and even newspaper articles were written in my native language. It feels like you aren’t in the United States at all, and to some degree you aren’t. On the reservation you can see how much older and complex our sacred lands are — and it was my back yard!

I have a family full of medicine men, master weavers, singers and dancers. When you are fortunate enough to be born into a family so tightly woven with traditions, it’s inevitable to carry out the same practices they grew up to learn too. However, I do owe credit to the matriarchs of my family for how much I know and who I am today as a Diné woman.

I’ve had brutally devastating stories told to me from my family. Being as young as 5, I had learned about how my grandmother was treated in the boarding school system. How they cut her hair, reprimanded her for speaking Diné Bazaad (Navajo/The People’s Language), and being told our traditions weren’t the “correct” way to live. It always came with a sense of resilience. Despite everything that has happened, we are still teaching, speaking, learning and most importantly existing. So, with all this in mind, how could I not be proud of who I was or where I came from?

Initially, I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. The further I progressed in my studies in political science, I realized that I wanted to do something more involved with Native American communities. At the time I lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and my options were limited, so I began focusing on my resume and served in various finance jobs. Once I moved to Bentonville, I just so happened to drive past the museum and later on that day, I saw a listing for my position and thought it would be the perfect opportunity to work in a setting dedicated to the history of Indigenous peoples. I have been with MONAH for almost a year.

Oftentimes, people approach me with the mindset that our First Nations are people of the past with no existing place in modern society. I believe I am able to showcase the incredible projects Indigenous people have been up to through our gift shop. In this way our visitors are taking home tangible evidence that Native Americans are so much more than what western movies or mascots can represent; we are artists, writers, engineers, agriculturists, business owners and so much more.

My desk sits at the corner where folks enter and leave the exhibits and, without fail, I see this glimmer of realization in their eyes. No matter who it is, how old they are, or how far they’ve traveled to see us, it is always the same look. I’m not quite sure where this stigma of Native people being only this primitive group waving sticks and spears came from, but it is absolutely untrue. Our museum showcases the artistic accomplishments of these Indigenous tribes, and those who visit come to further understand that these artifacts once belonged to people who had incredible skill and culture. I love hearing the question “they made all this?” because I get to proudly say that we did!

(Responses were edited for space.)

Categories: Galleries