Sarah Ortegon: Dancing for Native America

Sarah Ortegon was born in Denver, Colorado and is an enrolled Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. In 2013 she graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver with a Bachelors degree in Fine Art with a concentration in drawing. In August 2013 she was crowned Miss Native American, USA. Soon after Ortegon started touring with the Native Pride Dancers, traveling and performing the jingle dress dance in the US and also in Moldova, Europe and Guatemala. In March of 2020 before the pandemic hit, Ortegon was able to perform in Times Square, NY to dance alongside the film previously created. In collaboration with Choctaw artist Jeffery Gibson, they filmed “She Never Dances Alone,” and the film was displayed on over 60 monitors every night at midnight for several months in Times Square.

Ortegon was the featured artist for the opening of MALCS Conference in 2016 at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY. She is now published in the MALCS journal. Ortegon is pursuing her acting career and was cast in a play in Denver, CO in February of 2016 titled Black Elk Speaks. From there, she was cast in a musical called Sitting Bulls Last Waltz which premiered in Hollywood, California for the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June-July of 2016. Ortegon was cast as an extra in the BBC/NBC Sky 1 miniseries Jamestown which filmed in Budapest in August of 2016, 2017 and 2018. In 2020, Ortegon was featured as an artist in a PBS Emmy nominated film called, “The Art of Home.”

Ortegon also received her hiking and instructing certificate from National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 2019. She has lead courses through the Wind River Mountain range for up to a month at a time. She also experienced sea kayaking and bushwhacking through the Prince William Sound and Chugach Mountains in Alaska.

She is currently an Executive Legal Assistant for Native American Rights Fund (NARF), located out of Boulder, CO. The law firm focuses on Indigenous rights, which is in line with fighting issues like pipelines running through Indigenous communities. She still fills her free time with creative endeavors of course.

Thank you, Sarah!!!

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Emy Romero (00:38):

Today, we are talking to Sarah Ortegon. She is an Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho artist, actress and native American jingle dancer. Welcome.

Sarah Ortegon (00:51):

Thank you so much for having me.

Emy Romero (00:53):

Well, Sarah, I've been reading your biography. So interesting. And what a journey you've been on in your life. It says you were born in Denver, Colorado, but what was, and what is your connection to the Wind River Reservation?

Sarah Ortegon (01:07):

So I was born in Denver, Colorado. My mom is Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. I think one interesting thing that formed who I am is my mom actually had 12 kids. Yeah. 12 kids, six boys, six girls. And what would happen is typically during the summers, once I reached the age of three, we would go visit the res every summer. And then as I got older, my parents would actually just drop us off with my aunt and uncle George and Shirley [Enes 00:01:43], and we would stay there for the entire summer until school started back up.

Emy Romero (01:48):

Wow. So you have a big connection there. I'm really happy to hear that. And one of the things I was really interested in is kind of your life story, your journey, learning about your native American heritage as you were growing up and how that became a part of your artistic career.

Sarah Ortegon (02:09):

So growing up, we would go to Powwows. I never actually danced until I was about 23 years old, just because it takes a lot to put your regalia together. And I wasn't in touch with my parents from the age of 17, a little bit onwards. There was a whole thing that happened with my dad at the time, kind of disown me. And so that's when I began to seek out more family members from the reservation and reconnect even more on a larger scale and understanding the different spiritual practices on the reservation was different from what I was born into, because my dad was a preacher. And so that's how I started integrating, I wouldn't say traditions, but my knowledge of what I was gaining and putting it into my artwork and adding. Actually when I was 12, my mom started to teach me how to bead. And so that was always sort of a part of my life during my free times.

Emy Romero (03:21):

Oh, so your mom was a beader.

Sarah Ortegon (03:23):

Yes.

Emy Romero (03:23):

And is it passed down from generation to generation? How does that work?

Sarah Ortegon (03:29):

I would say it depends on family because the more I learned, not everyone is born into a family or is able to access the knowledge that their previous family had due to boarding schools, adoptions, different things that natives face through separation. And so I don't want to say that it's passed on from generation to generation because sometimes it's not, sometimes it's a brand new learned. I'd say it's very helpful when it comes to knowing who you are and what's going on inside. Bead work helps you be very aware of what mood you're in because it's a quiet practice. I'm well aware of a lot of my friends who were adopted outside of their families who didn't learn how to bead through their mom or through their father, but now we are able to teach each other. So not technically always generational, but it did start back in the 1800s when beads started to become more readily available.

Emy Romero (04:40):

Were you always culturally cognizant that you were Native American or is that something you realized over time?

