Traditions and advocacy give Darlene McCarty meaning
Darlene McCarty has Z-fans from around the world, but there's more to her than her fame having played Nana Anuk, an Alaskan grandma, for three seasons, beginning in 2016, in the SyFy TV show Z Nation.
There's also more to her than her 25 years of working in various Spokane hotels—from lobby attendant, night janitor to laundry worker. She retired in 2010.
Proud to be a full-blood Native American, Darlene is in a succession of generations in her family who have preserved Indian traditions and advocated for Native American rights.
Her father, Spencer McCarty, was full-blood Makah from Neah Bay on the Washington Coast, and her mother, Ella McCarty Butcher, was full-blood Spokane. After they divorced, Darlene lived in Spokane and visited half siblings in Neah Bay some summers growing up.
While Darlene did not keep up speaking Salish, she has worked to keep other traditions alive and has advocated for Native American people, as her mother did, and now her daughter Barbara Gongyin does. Darlene's granddaughter, Symetria Gongyin, also continues the tradition of publicly advocating for Native Americans in the public health field.
Darlene's grandparents were Samuel and Effie Hill. He was the last member of the Spokane Tribe to make arrowheads, and she was the tribe's "keeper of the legends."
Her mother, Ella, advocated for Native American rights in the 1970s with leaders of the American Indian Movement like Russell Means, addressing issues of sovereignty, racism and civil rights. She was an early member of the National Congress of American Indians, which advocates for rights guaranteed to tribes through agreements with the U.S. government.
As tribal historian, Ella taught Indian culture at Spokane schools and Eastern Washington University, and led tours to historical sites.
"My mother encouraged me to learn and experience Native American ways," Darlene said. "She also taught me to go out and fight for our rights."
To make sure everyone would have access to health care, Darlene has traveled to Olympia to testify for preserving Medicare, Medicaid and public health programs, on which she now relies for treatment of uterine cancer that has spread through her body. Her cousin, Deb Abrahamson, recently died of the same cancer.
Now Darlene deals with the struggles for insurance coverage and health care, for which she advocated for others. She believes that everyone needs health insurance and that health care is a human right. Her family recently created a Go-Fund-Me drive to help with medical expenses.
Darlene was also involved with Deb in advocacy with the SHAWL (Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land) Society, traveling to Olympia to accompany Deb when she testified at the legislature to assure the mining companies would be accountable to completing cleanup of contaminated sites on the Spokane Reservation.
"I remember going out with my mother with a Geiger counter in areas near Wellpinit," she said. "My mother had land and a farm with fruit trees there near one of the mines.
"Several relatives have had health issues. Before the mines, there were not all the cancers the tribe now has," she said.
Darlene has also advocated at Spokane City Council for community issues and served on the Steering Committee for the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.
Despite her health problems, she has participated in Black Lives Matter rallies and Spokane events in solidarity with efforts to protect the water and environment and challenge construction of an oil pipeline across part of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota.
In addition, she and Barbara have worked to keep Native American traditions alive. Both have helped plan powwows, like the Gathering at the Falls in Riverfront Park and the annual Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration.
"I do not dance, but I love to go and watch the young people dance and keep the tradition alive," Darlene said.
Her youngest grandson, Lance, is carving a dugout canoe in the back yard, while her eldest grandson, Uriah, is busy illustrating indigenous digital stories to help process grief.
Most of her life, Darlene has lived in Spokane, but spent some summers and a few years in North Carolina, California, New Mexico, Arizona and British Columbia, where she helped instill indigenous traditions.
Darlene attended Rogers High School, except for a semester in Wellpinit and her senior year. Her art teacher at Rogers arranged for her to spend her senior year at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N. Mex., in 1964. She spent another two years there after graduating, to study drama and creative writing.
"I was always interested in acting, so finally 50 years later I was Nana Anuk in Z-Nation," she said. "The setting was Alaska, but the filming was done in Spokane."
The American action, horror, post-apocalyptic comedy is about a motley group of survivors battling a zombie apocalypse.
Darlene was also in two movies, "Home Sweet Home" and "One Small Thing," and in two plays with Stage Left, "At the Sweet Gum Bridge" and "The Controversy of Valladolid."
In the summer of 1975, Darlene worked in North Carolina with a Job Corps program training Chickasaw and Cherokee tribal teens, taking them into nature on hikes and camping.
Another summer she worked on an Indian reservation in Bishop, Calif., where Los Angeles churches brought groups to help build buildings.
After some time in Arizona, she came home to Spokane, where she raised her daughter, Barbara, while working in hotels.
Darlene told of other involvements related to her values:
• She was involved for a while with the Native and non-Native Talking Circle that met monthly at Emmanuel Family Life Center to share with people from several churches—including Unity and Bahá'i—to learn about Native culture and stories, and hear stories of the lives of non-Native participants to build cross-cultural understanding.
• Although not Catholic, she attends the Native American Church's Indian Mass at St. Aloysius Parish once a month to connect with Native Americans during the school year when they are not going to powwows.
• She attended the Presbyterian Church in Wellpinit, and said she goes to any church because she believes churches are similar and share much in common with Native religion.
"I have learned to appreciate life, loved ones and friends," Darlene said. "People treat me well, and I treat people well."
Because of the struggles urban Indians experience, Darlene encourages friends to keep open to learning and remembering their traditions, working to save the salmon, keep waters clean and protect the land.
Her daughter, Barbara, along with serving on the Gathering at the Falls Planning Committee for several years, started the Indigenous People's March in Spokane two years ago.
The Gathering at the Falls highlights the significance of Northwest tribes gathering at the Spokane River, a sacred tradition for generations, celebrating the river and creating or renewing friendships, she said.
Barbara, who earned a bachelor's degree in 2003 in business administration, finance and management information systems from Eastern Washington University, carries on the family tradition of advocating for justice as a community activist and organizer to improve people's lives.
For 16 years, she has been a project specialist in Indian country with Kauffman & Associates, Inc., a consulting company that is dedicated to improving the lives of those in underserved communities.
The work has taken her around the Indian country since 2004, with her mother and children sometimes joining her.
"I credit my being a community advocate to my mother and grandmother. My mother took my grandmother's lead and said that I was to carry on bringing people together, holding the family together and bringing the community together," she said.
Now Barbara is spending time caring for her mother, returning the love she has been given for years.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March, 2021