Story by Cheri Trusler, photos by Ashley Roness
Shania Hall and Michaela Frazier, friends who grew up in Missoula, away from their own tribal reservations, have developed personal ideals about what it means to be Native American, or as they would say it: “En-Dins.”
Living off the reservation, but feeling like they belong on one, both Hall and Frazier have come to terms with, and even embraced, an off-color term constantly flung at them: “Apple.”
Hall, a Blackfeet tribal member: “An apple is an urban Native American, it’s a slang word. It’s kind of derogatory.”
Frazier, who is Northern Cheyenne: “Just kind of assimilated to white culture I guess. That’s what an apple is.”
The two girls met in class in middle school, and became fast friends, sharing the split identity of Native American teens who grew up away from their families and the culture of reservation life.
When Frazier and Hall would walk the halls of their school other Native American kids would call them “apples.” Shania’s eyes squint from the grin on her face as she remembers high school stories.
“We used to try to act hard core,” she explained. “We’re Native and then we’re actually like born and raised in Missoula so we would try and walk around our school like badasses but it was not working.”
The girls live like the majority of Native Americans. According to the 2010 census, 78 percent of all Americans who identify as Native American are living off reservations.
Jake Arrowtop, with the Indian Education program, works with the students who move from the ‘rez’ to Missoula County. He provides some insight as to why some kids would be inclined to call others “apples.”
“They are just challenging what an authentic Indian is, you're not authentic if you didn’t grow up on the rez,” explains Arrowtop. “It’s a pretty mean thing to say to somebody.”
The girls weren’t trying to be “authentic” so much as they considered their behavior as honoring their families past.
“We weren’t standing on our soap boxes or whatever like, ‘Hey! We’re Indians!’” Frazier said. “We just did what was required of us or we thought we should do to kind of honor our tribes individually.”
Hall personally represents her culture by learning prayers and participating in traditional Blackfeet sweat lodges. She looks like a native kid with high cheekbones lifting her dark brown eyes. Her complexion is naturally tan and her black hair is so thick she can wrap a hair tie around it once and it’ll hold. In her opinion, she is an apple because of the way she talks. In Browning, where her family is from, accents are thick and slang is abundant, Hall stands out because her voice is clear and shows no signs of an accent. She calls that ‘talking white’.
“My cousin said, ‘like you don’t even talk rez, you talk so white,” Hall said.
Frazier is half Northern Cheyenne, and half African American on her father’s side. She is much darker in complexion and has tight, dark brown curls. It’s the subtle things that make Frazier stand out with Native American characteristics from her wide flat feet, to the hint of a Native drawl she picked up from listening to her mother speak.
After a death in the family last fall, Hall moved to the Blackfeet reservation to live with her aunt off and on. She plans to attend the Art Institute of New Mexico on a full ride scholarship. Living in Browning makes her homesick though, for Missoula. Sometimes she drives back to Missoula to stay with her sister and see her friends.
Frazier also hopes to move to Northern Cheyenne reservation, despite new testimony from her friend warning her of the pitfalls. But Frazier wants to learn the Cheyenne language. She says that is her biggest disconnect with her identity as a Native woman and she aims to fix it.
“I don’t know my language and that’s something that my cousins are privy to,” said Frazier. “They know the culture. They are constantly submerged in the culture and they know a lot more than I know and I really wanted to go back and go to [Chief] Dull Knife College and learn the language.”
There’s an average of about 9,000 Native Americans living on each Montana reservation. In Missoula, they make up only two-and-a-half percent of the population, which adds up to just under 3000 enrolled Natives.
Cecil Crawford, a school counselor with the Indian Education program, knows the girls well and recalls their senior year at Hellgate.
“They struggled. We used to have to chase Shania around to get her work done,” he said. “What saved her is art.”
The two so-called apples are about to split ways this fall when Hall moves to New Mexico for art school. Frazier plans to stay in Missoula for now to work on a degree in social work. No matter where they end up, the girls plan to stay in contact and carry with them the bits and pieces of Native traditions and urban lifestyles that make up their own unique flavor of culture.
An apple culture.