By Joanna Bastian
Earlier this month, Aleeka Smith celebrated the passing down of a very special ceremonial buckskin dress that belonged to her great aunt, Mary Miller Marchand.
Aleeka lives in the lower Methow Valley along the same riverbank where her great aunt lived, along with many other generations before them. In Mary’s last years she requested that Aleeka be her “hands and feet” — a position of honor as an assistant to an elder. In exchange for helping hands, the elder passes down stories and cultural knowledge to the younger person.
Buckskin dresses have names and stories associated with each garment, as do woven blankets. This dress was made by Diane Aiken specifically for Mary. The dress was worn by Mary when she served as grand marshal in many community celebrations over the years, including the Wenatchee Apple Blossom parade and the Omak Stampede.
Mary dedicated her life to serving others while preserving Native American history and culture. She drove the seniors’ bus, managed the five community centers for the Colville Reservation, served on the Colville Business Council, interviewed and recorded tribal elders for the archival collection at the Colville History/Archaeology Department, and worked closely with linguists at the University of British Columbia to document different dialects of the Salish language using the International Phonetic Alphabet.
Mary passed away in March 2013. At that time, her sons — Aleeka’s cousins — presented Aleeka with Mary’s ceremonial buckskin dress. It wasn’t until this month that the family was able to properly “bring Aleeka out” and celebrate the passing down of the dress in public on the first night of the Indian Encampment at the Omak Stampede.
Before the ceremony, I sat with Aleeka as her cousin Olivia expertly wove Aleeka’s dark thick hair into two long braids. At 13 years old, Aleeka possesses a gentle spirit with a strong sense of who she is, and the generations that came before her — in part because of her time spent as the “hands and feet” of her Auntie Mary. She spoke quietly of her Auntie Mary, pausing as she thought before she spoke. “She was passionate about teaching everyone about our culture, and our elders, to always take care of them. I want to continue her work, passing down her stories, how she lived,” Aleeka said.
Mary gave Aleeka her Indian name, StiɁícxən, which means “killdeer”, because Aleeka reminded her of the small bird that ran in short bursts along the river’s edge, flitting back and forth as she helped her Auntie.
As Aleeka stepped out that night in Mary’s dress, her braids were wrapped in otter fur, and a beaded barrette secured hawk feathers to the crown of her head. Colorful beadwork covered the white buckskin dress. Sky-blue beads banded across the shoulders with white sunbursts outlined in yellow, orange, red and black beads. Purple shells cascaded in rows from the waist. Around her neck, Aleeka wore several necklaces, one of polished onyx, another of mother of pearl, and a long strand of beads and bone that matched the colors in her dress.
Randy Lewis, Mary’s son, began the ceremony by speaking about his mother Mary, her impact on those around her in this world, and the importance of the dress that now belonged to Aleeka. After Randy spoke honorable words about Mary, and introduced Aleeka, a drumming group began to play, as Aleeka and her mother Crystal walked the circumference of the arena. As they passed by each of the four entryways of the arena, friends and family streamed out to join them. After embracing and sharing words of support, people joined a great line and walked in time to the drums. Some grandmothers and aunties danced in time to the beat as the crowd made their way around the arena.
Just a young woman, Aleeka has many years to add to the memories associated with her Auntie Mary’s dress.