An interview with Tohanash Tarrant. We speak about bead work, family, owning a business, and growing up on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.
Tohanash owns Thunderbird Designs, to browse her beadwork collection, visit her website:
Tohanash: Hakame, my name is Tohanash Tarrant, I am Shinnecock Hopi and Ho-chunk and I grew up on the Shinnecock reservation. I could say that I’m a very determined person. Once I put my mind to it, it’s something that I want, it will be done. And I think that drive has kept me going. It’s encouraged me to branch out on my own and to believe in myself, and to believe that things can happen, whether you’ve seen them or not.
When I was a kid, I always wanted to dance.
I always wanted to have moccasins that fit me, a yoke that looks nice, and in order to do that – I come from a big family, there are six of us and the oldest girl. So of course, as you know, more children came into the household, they became the focus.
And I kind of had to do my own thing. I had to make what I wanted. I had to create that for myself. And I had a lot of freedom and my mom did have things for me to use, which was really what helps me do what I’m doing now.
So it’s just a matter of necessity, but at the same time, passion and determination – I don’t know… to do what I want.
Jeremy: Relating back to the trading post, were there any moments between you and older family members that you kind of realized or noticed that they were passing down something like a tradition to always do at Powwow, some way to always kind of encourage community and collaboration?
T: So I was not able I wasn’t born when my great grandmother had passed away. But my mother kind of took on a lot of her teachings and spend a lot of time with her in the summers in the backyard. Just doing beadwork, fixing up regalia for Powwow, helping other kids that didn’t have someone to make it at home.
So I guess from my mom sitting in the backyard with her growing up watching her do beadwork, kind of stealing her work when she wasn’t looking and doing a couple of loom lines or sewing leather. It was just something that I guess you don’t realize it that you pick up on things from being around people, but that’s really where it started, and I can say my work is a lot different than my mom’s now. But that is definitely where I get the roots of my creations.
And also my grandmother, my father’s side, was a seamstress. And her mother was a seamstress.
She went to Carlisle Indian School. And when she graduated, she moved to New York City. So, my great grandmother, she raised her family in New York, and they were seamstress doing bridal gowns and tuxedos.
And so I think I kind of get it on both sides.
Mentors & Travel
Well, I was really fortunate, growing up to always have strong mentor figures in my life. My first would be my mother, my father. My grandma, Chee. She was always there. always knew what to say, give guidance, and just watching the way that she’s lived her life. It really encourages me to be a better me. To strive towards growth. Towards the changes that I want to see in the world.
I’ve had a lot of experiences traveling abroad that have shaped the person I am. I’ve had many experiences in different communities, seeing the different issues that people are going through, whether it’s poverty, illness, mental illness, addiction, there are a lot of issues that surround people. And I have been fortunate enough to see those lights that have guided people out of situations. And that’s kind of where I see myself, how I’m going to progress.
I’m not going to progress if I sit in it, you know, you have to do something, you have to make something for yourself. Because nothing’s given to you. Nothing is granted. And just being thankful every day for everything that I have. I live a blessed life. And I know there are things that I can still work on. But that’s part of life. You know, it’s a journey that you walked through and as your years go on, you should be learning a little.
What do you like about living on the reservation? Anything you would like to see changed?
One thing that I’ve always loved about living on a reservation is a sense of home and community. And I think that is really driven by the fact that we live on the land that our ancestors Have for thousands and thousands of years. And I think that connection from people to place is very important to understand who you are, where you’re going in your life, and how to treat others.
One thing I would like to see change around the reservation in our community is how we view ourselves. The sense of identity, the sense of pride, even at times humility for not knowing who we are, and being willing to learn that and not to live in shame to live, humble, but appreciative of what we have.
Beadwork Business & Family History
I come from a long line of beaders, beadwork artists, and part of my business that I do now is associated with my family. It’s called Thunderbird designs. And it’s based on my great grandmother and my great grandfather, who opened a trading post in their yard on the front lawn, and it was a way for them to teach beadwork and culture but also to share it with the public. Their front lawn was the location of the first Shinnecock annual Labor Day Powwow in 1946. And that’s Chief Thunderbird and his wife, Eda.
J: Can you talk a little bit about what people may have experienced when they went to, for example, the workshops with educational beadwork programs or maybe even what you may have heard from family members about like the first few hours and like, how that shifted to what we know today.
