I want to keep my culture alive… I don’t want it to die off…”
As the sun sets one evening outside the Special Operations Museum, I caught a glimpse of a woman dressed in full Native American regalia walking down the aisle of memorial flags, proudly holding her own American flag. I was moved by her silent yet bold presence at the memorial. I couldn’t help but approach her and learn her story for a previous feature on Faces of FAY. During the 41st International Folk Festival, our paths crossed yet again as she marched with the Parade of Nations. I became even more curious about her cultural identity and the symbolism behind her regalia. This month I had a chance to sit with Sara Boneschans. Below she shares her passionate connection to culture, art, history, and community.
Going back to the day when our paths crossed at the flag memorial, tell me a bit of your culture and the symbolism behind your regalia.
The day we met, I went down to the flag memorial in my full regalia. I was told that my father is Apache, and I knew my father, but I never really knew that side of my family. I grew up more with the Mexican tradition, but I always felt something inside was different, and I didn’t know what it was until my third son was born. When he was 3-4 years old, he became very obsessed with Native American weapons. I never spoke of it because I grew up in the Mexican tradition. So, when he started getting into the Tomahawks and the spears, I started to look for places where they sold these things to start a little collection. That’s when I started to look into my background. I was about 29 years old when I met Stan. Stan has a Native American shop here in Fayetteville at the Sycamore Dairy Flea Market. Stan introduced me to his group, and I went and did a DNA test because I wanted to know. I always felt like I didn’t belong… something was always missing. When I was younger, even before I had my sons, I dressed Native American because I felt it inside of me. I would wear this little medicine pouch with my father’s ashes in it. It just made me feel close. Before my dad passed, the last thing I remember about him was his beautiful long white hair with feathers in it.
Going back to the DNA test, it showed I was 32-34% “New World” is what they call it. I felt like ‘finally…I know who I am’ and I started to get more involved. I finally understood why inside I felt… (tearful)… like a warrior. I always felt like a fighter and I didn’t know where it was coming from, and to find out that I had Apache of all people, and learning that they were one of the last tribes to fight the U.S. Army was very intriguing to me. The day I went to the memorial with all the flags, it just all fell into place… I’m just very proud of who I am and what I have inside me. The hawk feathers on the flag, I found on the street. Someone had hit a hawk on the road and I stopped. What’s funny is my dog had just died and they say when someone passes away and you find feathers, it’s that someone trying to come tell you they are here watching over you, so I thought ‘oh, my dog is sending me feathers’… I put the feathers on the flag as a symbol of someone always watching over you, a spirit saying I’m always here by your side, whether it be a relative or something very precious to you that’s passed away. The American flag that was draped over my arm… I’m a very patriotic person. The civil war is my favorite war because regardless of whether it was right or wrong, for the north and south to fight… it was what they had inside them… to fight for what they believed in… that’s what’s so important about that war to me… that the American flag represents how this country was built, where we are today, and how we have to respect the history, whether it was right or wrong… we’re here today, celebrating a wonderful country where we’re free. Draping that flag, versus a blanket or a shawl, which is what Native American women normally carry, was my covering… it’s what shelters me and gives me the strength. When you put that American flag over you, you know everything will be okay, because of where this country has come from and what it’s built on… we’re strong. That’s what it symbolizes for me. The turquoise is also symbolic because Native Americans wear a lot of it. The darker the turquoise, the more valuable… it’s a very rich stone and we cover ourselves in jewelry. The breastplates were worn by warriors when they went into battle and it’s what protected them. Women didn’t go out to fight wars, but I wear it because I feel like a warrior inside. I may not go by what people know in the books, but I go by what I feel inside and I’m going to dress my body on days when we celebrate our culture. When a young boy would go out to fight and do a mission, if they came back succeeding, they would be given a feather and that’s why you see Apache wearing those long headdresses down to the ground. Each feather was received from succeeding from some type of war or battle. The knife I got for my son when he was 10 years old, It’s strategically beaded and is sharp for hunting. The piece on the back of my head is traditional and it is the eagle feather I found at Jamba’s Ranch, outside of Fayetteville on the ground next to a Buffalo.
Having reflected on your cultural identity, tell me a little bit about your creative identity.
My family was very artistic. My mom makes amazing cakes and we’re just really good with our hands. I know how to sew and that came out of nowhere. One day I just bought a Singer sewing machine, looked on YouTube one time and just started sewing. It was a gift. I've sewed an entire regalia for my youngest and then I sewed a quilt from just watching a video that same day. I started sewing in 2012 and realized it was a gift to be able to use my hands for something. From there, I got into the theatre. I found it through my community college. My major was English literature and I remember a girl telling me ‘geez, why do you want to read for the rest of your life?’ and I was like ‘she has a point there!’ Through literature, which had a lot of drama, I decided to switch my major to drama. My boss, Mr. Johnston at FTCC was the one to ask if I wanted to stage-manage. They hired me and now I do contracts every semester. I’ve been doing plays there for 6-7 years… it’s just so fun being in the background dealing with costumes, sometimes having to sew… I love being in the background. I don’t want to be in the center… I want to be used in the background… in my opinion, that’s where the real magic happens. I sew for a living at David’s Bridal and at A Thing to Remember and when the girls have their pageant dresses on or a wedding gown… ‘wow, I helped put that dress together’. That’s the beauty of the artsy side of me.
Having seen you again at the 41st International Folk Festival, I wondered about your role in our community and how you became involved in the Parade of Nations?
Stan had been part of it for a very long time with his shop and he is one of the vendors. He’s the Chief that leads in the parade. He introduced me and asked me to be his right-hand when he passes away. I stand next to him in line and will step up with the Raven Rock Cherokee when he passes away. We organize and get the groups together to go out with gifts to the nursing homes. Stan also got me involved with the Arts Council and getting out to the International Folk Festival parade. I’ve been doing that for over 7 years.
What would you want those of us observing you in the parade to walk away with?
I would like Americans in general, not just this town, to know that there are still people out there like me that keep hold of their culture, who keep hold of the past and don’t let it go. Through us walking, we want people to recognize that there are still some of us out there. Here in Fayetteville, I would like people to know we still do exist, we’re proud of who we are… and we’d like people to recognize how this country was founded and how it began and what happened. To keep it alive in people, because it slowly dies with the way everyone is focused on chasing the world. Technology is good, but it also handicaps people. That’s what I would want people to know… when we’re walking, we’re proud people, trying to keep our culture and tribes alive and we’re out there fighting to be recognized and say ‘hey, we’re here.’
What makes that so important to you?
It’s important to me because I feel it’s forgotten. I feel so strongly inside. I didn’t grow up with my father and that culture. They always shunned us away and called us ‘wetbacks’ because my mom was Mexican. They never really embraced us, but this strong feeling is embedded so deep inside my soul… I have to let it out some way. Whether it be the regalia that we wear or the paintings or sewing that we do… I mustn't let it go. I want people to understand, ‘don’t let the world take such a hold of you that you forget… forget about the important things in life.’ People are so soaked up by what they see on TV and social media, that they don’t sit back, shut the world off, and look at nature. That’s what we’re about… nature… appreciating what God put here on earth for us to enjoy. Technology can be good, but there are other ways to communicate. There’s this other side of life where we have to know how to live manually and how to survive and teach our families how to survive. I feel like I was born in another era… like I don’t belong here… I appreciate life more because of how people used to do things before there was light, or hammers, or the beautiful buildings we’ve created. I want to keep my culture alive… I don’t want it to die off…”
Article and Photography by Kathy Coule, creator of Faces of FAY