Make Us Proud: “To Honor Myself is to Honor Them”

Hear how Crystal Starr Szczepanski makes us proud.

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In our long-running series, “Make Us Proud”, we talk to people from around Indian Country who are making us proud.

My name is Crystal Starr Szczepanski.

I am the daughter of Eleanor and Frank Szczepanski. I am Athabaskan, Yup’ik and Colville. In 1996, at a powwow I asked this Shoshone guy to owl dance. The attraction was mutual. He was a drummer and I was a fancy dancer. Neither of us drank or did drugs. In 1997 I made the decision to move to Grand Ronde, Oregon with him. In 1999 I became pregnant. My partner suggested we keep living in the house with his mom, however I refused. “We have a baby on the way; we need our own place,” I would say. Most of the responsibilities fell onto me; paid the bills. The end of our relationship was when I no longer was able to deal with his gambling addiction. His whole paycheck would be gone – no money to feed our daughter, no money to buy toothpaste or gas for our one car. I didn’t understand addiction at that point in my life but had enough of being co-dependent.

My next relationship was with David. I felt special, cared for and respected. He was responsible with his finances and had a career. This was also my introduction to social drinking. In 2003 I put my daughter in the chinuk wawa Preschool Immersion School. I attended the adult classes and had the opportunity to apply for a language apprentice position in 2004. That was the start of my journey to learning a Native language. Before that I didn’t know what the conditions of our languages across Indian Country were. Since then I’ve given presentations at Stabilizing Indigenous Language Symposium and North West Indian Langue Institute.

I became to love each child as if they were my own niece or nephew. I felt pride when I saw them dancing and hearing our ancestors speak chinuk wawa through them. I felt heartache and helpless when one of my student’s mother died of cancer. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I received my Native American Indian Language Teaching License.
In 2011 my addiction was full blown. I was depressed, lonely, frustrated, lost, and a slave to alcohol. I put myself in a drug and alcohol treatment center. It was my introduction to trying to understand something I have no control over – I had a disease. Over the next ten months I struggled with drinking. I found myself in the hospital for being suicidal. I really wanted to disappear, die and lose the shame that engulfed me. David’s life became unbalanced trying to desperately help me. My daughter mentally distanced herself from me like a bad memory.
I hit my rock bottom. In my heart I knew that if I continued I really would die. I had been raped again; my body defiled and used. It brought back terrible memories from when I was a teenager and was assaulted. I felt dirty, used, and angry. I made the choice for the third time in eleven months to check myself into rehab.

I couldn’t have done this alone. I went into my first sweat lodge; it was there with my uncle and grandpa that I started loving myself and was reconnected to Creator. I let go of my shame. I learned about inter-generational trauma. I looked at myself realistically and started having love for myself. I humbly admitted it and took comfort in the fact that I am only human. I’ve found balance and spirituality. I realized the Creator loved me and wanted the best for me.

My adopted grandpa, Charlie Tailfeathers, has given me many wise words. The phrase “life just keeps getting better and better” has really ringed true for me. I celebrate it. My creativity and clear mind have come back to me. Art is now my expression. I’ve returned to traditional and contemporary native art.

I’m not an extraordinary woman. I am human. My ancestors fought and struggled for me to be here today. To honor myself is to honor them.

Do you have a story to tell? Make us proud by sending us your inspirational story to info@nativemax.com. Please include an essay of 250 words or less and a high res photo of yourself.