VERMILION RESERVATION- Quannah Chasinghorse is an up-and-coming Native American model, actress, and environmental activist.
And while she said New York City’s Met Gala was one of the most amazing fashion experiences she had ever been a part of, she was equally at home sharing stories from her life growing up in a remote village in Alaska with an audience of Native youth and their families at Fortune Bay Resort Casino last week.
Quannah appeared along with her friend, actor and model D’Pharaoh Woot-A-Tai, who is having his own moment in the spotlight, as one of the lead actors in the television series Reservation Dogs (streaming on Hulu), now airing its second season.
The two, both in their early 20s, were clearly comfortable as role models for Native youth, and they were excited that both the fashion world and Hollywood were giving Native American voices, stories, and environmental concerns more of a stage.
Quannah is now working with a modeling agency that understands she has a larger agenda than just being pretty.
“I’ve been blessed and honored,” she said. “I am not just a pretty face, but I am a powerful voice. I want to benefit my people and not just myself. I want to talk about issues like sovereignty. I want people to know that we carry solutions to today’s problems. I want to bring this message to the fashion world.”
Quannah said that Native Americans are storytellers, and in that role, they are well situated to help teach others.
“Hollywood is realizing that we have a lot of good stories to tell,” Quannah said.
The two were taking a well-earned summer trip to Lake Vermilion to visit Quannah’s grandparents Adeline Juneby Potts and Mike Potts, who have a cabin on a small island on Lake Vermilion. The cabin has been in Mike’s family since the 1940s, and the site has expanded to include small cabins they use for visits from their extended family. Mike met Adeline when he moved to Alaska to work, but the couple and their growing family, has always come back to Vermilion for the summer.
Quannah’s mother, Jody Potts, says her five children have grown up with a love of Lake Vermilion, and this is where they all learned to swim. It’s the little things they love most about the lake, Jody said.
“We mostly just swim 24/7,” Jody said. “Lake Vermilion is hard to beat.”
Island life can be a bit unpredictable. The family was a little late getting to the event, because of rough winds on the lake.
D’Pharaoh said traditionally Hollywood only emphasized the trauma suffered by Native Americans. The comedy “Reservation Dogs” is a heartfelt look at a group of teens growing up on a rural reservation in Oklahoma. The show is written and directed by a diverse group of Native Americans and is giving a new generation of Native American youth new role models as well as career aspirations. Having Native Americans in charge of casting the show, or other shows featuring Indigenous characters, is also very important, he said.
“We come in all different tones and colors,” D’Pharaoh said.
D’Pharaoh is a member of the Oji-Cree First Nations tribe in Canada.
He urged youth to consider acting or movie/television production as careers.
“Stay focused,” he said. “There are a lot of obstacles but just keep pushing.”
Both said respecting their elders and traditions kept them grounded and kept them away from drinking and drugs.
“Our people are strong people,” said Quannah. “We are not weak. Those things take your spirit away.”
“Go outside. Pick berries. Learn your language,” she said. “Our ancestors are still alive. They are living connections to our past. We are picking the same medicines as they did. Keep your culture alive.”
Quannah said she had lost close family members to substance abuse and she understands that struggle.
“Teach your young ones,” she said. “That is what keeps us strong.”
Modeling is a lot more work than people think, she said. It involves early wake ups, lots of travel to distant locations, and patience as make-up and hair gets done. She said at first, she was just seen as the stereotypical stoic Native American.
“They put you in an outfit and ask you to do poses, even if you are uncomfortable or they feel unnatural.”
But as her career has blossomed, she said she has more creative control.
“My new work is a lot different,” she said, noting that she is excited about photographs that will be coming out in the near future.
Modeling often means little sleep, little opportunity for regular meals, and no time for self-care, she said. “I was in four different time zones in two weeks,” she said. “That’s really hard on your sleep.”
Modeling jobs often come up with little notice, forcing her to cancel plans with family and friends.
“But it is worth it when the work comes out,” she said.
She is motivated by the pride that her people see in her work.
She is also happy to get the opportunity to take a break, with family and friends, to visit Lake Vermilion.
D’Pharaoh said one of the hardest parts of acting, for him, is the time away from his family. “The more time I spend away,” he said, “the more time I need to re-ground myself.”
D’Pharaoh said working on the set of “Reservation Dogs” has been an amazing experience.
“A normal day on the set includes a lot of laughter and music,” he said. Cast members have running jokes and play little tricks on each other.
“It really feels like a community,” he said, and the directors treat all the staff and crew with respect. He said working with writer/director/producer Sterlin Harjo has been an amazing experience and he hopes to get the opportunity to learn more about the production end of the creative process from him.
Quannah said she got to spend a couple of weeks on the set with D’Pharoah and said the atmosphere on the set is very different from some others she has been on.
Working toward a sustainable future
Both say they fear the effects of climate change.
“Our ways of life are at stake,” they said. Quannah’s heritage is Hän Gwich’in (from Alaska and Canada) and Sicangu/Oglala Lakota (from South Dakota). She received her first Yidįįłtoo (a traditional face tattoo by her people) at age 14. “I don’t want to forget how to filet a fish or butcher a caribou,” said Quannah. “I don’t want to forget how to bead.”
Quannah told the story of her first successful caribou hunt.
After her uncle had passed away, her family was given special permits to hunt caribou out of season, to provide food for the community in honor of her uncle at the traditional potlatch give-away.
“We still live off the land,” she said of her rural home in Alaska “There aren’t any grocery stores. It is an eight-to-ten-hour drive from my village to the city.”
While out hunting with her family, she was able to shoot her first caribou, and to help skin it, gut it, and carry the meat back to their truck.
“I shot it right through the neck,” she said, noting that didn’t waste any of the meat. Her family got four caribou that day, enough to feed the entire village.
“I was able to give back to my community and to honor my uncle,” she said.
Tribal Chairperson Cathy Chavers thanked the two for the visit.
“You both are awesome role models,” she said, noting that for too long Native Americans have been invisible in popular culture.
The two stayed for more than an hour after their talk to pose for photos and autographs.
Though some at the event were more excited to meet Quannah’s grandmother, who herself has some show business credentials. Adeline Juneby-Potts is the voice of Auntie Midge in the PBS Kids show “Molly of Denali.”
The event was sponsored by the Bois Forte Substance Use Program who also presented the two with gifts created by Leah Yellowbird and each also received a blanket designed by Giizh Agaton Howes.
Quannah and her mother are also featured in 2022 documentary titled “Walking Two Worlds.” The film is currently being screened at film festivals. You can watch the trailer at https://www.tribecafilm.com/films/walking-two-worlds-2022.
You can purchase the July 2022 issue of National Geographic featuring Quannah on the cover at https://ngsingleissues.buysub.com/.
You can watch Reservation Dogs online at hulu.com. The first season is available in full, and the second season is currently being released weekly. Season three is also in production.
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