Sierra Pete M’22 practices a powwow dance on the Malesardi Quad wearing ceremonial attire that she created
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Sierra Pete M’22 practices dance moves on the Malesardi Quad wearing one of her dresses and a fancy shawl.

Photo: Emily Paine

Woman of the West

The world of Sierra Pete M’22 is full of arresting options
by Sherri Kimmel

Quick! How many people do you know who can not only design and craft elaborate and richly hued Indigenous ribbon skirts and long-fringed ceremonial shawls but also can perform Native American dances at powwows and conduct field research on sea birds? Take a scroll through the photos on the Instagram account of Sierra Pete M’22, and you’ll see that sewing and dancing are just one dimension of this multitalented biology graduate student.

There are photos of her scaling a steep, flat rock face during a recent expedition in Nevada and cradling a sea bird (subject of her research with her adviser, Professor Morgan Benowitz-Fredericks, biology). She also shares photos of her elegant and original ceramic work, which features animals, insects, birds and Native American imagery.

It’s no wonder, as she moves into her final semester of graduate school, that she’s confused about which avenue to pursue next. Scientist? Artist?

“I’ve heard that question a lot lately,” she says. Among the options: applying for a Fulbright research grant. “My brother works at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, and he does a lot of work surrounding Indigenous research practices and how we can change research to have a more Indigenous perspective. I’d like to work alongside my brother.”

She’s also considering some science-focused jobs in Montana and Canada or possibly a Ph.D. program. But then she feels a strong call to shift back to her artistic side. (Pete has a bachelor’s degree in ceramics from the University of Utah.)

“I have the desire to create again,” she proclaims. “I’m really quantifying the time and space to start making things again and maybe dabbling in clay or writing. I’ve gone to several dance performances [at Bucknell], and I’m working with Kelly Knox, a dance professor on campus to do a performance and gallery showing of my shawls and outfits in the spring. I’ll also give a talk about art and my culture, how I ended up at Bucknell and how my interests are intertwining and combined.”

Pete’s culture is Native American. Her late father, she says, was “full-blood Navajo originally from the Arizona area, and my mom’s side is half non-native, or white, and half Eastern Shawnee.”

Pete was born on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, which was established for the Arapaho and Shoshone tribes. Her family then moved to the Flathead Reservation in Montana, land set aside for the Salish and Kootenai tribes. “None of those are my tribes, but I grew up on those reservations,” she says.

After graduating from a reservation high school, Pete spent most of her undergraduate years in Salt Lake City, where, she says, “there is a good community” of Native Americans. She discovered Bucknell’s master’s program through a Google search.

Pete was attracted by Benowitz-Fredericks’ work with seabirds in Alaska and Bucknell’s readiness to accept a candidate with a fine arts degree. Since arriving in fall 2019, Pete has studied the physiology and behavior of sea-bird chicks.

Living in an East Coast community where few people share her identity was challenging at first. “I had a lot of very lonely moments where I realized that I was very isolated here and culturally alone,” she says. “But there are really good people here. I get along very well with everyone in my department, and I’ve made lots of friends in the community. Still, it’s different than having your own people and community, especially if you’ve grown up with them. I’ve had a lot of really good moments here, but I’m ready for my next adventure.”

One of those good moments was her relationship with Elyla Sinverguenza, Bucknell’s 2019–20 Ekard Artist in Residence. “I made all of the costumes” for the performance artist from Nicaragua,” she says. “We connected and understood each other culturally on so many levels.”

Despite her separation from her Indigenous community, Pete feels her presence at Bucknell is valuable for the University community: “I feel like someone like me is needed to bring awareness,” she says.

Pete is pleased that Bucknell is developing a land acknowledgment that honors the Native Americans who lived on the land the University now occupies. “It’s a good and necessary start, but it’s very much just a start,” she explains.

If Bucknell aims to attract more Indigenous students, she says, there need to be programs and courses centered on Native American studies and spaces dedicated to supporting Indigenous students. Pete has never taken a Native American studies course herself, but she was raised by a mother who formerly taught Native American literature and now directs the writing center at Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation.

Says Pete, “I’m Indigenous, and I have lived my life that way, so I don’t always go out trying to learn more about it. This may be good or bad — I don’t know. I’m just living my life.”