November 12, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sitting across from Cami and Maci Schott, you might find it hard to fathom when they tell you they are Native American, two of some 3,000 members of the Ponca tribe.

“Oh yeah, we get that all the time,” laughs Maci as she tucks away a strand of dirty blonde hair. “People don’t believe us.”

PoncaGirls2The sisters get their Ponca heritage from their mother, Candy, who works for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. Her husband, John, is Polish, German, and French. Over the generations, the native gets “washed out,” explains Candy.

Even though their Native American heritage isn’t outwardly obvious, both sisters show their Ponca pride by staying deeply involved in their tribe. Neither has ever missed a powwow, where they can be found dancing to the beat of drums at the Ponca’s annual gathering in Niobrara, Nebraska.

Cami, a senior at Roncalli High School, adorns herself in “jingle dancer” attire, a dress fitted with cones that create rhythmic music as she bounces and moves. Legend has it that this “healing dress” was constructed for a father’s sickly daughter. As the daughter danced and jingled, she grew stronger, healthier, brighter.

Maci, a sophomore at the same school, is a “fancy shawl” dancer, so named for the voluminous garb with frayed edges that evoke images of a butterfly or eagle. Fancy dancers stretch their arms to a T as they twirl, showcasing the intricate, bold design of the fabric.

“We’ve always done it since we were…I don’t even remember how old we were when we started,” says Maci. “We still have little fancy shawls that are so tiny.”

Both girls are active in their tribe far beyond the annual powwow. The Schott sisters, along with 10 other tribal youths, accepted the Gen-I Challenge in hopes of being accepted to attend the White House’s first-ever Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C. earlier this summer.

PoncaGirls3The Tribal Youth Gathering built on President Obama’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative. The purpose of the effort is to fund and expand education, health, and employment opportunities for tribal youth across the country.

Along with other area Ponca youth, the sisters launched Ponca Pantry, a food drive designed for tribal elders in need. The program collected 150 cans of food in a single day at a Ponca health fair.

“Our Ponca Pantry,” starts Cami, “allows people who are blessed enough to have certain things to give to people who really need them.”

During the winter the youths intend to expand the program to collect clothing items. The group also plans to pull younger kids into the program to secure its place in the tribe for years to come.

It would have been a happy day if only one of the Ponca Pantry team was selected to attend the gathering in D.C. Instead, all 12 were invited to represent the Ponca Nation.

Attendees of the Tribal Youth Gathering listened to various speakers, but all eyes were on the highlight of the program, an appearance by the First Lady. The sisters will remember Michelle Obama’s message as one that will inspire them to continue to dream big when it comes to community leadership.

“We’re not just Native American leaders,” says Maci. “We’re the youth,” of America. “We’re going to be the future leaders in households, in government, in society.”

They even managed to squeeze through the crowd and grab a quick hug from the First Lady. Even though Obama was hobbled by crutches at the time, the sisters report that she was still looking fabulous, per usual. Michelle Obama’s brains, beauty, and keen fashion sense, the girls add, now place her at the very top of their list of inspiring women.

As if Ponca Pantry and tribal activities don’t keep the girls busy enough, both also play volleyball and basketball in addition to being student ambassadors.

Cami coaches a girls’ basketball team, while Maci is active in student government as co-president of her grade. On top of all their extracurriculars, Cami and Maci are honor students and both earn top-tier grades.

The Schott sisters are looking forward to the future with a gusto fueled by unyielding determination and overwhelming support from their family, friends, and tribe.

“We try to give our helping hand to our tribe,” says Maci as Cami nods in agreement. “And we’re grateful for everything they do for us as well.”

Visit poncatribe-ne.org to learn more.

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