T: Okay, so the first powers that were held at my great grandfather’s home, were not very well attended. There were very few people that danced here in Shinnecock that was in touch with their culture, or maybe just had it hidden away – didn’t really feel comfortable sharing.
My grandfather’s name Thunderbird came from a vision that he had of his grandfather’s in the Shinnecock Hills, and they gave him a shard of pottery. And on that shard of pottery was a Thunderbird. And years later in an archaeological study, they unearth the shard with a Thunderbird, and this Thunderbird became the symbol of our clan. And it also became the vision of starting this powwow and a resurgence of our culture.
My great grandfather had a lot of friends that came from other tribes and in his vision, he was told to gather the people. So he went door to door.
This Powwow wasn’t something he did by himself. It was something that he took on to share with the people and to have them contribute. So there are other family members that danced, that learn dances, it was a learning experience like it is today.
Much so like our language revitalization project. It’s not something that we had the ability to grow up with. But it’s something with our initiative and our, our hearts really being in it that we are driven towards. So I’m happy that to continue this and to continue his stand at Powwow, but also to continue the tradition for my own children and to share it with anyone who wants to know about it.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
J: Can you talk a little bit about how you made that transition from being kind of like maybe working for someone else to starting your own brand and business and the difficulties and like, what really pushed me over the edge to fulfill and do that whole decision.
T: So my brand Thunderbird Designs is a business that I generated from just years of working on things. I would always sell things, whether it was Powwows or events, hair ties, barrettes bags, anything that I could make, and could put out there, I would make. So I decided to make it more formal.
After a few job experiences that I’ve had, I always wanted to come back and work for my people and go to school which I went to multiple times multiple experiences going to different countries traveling learning about business communications. So the opportunity really came to me at a time when I was back in school.
I went back to school for early childhood. And I didn’t have a job. I was studying full time, I’m a mom of two full time. So this was a way for me to support myself, support my art, and make something that is unique. And the only person that could fire me is myself. And it’s been difficult staying on it. I have gotten a job since then. Since I graduated I work at a preschool now. So it’s sometimes it’s really long hours and with the kids, it could be a lot for them.
But really what keeps me going is knowing that this is something that they can learn, this is something that I’ll be able to support us and sustain us.
J: You talked a little bit about the Thunderbird design – does that in any way affect maybe your designs or your philosophy or what you’re striving towards.
T: The reason I chose the name of my business is to keep the name of my family and to keep my vision of where I want to go in mine. The jewelry that I create, I really focus on not only the colors but also the quality of work.
For me, I’m a big stickler of beadwork that lasts, anything that lasts. So I take special care and making sure that everything outlasts the person who purchased it. Quality has always been an issue with moccasins, with regalia, with different things that I’ve made and this is one thing my mom used to do to me.
She would look at my work because I’d show it to her, see if it was okay. She turned me away three to four times normally, to make sure that the barret was perfect, that I had the pattern correct, my beads weren’t lumpy. So it was a lot of trial and error taking out doing it again. And I think that level of perfection kind of led me to produce things that are quality.
J: You were also telling me a while ago that you were being a supplier of beats also kind of like a trading post within your business but also kind of producing work also.
T: So one of my ideas was to not only use the beads for myself, but if I bought more beads than I could sell more beads, I could buy in bulk, and I could also distribute.
I’m a little bit of a bead addict, you might say. So this kind of like led me to my next business they gave me an excuse to buy more beads.
So I’m learning how to market how to write descriptions, post them, where to post them and I’m also creating a website where I can sell things online. At Rez Beads, coming soon.
J: Is that separate like the website and business separate from your website?
T: It is now. I kind of wanted to keep them separate because I have my finish work on Thunderbird Designs, and then my supplies and beads on RezBeads.com and that target market is more towards native people who are into beadwork. Also, people in the area that want to learn.
I’m kind of playing around with the idea of teaching beadwork class as another portion of my business and just doing it for free because I do it for free anyway now.
T: Do I like leave a message to the future now?
J: yeah, it could be at the end of the interview. What do you want to say to future generations, even to your children? Maybe when they’re browsing the web on
T: Kodiak Suki if you’re listening, this is your mother. You’re gonna have to learn how to make your own moccasins one day because mommy is not always gonna be there to make them. Love you.
J: That’s great.