High school student chronicles her connection to extraordinary Native American women
It’s so much fun to hear about other people’s family history books and be inspired by their work! I recently interviewed Abby, a 15-year-old high school student from San Diego, California, who has a serious passion for documenting family stories. Abby, who is a distant cousin of mine, is a smart, charismatic storyteller who is writing a book! Isn’t that awesome?
Abby is writing stories about her mother’s side of the family, which includes some amazing Native American women from the Northern Paiute tribe. Each chapter of her book will chronicle the life of a different female relative. It sounds so inspirational and interesting. I can’t wait to read it!
Hopefully Abby and her enthusiasm for family history will inspire you to get started on your own project.
Question: What got you interested in writing about your family history?
Abby’s answer: My mom has this bookshelf in her room and there’s a Native American section. I was looking through the books one day, and started reading about a really interesting woman named Sarah Winnemucca. I was like, “This lady is so interesting and cool!” And my mom said, “You know we’re related to her, right?” And I was like, “No way!” So then I started asking my grandma all these questions about her because Sarah was from her side of the family. The more I learned, I was like, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’m related to this lady. I need to know more!”
Question: It’s fun to hear a young person get excited about their family history. Have you always enjoyed it?
Abby’s answer: Yes, I’ve always been interested in history. I have dyslexia and dyslexics really like storytelling. I think that’s how I came to like it. Plus, I really like talking to people older than me. I’ve always loved hearing my grandparents’ stories and learning about their lives when they were younger.
Question: So, when did you decide to write a book?
Abby’s answer: I started getting into Native American history when I was 11 or 12 years old. I knew my grandma was Native American but I didn’t have much knowledge about it. When I learned we were related to Sarah Winnemucca, I became very interested. She’s really incredible. She wrote books and was an advocate for Native American rights. The more I read about her, the more I wanted to learn about my other relatives and their stories. So, that’s when I decided I should write my own book.
Question: What else have you learned about your mom’s family?
Abby’s answer: Usually, when people say Native Americans, it’s the Plains tribes they envision — teepees, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, you know, the well-known chiefs. Sarah and my ancestors were from the Northern Paiute tribe in Nevada. Sarah lived during the time when they sent young Native American children away to Catholic schools in California. Later, her mother was killed during a U.S. Cavalry attack on their tribe. It was a hard life for them.
Despite everything that happened, Sarah traveled around the country educating white Americans about Native American issues. My great aunt Louise worked decades trying to get Sarah publicly known and recognized for her work. She even helped get a statue of Sarah built in Washington D.C. It’s in the Hall of Columns in the U.S. Capitol Building.
My grandma was really close to my great aunt Louise. So I would visit with them all the time. Unfortunately, I was too little to really ask questions and then great aunt Louise passed away in 2016. I’m bummed that I never got to interview her and ask questions about Sarah. But I’m proud to continue all the work she started.
Question: So how are you researching Sarah, her life and the Northern Paiute tribe?
Abby’s answer: I have a couple books about Sarah and I’ve been doing a lot of Internet research. Just recently I got so excited because I found Sarah’s grave through my online research! No one knew where it was. My parents said I should become a detective! I also found pictures of Sarah and her sister Elma on a Facebook website. It even has a picture of Elma’s house. I know it’s hers because there are Native American baskets in the photo. In that area of Idaho, there weren’t many Native Americans around.
One of the books I have about Sarah was really interesting. College professor Sally Zanjani wrote the book. I found her mailing address and sent her a letter with questions about how she found all her information. Unfortunately, Sally had already passed away. But I got a really nice letter back from her son. He said she would have loved to meet me.
Another tool I use is ancestry.com. It’s a great place to find dates, relatives, marriages, birth places, documents, and other information about your relatives. It was really useful when I was making timelines for my book.
Question: What’s next on your project list? Do you want to keep writing family history books?
Abby’s answer: I haven’t really thought about it too much, since I’m still writing this book. But I definitely want to keep writing. It would be fun to research my dad’s family, too!
Has Abby inspired you to start collecting and preserving family stories? I’ve outlined seven easy steps to help get you started.