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Wozek Chandler
Wozek Chandler is a recent Montana State University graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies and tribal member of the Aaniiih White Clay of Fort Belknap. Photo by Adrián Sánchez-González
Finding her own path
Wozek Chandler works to find success in the mainstream while maintaining her culture and celebrating her history
Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Mountains and Minds

Note: This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Mountains and Minds, the flagship magazine of Montana State University.

Wozek Chandler wears her name proudly.

Meaning “Ghost Calf,” the name honors her Aaniiih grandmother, a woman who became blind later in life but was unimpeded by her lack of sight. The modern Wozek described Ghost Calf’s story as a lesson in resilience, and one of many learned from elder Aaniiih, the White Clay People, now based on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

Although her birth name was Shondlyn, Wozek was called by her Indian name at the White Clay immersion school and decided the name best fit her. She legally changed her name in eighth grade.

“There are so many people who choose not to go by their tribal name because it creates conflict,” explained Erika Ross, a friend who works with Wozek at the Spirit Aligned Leadership Program, an organization that supports Indigenous elder women in sharing cultural and ceremonial knowledge to younger generations. “A lot of people ask ‘Well, how do you spell it? How do you say it? Are you a boy or a girl?’ Her ability to be proud in her own name is just the tip of the iceberg in her pride in her community and culture.”

Wozek is a recent graduate of Montana State University’s American Studies program, where her thesis focused on how Indigenous people used the midways of world’s fairs to reclaim their identities and perform on their own terms. She said she wants to use her education to change the American narrative and find new ways to amplify Indigenous stories.

One way that Wozek tells her story is through her clothing. On a casual afternoon, this means a Aaniiih Nakoda College jacket over jeans and a T-shirt — Wozek is a graduate and is both Aaniiih and Nakoda. Checkered rows of colorful seed beads are hand sewn between the zippers of a black fanny pack at her waist, and painted warriors adorn her large, round earrings.

With every piece, Wozek declares her history, her ancestry and her strength. She knows so many before her were not able to make the same choices. Generations were taught to assimilate, she said, taught to be ashamed of their culture. They could not claim their tribe in even the simplest of gestures.

“In a way, I owe it to them to be proud,” she said.

Wozek Chandler
Wozek Chandler. Photo by Adrián Sánchez-González

This connection to her ancestors and desire to keep the history alive was at the forefront of Wozek’s upbringing. Her family has a well-established role in incorporating heritage into educational opportunities in Montana.

“They come from a strong academic place,” Ross said. “But in a very disruptive, decolonizing sense that is remarkable. They are a long line of leaders and knowledge-valuers who have kept culture and family and tradition central.”

Wozek’s mother, Lynette Chandler, who died in 2017, created the White Clay Immersion School to teach children in the community their Aaniiih language and traditions. She received an MSU honorary doctorate posthumously for her cultural contributions. Wozek was one of the school’s first graduates.

Her grandfather, Wayne Stein, is a professor emeritus of higher education and Native American Studies at MSU and formerly the head of the Department of Native American Studies. Additionally, he was president of Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota in the ’80s. Her grandmother, Carole Falcon-Chandler, was president of Aaniiih Nakoda College for 20 years until she retired last year. Wozek’s father, Sean Chandler, who also was a language teacher at the White Clay Immersion School, has now assumed the role with the college.

“It’s very inspiring to me how they carried their Indigenous identity throughout their studies,” Wozek said. “They succeeded and now they’re doing good things in the community.”

Wozek is trying to find her own path, though she has encountered setbacks along the way. When her mother died, Wozek had just graduated from Aaniiih Nakoda College, where she was on the president’s list every semester, and was preparing to start her first semester at MSU. Instead, she took time off to grieve.

A year later, Wozek still felt unmotivated by her coursework at MSU. Barely passing, she lost scholarships and wondered if school was the right fit. But she carried on, guided by Aaniiih stories such as that of Bull Lodge, who climbed to seven sacred buttes in the northern Montana mountains in his vision quests. He went beyond what was asked and overcame the obstacles to become a warrior, medicine man and pipe-keeper.

“They lived in way tougher times,” Wozek said. “It’s about making the most of the situation and keeping your strength through it.”

Wozek changed her major to better align with her goals, working her way onto the dean’s list and then, in her final semester, the president’s list.

Though by nature a reserved person, Wozek believes it is important to set an example for others, and part of that is to be open about her own experience.

“I feel like my situation, my doubts are very similar to a lot of people my age and younger,” she said. “I can really resonate with that. If I can show them I can succeed, it’s very possible for them also, no matter the obstacles.”

At 24, Wozek is part of a young generation of American Indians who refuse to be silenced and who are turning to the internet to showcase the diverse experiences of Indigenous people, using the technology to hold on to cultural traditions. And an audience has emerged, fueled in part by pandemic lockdowns.

“I feel like there’s been an opportunity for a rise in Indigenous voices,” Wozek said, pointing to popular, short videos on TikTok that have amassed millions of followers and tens of millions of views. And aside from showcasing their art, these Indigenous creators, and many others like them, are teaching a global audience about their tribal history and experience.

“Indigenous people are kind of on the wayside,” Wozek said. “People love the pretty things, but nobody really likes or wants to talk about the bad stuff, the history. Social media has given us this way to be seen by more people right in our own space.”

Wozek too, has found an outlet on social media. On Instagram, posts showcase her style, a blend of modern pieces with traditional quilled and beaded adornments. A secondary page, @wozeks.ikeitawn, or “Ghost Calf’s Earrings,” is focused on beading, an art she started learning at 8 years old.

While the page features a mostly playful blend of strawberries, sunflowers and cartoon characters such as Zero the flying ghost dog from “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head, she has been exploring a more serious bent.

Wozek was invited to participate in “We Are Still Here and This is Our Story,” an art show at the Emerson Center in Bozeman early this year that focused on missing and murdered Indigenous people. Wozek appreciates the vulnerability of the art piece, much as she does the voices online. Each tells a story and helps develop understanding.

The same goes for dancing. Though she specialized in the flashier fancy dancing when she was younger, Wozek now focuses on the more intricate jingle dancing. The dance was her mother’s specialty, and Wozek uses her mother’s fan and eagle plumes when she dances to honor her.

Wozek “came into her own identity as a woman” through dancing, Ross said, likening it to rolling waves — emotional and soft, but also mighty.

“It’s a powerful prayer,” Ross said.

Wozek sees the importance of setting a good example for other young Indigenous people of finding success in the mainstream world while maintaining cultural lifeways and teachings. Though a modern woman, she knows the value of sharing history and connecting with those before. And she lives those ideals.

Wozek began a one-year internship with the Spirit Aligned Leadership Program in April, an opportunity to learn from the experiences of elder women and gain professional tools and leadership skills. She envisions a future where she can put those skills to use in her community to keep the tribe’s story alive through museum and language work and inspire others through their shared history.

“I’ve always had a pride in me about being Indigenous and being an Aaniiih person,” Wozek said. “That is what has really lifted me up, seeing my ancestors and learning their stories.” 

MSU News Service shares stories about Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, and the accomplishments of its students, faculty, alumni and staff. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.