Norma-Chaé Isaac is a woman on her way. Just 18, and with her senior year of high school still to go, Isaac was halfway through a five-week college-prep stint at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts when she talked to Indian Country Today. She was wearing a pair of lavender and silver beaded earrings she made when we met in a reception room at the school. The setting and the earrings are part of Isaac’s story.
Isaac, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, is in the top five at Choctaw Central High School, and she’s headed for Oklahoma University to major in Native American Studies. “Their program is really fascinating to me. I’ve always been really big on Native American culture.” After college, she wants to spend a couple years working in Washington at the National Museum of the American Indian, where she thinks smaller tribes should have more display space, after which she wants to work on her first priority – to be a good teacher. She said her goal is to go back home and teach Choctaw history at her high school.
“For me, it’s about keeping the culture alive; I’ve done that by my traditional Choctaw beadwork, turning it into an art and doing something good with it.” She learned the art at a program run by her tribe’s Office of Cultural Affairs. The “something good” has to do with her 17-year-old brother Nicholas, who is autistic. Because of that she has become a spokeswoman for autism awareness. When she goes to powwows, she sets up a table to talk to people, explaining that autism is a neurological development disorder with a range of distinguishing characteristics.
Isaac raffles or auctions off her beadwork at powwows. “The money I make from what I’ve created, I donate to support organizations such as Autism Speaks, the Autism Society of America, or to a local organization back home that is called TEAAM, which stands for Together Enhancing Autism Awareness in Mississippi.” TEAAM runs a summer camp for children with autism. Isaac said they sent her a letter saying their funds were low and as a result they could not provide enough activities for their older campers. “I wouldn’t want my brother to be bored if he went there.”
The reason Isaac, a fancy shawl dancer, attended so many powwows over the summer is because she recently finished her reign as Louisiana Indian Heritage Association Pow Wow Princess.
A top student who engages in extra-curricular activities from the robotics team to the soccer team, an artist, a spokeswoman, and a powwow princess, Isaac is already an accomplished woman.
Asked who represented the concept of strong Native women for her, Isaac had not the slightest hesitation as she named three women in her life.
“One of my role models is the former Choctaw Indian Princess Tia Anderson. She is the epitome of a strong Choctaw woman. She has this quality about her. When I hear ‘strong woman,’ I picture Miss Anderson. She managed school and her duties as a princess. She is preparing to be a lawyer. I see all these wonderful things that she’s doing and how she’s contributed.
“Another role model would be my cousin Danielle Isaac. She is more of a family type of Choctaw woman, wanting to be there for the family. I admire her very much.”
Isaac then talked about her mother. “My mother is the most influential woman in my life. She reached a point in her life where she knew she could be strong, and she made me stronger. Everything my mother does makes me appreciate her more, makes me stronger. Even when I do mess up something, she’s always there for me. She is my rock, something I can just lean on when I’m at the lowest point or at the highest.
It’s no surprise that Isaac’s bond to her mother is memorialized in her name, Norma-Chaé IshkiHoba Isaac. Her middle name means “look or be like mother,” Isaac explained.
Isaac offered a quote to explain a bit of her personal philosophy: “If you shoot for the moon and miss, at least you’ll be among the stars.”
“Even if you don’t come close to what you are aiming for,” Isaac said, “you’ll still be up there, doing community work, or being with your family or even friends.”
At one point, Isaac said, “I do believe I could make a strong leader.” Yet another possibility in this young woman’s future.