Sarah Ortegon (04:47):

So, going to school in Denver, Colorado, I was around a lot of Spanish speakers and majority of my family, we thought that we were Spanish or Mexican. I knew that we would go to the reservation, but I didn't understand what that meant at the time. All I knew was that I loved my family there and they were the most welcoming people I've ever been around. Every time we visited, they'd give us gifts. And I didn't understand that, that was just the traditional way of welcoming someone in your home. And so I became more aware as I became older.

Emy Romero (05:30):

How did you learn to embrace that part of who you are because your dad is not Native American, correct?

Sarah Ortegon (05:39):

Yes, he's Basque. So we never really learned anything about the Basque culture and I still really don't know too much about it. It was more being integrated into, I would say a church culture than a separate other... Yeah. So it was more about church than about anything else as I grew up. And so it has been kind of hard to marry the two, knowing how I was raised in the Bible and how spirituality works and how open it is. And I feel direct connection to the creator without needing someone to intervene. So that's been difficult to manage within myself, but learning how to dance or bead or the different practices that's involved with the cultural practices, I just feel like that's always kind of been a part of who I was. And even from a young age, I did art and it always kind of pertained to being Native American. It was always just a part of me.

Emy Romero (06:58):

I love that. I love hearing that. And I want to ask you about the jingle dance and what is the significance of the jingle dance? And how you learn the dance, how you learn the significance and creating your own regalia for it.

Sarah Ortegon (07:16):

So I learned by going to Powwows. My parents would take us to the Powwows. I believe that my mom said when I was three, I would try and dance the drum. And it was just always something that I loved to watch when I was little. However, like I said, I couldn't access the regalia. And so it was just a little girl dancing in her little normal everyday dress next to my mom. I wasn't in the arena or anything. And then I learned by going to Powwows, by watching YouTube, dancing with the younger generation actually got into it before I did. My niece, she started jingle dress dancing before me. And so we would practice in the kitchen, in the living room and it's an Ojibwe or Anishinaabe dance, and it was brought to their people through a dream. And it was, I believe during the first pandemic or first acknowledged pandemic that hit the Americas, which was 100 years prior to the pandemic that just hit now.
So that's when the jingle dress actually came to be, was during that time. And it was through a dream that a grandfather had and the dress revealed itself to him. And he recognized that the dress had a certain sound to it. And that sound kind of replicates rain hitting a rooftop. And as we all know, water brings life, water regenerates. Through the dream, the dress was made and tobacco can lids were used throughout the dress and they would hit each other. And that's what made the sounds. And tobacco is also used for prayer. So it's a very prayerful dance. I wouldn't say like I've said before, it's not a ceremonial dance because typically those are never really shown outside of ceremony.

Emy Romero (09:30):

You have a lot of diversity in your young life and it says that you performed the jingle dance in the US, in Moldova, Europe and Guatemala. How did that come about?

Sarah Ortegon (09:44):

So in 2013, I was crowned Miss Native American USA. And through that, the native pride dancers, the dance troop, they contacted me and asked me if I would like to join them and travel with them for the year that I was Miss Native American USA. And so that's how that came to be. And they were funded during those trips by the US embassy. And it was to teach the different cultures throughout the world, and to teach people to be open and to embrace different cultures.

Emy Romero (10:23):

Was that kind of a prelude into your work as an actress?

Sarah Ortegon (10:28):

It was. A couple years after, I had just been introduced to a lot of people and acting always seemed kind of fun. And I got to know a few actors. And from there I was involved in a play, it was an ensemble, Black Elk Speaks, and then a musical, Sitting Bull's Last Waltz. And then from there, I went into different television series, movies. It's been a great experience. I haven't had any work for a couple months, but like I said, I'm pregnant. So have to slow down a little bit for a couple months.

Emy Romero (11:14):

I'm so excited for you. Congratulations. What it that you do for the Native American Rights Fund. Tell me a little bit about that and what they do in general for Native Americans.

Sarah Ortegon (11:26):

I'm an executive legal assistant for the Native American Rights Fund. And we are a law firm. We've been around for over 50 years. We have five focuses, to preserve tribal existence, protect tribal, natural resources, promote Native American human rights, hold governments accountable to Native Americans and developing Indian law. And so any of the cases that we're working on, typically focus on one of those five main goals as for the organization.

Emy Romero (11:59):

What do you feel like in working for Native American rights, what is most passionate for you?

