Chief Eagle Woman

Amanda Webber Hess, Chief Eagle Woman. Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

By Leeanne Seaver

Amanda had another name once. She was Derica Sunshine until she was adopted off the Hannahville Indian Reservation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1979. She was only six months old then, so Amanda Weber Hess has no memory of her indigenous family. “I knew I was native, and so did everyone around me,” she said. “In fact, I was the only Native American in a non-native family and grew up not far from the reservation where I was born. There were maybe two other ethnic kids in the school I attended. I knew nothing of the culture and had no exposure to it growing up,” Amanda admitted.

Still, when she was a little girl, she could hear pow wow drums and singing in the distance. “I would go far into the woods around my house to try and hear them better,” Amanda recalled. “Looking back, I realize the wind carried the music to me as a child, and now I’m so grateful for the wind.”

A powerful connection to nature always stirred within her, but ironically, Hess had no affiliation with a tribe that could nurture it until she was an adult. “When my own daughter, Nadia, was born in 2008, I moved to the reservation to have better access to tribal community life and cultural teachings for her. I also wanted her to be raised among both my adoptive and biological families,” Amanda said.

Then about six years ago, she signed up for a pow wow dancing fitness classes with her daughter that serendipitously led to a full immersion experience of her own Potawatomi bloodline. Amanda was warmly embraced by her instructor, then her tribe. She began learning the culture and traditions of her people.

This past May on the anniversary of her first spiritual fast, Amanda returned to the old ceremonial grounds. She planned to do another two-day spring-fasting in a tree stand without food or water. Amanda brought her medicines and healing prayers, and as she lay on the platform watching the sky go black on the first night, “Again, I could hear the drumming and singing I knew as a child.”

Then strong winds and rain spiraled out of the sky shaking the trees around her in the taut air. Amanda breathed a protection prayer only moments before she “felt lightning strike the back of my head. I was paralyzed, deafened, blinded—all in the moment—but fully aware of why,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but everything that happened to me during and after that has been a healing gift that changed my life,” Amanda said. Feeling the presence of her ancestors and her tribal connections has helped her process the experience. She’s not at all shy to talk about it, and all discussions lead her back to deeper understandings of her native roots.

Today, Amanda Webber Hess is very much a part of the life of the Hannahville Indian community. “My Anishinaabe name is Wgema Gno Kwe or Chief Eagle Woman,” she said. With a burn scar and hair singed to her scalp at the back of her head, Amanda came to the June 2022 Pine Creek Reservation Pow Wow near Fulton. She was the head jingle dancer, and reveled in seeing her extended tribal family. Her aunt, Peggy DeLeon Smith, and uncle, Kevin Harris, an elder in the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, live at Pine Creek, and watched her proudly. “She’s our niece… we have enjoyed helping her learn about her people,” he said.

Amanda beams in reply, “They have taught me so much and inspired me and encouraged me 100 percent along the way. They are a huge part of my journey with our culture.”

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