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Natalie Mitchell-Fuller discovers new career while sharing her Potawatomi heritage.

After getting her bachelor's and master's degrees, working for nonprofits and starting a family, Natalie Mitchell-Fuller never thought that she would return to a pastime that she used to enjoy as a teenager to make money. But that is exactly what happened. COURTESY PHOTO: NATALIE MITCHELL-FULLER  - Gresham resident Natalie Mitchell-Fuller shares her culture through her handmade beaded jewelry.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell-Fuller returned to her childhood hobbies of beading and crafting. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and working for the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, she started to learn and incorporate more traditional Native designs and techniques into her work.

When she was told that she could make money with her beaded and embroidered pieces, Mitchell-Fuller took the leap and started selling her Native art.

Born just outside El Paso, Texas, Mitchell-Fuller moved to Gresham when she was 7, growing up in the city she has called home for 30 years. She graduated from Centennial High School where she met her future husband.

"After high school, I worked at Starbucks for 16 years and put myself through Mt. Hood Community College," Mitchell-Fuller said.

Mitchell-Fuller graduated from Mt. Hood in 2006 and earned her associate's degree in mental health and human services. Then, she earned a bachelor's degree in social work at Concordia University in 2008 and followed that up with a master's degree in social work at Portland State University in 2010, all while working and starting a family. COURTESY PHOTO: NATALIE MITCHELL-FULLER - Mitchell-Fuller shows off her Native artwork at various shows and markets in Oregon.

After receiving her degrees, Mitchell-Fuller started working for the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in its community development department. It was there she became acquainted with traditional beading techniques.

"I had been beading for fun since I was a teenager. But when I really wanted to learn more traditional rip stich and fringe beading, I was lucky enough to be working at NAYA," Mitchell-Fuller said. "There was a lot of culture expressed there and a lot of folks were willing to help me learn."

Healing through art

When her husband starting a general contracting business remodeling homes , Mitchell-Fuller decided to work from home and take care of their sons.

However, in 2016, Mitchell-Fuller's oldest son died, leaving an immense hole in her heart. "Whatever muse that was inside me that inspires creation went dormant," Mitchell-Fuller said. "I couldn't even find it in me to just do simple crafts. The only thing I could do at the time was clean, cook and pay the bills."

Although the pain made even simple tasks a strain, Mitchell-Fuller said her newborn brought her back from her deepest lows. "Having my youngest really pushed me to be present, because I had to find some joy and happiness for him," Mitchell-Fuller said.

Along with taking care of her son, Mitchell-Fuller said surrounding herself with friends, having craft nights and creating art also helped.

"The beads don't let you go fast, you have to slow down, have to be counting and you have to be really focused," Mitchell-Fuller said. "I zone out and listen to my podcast and focus."

Mitchell-Fuller said that the art, friends and her newborn son helped her get through that tough time in her life.

Making art again

When her youngest son got older, Mitchell-Fuller wanted to find something just for her. "Once our littlest one got old enough, I decided I wanted to do something for myself," Mitchell-Fuller said "That is when I really got back into beading and even got myself an embroidery machine."

Despite knowing Native beading techniques and having a new sense of purpose, Mitchell-Fuller started small. At first, she just made art for her friends.

"What really got it going was the pandemic," Mitchell-Fuller said. "People just couldn't find masks, so I started making Native-inspired masks, because I found a really good pattern."

Mitchell-Fuller said she made and sold hundreds of masks. Once the mask orders started to slow down, she started creating more artistic pieces like earrings and jewelry.

One of Mitchell-Fuller's friends then came to her with an idea to sell her work at the Portland Indigenous Marketplace.

Once she was able to get in and do well at the market, she applied for the Gresham Arts Festival and was accepted. "Once I got in, that was when everything just clicked," Mitchell-Fuller said. "After that I was applying for everything."

Her art references Native American designs and motifs. Mitchell-Fuller said she loves sharing her people's history and language at shows. COURTESY PHOTO: NATALIE MITCHELL-FULLER  - Mitchell-Fuller constantly changes the patterns and colors for her earrings, making many one-of-a-kind sets.

Mitchell-Fuller said that when the Potawatomi Nation was removed from its land, which is now present-day Chicago, and forced into Kansas and then to Oklahoma, many descendants scattered around the U.S. and Canada. She often meets members of the Potawatomi Nation at art shows and connects with them.

"I met a gal that came up to me at a show because I have a sign saying that I am Potawatomi and she said she was also Potawatomi," Mitchell-Fuller said. "But she was from part of the nation that was in Canada, which is so cool to hear things like that." COURTESY PHOTO: NATALIE MITCHELL-FULLER - Along with beading, Mitchell-Fuller also sells embroidered fabrics.

Although she attends dozens of art shows and sells her items on {obj:64059:Etsy}, some non-Native buyers feel uncomfortable purchasing her and other Native Americans' products. She said some buyers are worried about cultural appropriation, which is the practice of taking a piece of another culture and using it without giving credit or understanding its significance.

Mitchell-Fuller wants people who feel nervous about making such purchases to understand the significance of the piece they are buying, what Native American tribe or nation the person who made it is a member of and to relay that COURTESY PHOTO: NATLALIE MITCHELL-FULLER  - Mitchell-Fuller said she loves being able to talk about her Potawatomi heritage at her art shows. information when someone compliments the piece.

"When someone compliments them on their beaded earrings, I want people to say, 'oh I bought this from a member of the Potawatomi Nation,'" Mitchell-Fuller said.


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