Sarah Ortegon (12:06):

I really like the environmental fights that we have been involved in. In 2016, maybe '18, '16, I don't know, it's a couple years ago when No DAPL, the protest was going on and this was before I was working for NARF. And I went out to protest the pipeline. A day before was when I arrived and the next day was when we were attacked by dogs. And they were basically tearing apart a sacred site that had been identified by the tribe, which was weird because the day before for they were plowing a different area. They received information from the tribe saying that this area should not be touched. And that's when the next day they went to go and tear apart that area. And so a lot of these things aren't known, and the security that was there were privatized security, which is illegal because it's basically citizen against citizen. And that's when they allowed the dogs to attack the people trying to stop the bulldozers.

Emy Romero (13:23):

Wow. That sounds dangerous. It's very scary. Yeah.

Sarah Ortegon (13:28):

Yes, it was.

Emy Romero (13:30):

Well, I want to go back to your art because I know you recently were in a film and one of the featured artists in a film called the Art of Home. Tell me about your art and what inspires your artwork because I know you also do commissioned pieces for people.

Sarah Ortegon (13:46):

So my artwork, in 2011, that was before I graduated from college, I had started adding in bead work into my artwork. I would originally just paint on canvas and that would be my art, but I realized, and through talking to different professors, they believed that bead work, or I don't remember what they called it, but they didn't believe it to be fine art at the time. And now, when you look at different things that are accepted into fine art galleries, bead work is involved, just different artists. And so I started doing the bead work on canvas in 2011 and I just continued it. And most of the time, the whole entire canvas is not beaded, just portions of the canvas that I've painted are beaded. But one of the pieces that is fully beaded, the Denver Art Museum owns now, and it's scenery of the Wind River Reservation. And it has Shoshone and Arapaho as street signs. And then in the background, there's a house that's been burned.
But my whole thing when I created that piece was talking about how people only know our tribal names because we're street signs now, or sometimes we're only mascots. But we're way more than that. We're a living people that still practice our historical knowledge. And I believe it's being passed down now to our children.

Emy Romero (15:24):

Do you think that people are more aware of the different issues that Native Americans face that were probably not brought to the forefront in the past?

Sarah Ortegon (15:38):

Yeah, I believe before AIM, a lot of things were just probably seen as, "Oh, they're just being crazy," or they weren't given the validation that I believe is somewhat happening today. It takes a lot. It takes a lot to be heard. And when you don't have a large population, you need allies and other people to understand where you're coming from. So I believe it is gaining traction, but we still are fighting. Just the other day in South Dakota, Native Americans were banned from a hotel and the statement was made by the owner of the hotel. So there are still a lot of issues that we are facing.

Emy Romero (16:21):

Oh, that's really interesting. Well, it's interesting because my background is Hispanic and Mexican American and Native American. My dad is half Native American, but because those two cultures were overcoming prejudice and discrimination. While he was growing up, he said, "I can only fight one battle at a time." And so we always felt we were Mexican American and not Native American because we didn't grow up on a reservation. His grandfather, which was my grandmother's father was adopted. They never knew their native family because they were adopted by Hispanic family. Even though they were Native, they didn't have that same tribal reservation connection. So even though he knew that part of his history is kind of flip your story, you know what I mean?

Sarah Ortegon (17:18):

Yeah. Yeah. I wouldn't know some history of the Basque people. I know that they were involved in World War II, I believe, and were bombed by Hitler. And some other things that I know that they were sheep herders. But as of today, I don't know what their fight is. I don't know how it's changed or evolved.

Emy Romero (17:41):

Right. You just don't have that historical context. So what are your plans for the future?

Sarah Ortegon (17:47):

So after I have my baby, I am planning on dancing again. In 2020, I performed in New York with Jeffrey Gibson. He's a Choctaw artist. And so he's having me come out to New Mexico to perform again. So I know that, that's on my radar. And then also I have assisted in a large scale piece in Lafayette, Colorado. It's in the running. We're one of the last three competitors. And if we're chosen, then we will have a large scale piece made in Lafayette. It's a large sculpture, but I'm not sure if it's going to be accepted or not. I just helped with the design along the wall. And in that design, I brought to the forefront, history and how the Arapaho people are involved in that area. And the bison massacre is also sort of a portion of a little bit of what I show within the design. So I'm waiting to hear back on that.
And also in Washington, D.C., the National Women's Art Museum. I'm one of five that could possibly be chosen to be shown for a 2024 exhibition. So again, I'm just kind of waiting to hear back. But in the meantime, I'm making a cradle board for my baby. And I think that, that's art. I also am painting and stuff whenever I have free time as well.

Emy Romero (19:21):

Yeah. You're a busy lady. Oh my God. Well, it's been great talking to you today, Sarah.