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Indigenous advocate Stephanie Van Hoose says healing begins with reconciliation

Native American dancers at REACH Fest.
Adnan Siddique
Native American dancers at REACH Fest.

Stephanie Van Hoose, a Mohawk Medicine woman and retired Air Force veteran, has been working to give a voice to Indigenous communities and educate the public on Native American culture. Despite challenges, Van Hoose believes education and understanding are key to reconciliation and positive change.

The last two months have been a busy one for Indigenous advocate Stephanie Van Hoose, Mohawk, MBQ, T-MT. This Mohawk Medicine woman and retired Air Force Veteran has been working tirelessly to give voice to the Indigenous communities in the Miami Valley and beyond.

Van Hoose was instrumental in advocating for the City of Dayton to proclaim the second Monday in October as Indigenious People’s Day, and also partnered with the Dayton Metro Library during November to bring a series of educational events to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

I first met Van Hoose at the rehearsal for REACH Fest in the auditorium at the Dayton Metro Library. She was going over guidelines on how to interact with the Native American dancers and participants - like not to pick up a feather if it falls on the ground from a performer garment, or touch someone's hair.

“Once we braid our hair, we smudge and bless our hair and pray over it, our braids. So your whole regalia is like your holy space,” Van Hoose instructs the gathering.

REACH Fest, which stands for “Representation/Reconciliation, Education, Advocacy, Community, and Healing/Health/Human rights” was a culmination of events that Van Hoose had orchestrated with the Dayton Metro Library to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

“It’s part of reconciliation,” Van Hoose says a few days after the event we talk at her house in Centerville. “I prayed for months of how I wanted this vision to go for the community, how I want this all to expand out, and how I do not want to be standing alone anymore.”

Van Hoose’s journey as an Indigenous advocate started when she was in the Air Force. As a young Native woman there wasn’t much support for her in the military.

“I am Mohawk, Mohawk Bay of Quinte, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory,” Van Hoose explains, “And there were all these different heritage committees and events, but there was nothing there for me. You know, where was my voice, where was my cultural voice, my cultural place.”

Van Hoose is originally from Buffalo, New York. Going into the service was the first time she had been away from her extended family where she was surrounded by her cultural heritage.

“I was so far away and extremely homesick,” Van Hoose recalls, "And a young woman in the ‘90’s, let me tell you, was treated differently as a woman in the military. But as a Native woman I got a lot of grief. I got a lot of grief for wanting to do (the Native) things (that I had grown up with).”

Van Hoose had played softball in high school and college, and she continued to play in the Air Force. She says that she bonded with the African American women in her unit and on her teams, because they reminded her of the women in her family. With help of some of those friends, Van Hoose was able to form a Native American heritage committee.

“And so we started and there were just like five or six of us, including myself and my husband,“ Van Hoose says, “And everyone was of mixed heritage.”

“We didn’t talk about if you were a citizen of a Nation- even though I had my tribal citizenship. I thought that doesn't matter. If you’re showing up here you have an ancestor, we need to be together. We’re stronger together. I felt that then, at 23 - 24, and I still feel that way now. I still feel that way now.”

According to Indigenous advocate Stephanie Van Hoose, the process of healing and reconciliation go hand in hand.
According to Indigenous advocate Stephanie Van Hoose, the process of healing and reconciliation go hand in hand.

Van Hoose remembers one time when she went into a grade school when she was stationed in Little Rock, Arkansa to talk about her Native American heritage. She was wearing a necklace shaped like a turtle and when a small child asked her what it meant, she said it represented her clan, the Turtle Clan.

She said the young boy looked at her confused and asked, “You’re in the Klu Klux Klan?”

Van Hoose has continued her advocacy work to educate the public, especially in schools, and give voice to Native American community, but it’s been a frustrating experience at times. When she and her family moved to Dayton, her son went to Stebbins High school, whose mascot is a cartoonish Indian.

“I am the direct descendant of Chief Joseph Brant. His Mohawk name is Thayendanegea, and that is who my son is named after,” Van Hoose says, recalling how her son was bullied in High School. “And then coming in here and seeing that we still have Redskins in some of the schools here, that Ohio has the most Native American mascots, and yet, there’s no truth in the storytelling, there’s no acknowledgement. It’s just a constant dehumanization.”

“We still have people painting their faces red and wearing war bonnets, you know. Like, how is that acceptable in today's culture? If you were to paint your face black, we absolutely know how out of line that is. And yet, when you're a marginalized community, where’s the voice? Where’s the voice “

Van Hoose says that it’s harder in Ohio to form Indigenous alliances and build Native communities.

“Because of the forced removal act (Indian Removal Act of 1830) there is not any population here that has territories or reservations,” she says, “and so you have Natives from all different communities living here - especially in the military community.”

“I do get tired. I’ve said this to another leader - and he’s a powerful leader in the African American Community - and he said, 'Don’t get tired. Absolutely don’t get tired, because your ancestors are bringing you forward. Your ancestors have gone through so much.' ”

“Just in my own family I understand that. You know the struggle, and my grandmother was a residential school survivor. And that type of cultural genocide after historic governmental policies to erase us and assimilate us and what that’s done,” says Van Hoose, hugging a pillow to her body on the chair. “But, it can get tiring here.”

On November 11th, Van Hoose attended the dedication ceremony for the National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and it had a profound effect on her.

“You know, to walk …..and carry my grandfather’s badge. He was a combat medic in Korea, and he had PTSD,” she says, her words choking up with emotion. “He came home and he was wounded, his knee cap was shot off, so his leg was straight his whole life. So it was such an honor moment to carry that badge - to carry that medic badge.”

“To have that and to be able to walk and represent my family, and him, and after everything that we have gone through,” she continues, her voice building with pride. “To be recognized in the city of Dayton for Indigenous Peoples Day, and to have that proclamation, and then the events that are occurring, and then to walk in that parade, walk in that moment, say my Nation - you would walk by and say your Nation and then they would shout it out. People were clapping and cheering all along the route - we walked almost a mile.”

“It was just a really emotional moment of pride, and recognition,” Van Hoose says with a deep sigh. “Recognition.”

That full circle moment was a culmination of Van Hoose’s journey from a young Native woman being harassed in the military, feeling vulnerable and alone, to walking with pride and being recognized and honored publicly by the U.S. government as a Native American female veteran.

“I don’t want to be fighting with you. I’m an open hearted person. I am here for healing. And I want to connect. I want to connect us,” Van Hoose tells me. “We are stronger together. It’s me and my son going out in the marches and just standing, and standing next to the people in the circle, how can we help, how can we be a part of the solution.”

“I don’t want to be out there yelling, but that’s pain, that’s grief, that spills out of your soul when you can’t take it anymore. And I always say when people are shouting the pain is so immense that they just want to be heard. And I just, I don’t want to shout anymore, I want to connect.”

At the end of our interview, Van Hoose takes the microphone and asks me to close my eyes. As a Mohawk Medicine Woman, she always ends her ceremonies with a blessing and as her soft, melodic voice comes through my headphones tears stream down my face and I feel a knot in my chest that I didn’t even realize was there until now, loosened.”

As the last note fades away, I hear Van Hoose's soft voice in my ear. “That is my prayer of gratitude in all four directions. For myself, my family, our community, our nation, our planet.”

“Thank you. Niá:wen.”

Renee Wilde is an award-winning independent public radio producer, podcast host, and hobby farmer living in the hinterlands of southwestern Ohio.