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Tribal members meet nearly 7,000 miles from home

Mary Yox noticed another tourist wearing a Citizen Potawatomi Nation T-shirt while walking down the hall of The Sea of Galilee Hotel in Migdal, Israel. Yox stopped the individual, who happened to be fellow CPN member Jeannie Wamego Van Veen, in disbelief. After joking with her about the uncanniness of the situation, Yox wanted proof.

“She said, ‘Well, let me see your Tribal ID.’ Well, I still had my purse on me, and I just whipped that baby out,’” Van Veen said and laughed.

Tribal members Jeannie Wamgeo Van Veen (left) and Mary Yox explore Israel together after meeting on their trip. (Photo provided)

She jokingly told Yox she wanted to see hers as well, and they stood in amazement after Yox returned from her room with the CPN seal next to her Tribal ID number. After talking a little more, they both found it ironic how much closer they lived to one another in northeast Oklahoma but ran into each other in the Middle East.

“We laughed out loud because we went halfway around the world to meet another Tribal member that we are not related to,” Van Veen said.

As a member of the Bruno, Rhodd, Vieux and Wamego families, Van Veen had only met Potawatomi family members. Her Potawatomi name is Dche Deakwe, Big Heart Woman. She and Yox began comparing genealogy webs and found no connections. Yox is a descendant of Mary Ellen Johnson Scott, who lived on a CPN allotment in present-day Oklahoma. She had never met another Tribal member she wasn’t related to either.

“It was so unusual, such a coincidence that we would meet at that place, at that time,” Yox said. “And I’m one of these people to think that things don’t always happen by circumstance; it happens because somebody is watching out for us.”

They have both traveled extensively throughout their lives. Van Veen enjoys cruises and exploring Europe in addition to her and her husband’s trips throughout the United States. As an army nurse, Yox lived in Germany, Washington state, Texas, Philadelphia and many other places. However, this trip was the first time to Israel for both of them.

On a mission

Van Veen and Yox both belong to churches that are part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa. Yox, 78 years old, and Van Veen, 68, as a way to strengthen their faith, both decided to travel with their husbands to Israel through Nativity Pilgrimage in October 2019. The trip consisted of a group of 60 church members from eastern Oklahoma, all looking for firsthand connections to biblical times.

“Your emotions are just right on the edge,” Van Veen said. “You’re seeing the gospels, where the gospels took place. You’re hearing the gospels. We had mass every day. We said the rosary every day.”

They met early on at their first hotel and spent time together throughout the rest of their journey overseas. Van Veen and Yox told everyone what they discovered and ended up meeting several other Native people with them as well, including a Cherokee Nation citizen.

They celebrated their Catholicism with one another as well as their ancestry. Van Veen and Yox bought each other dinners and renewed their wedding vows with their husbands at the Wedding Church at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine recorded in the Gospel of John. They also took turns in groups of three or four carrying the cross up the Via Dolorosa, the same path Jesus took on his way to crucifixion.

“I guess it’s an indescribable feeling that you get when you’re walking in the same places that Christ walked, and it was just marvelous,” Yox said. “A lot of walking. It’s a lot of uphill for an old 78-year-old woman, but I made it.”

They ended their trip with each other as well. Van Veen, Yox and their husbands sat together during the last mass of their travels at Emmaus. Jesus appeared to his two disciples there after his resurrection, according to the Gospel of Luke.

“You’re just moved,” Van Veen said. “I want to go back. I would definitely go back.”

They both found it particularly special to share their faith and the experience with another Tribal member.

“It was so exciting. Because it was like meeting a sister, and it’s the bond. You knew you had something in common. And the fact that she was Catholic too,” Van Veen said.

Less than 100 miles away from each other in Oklahoma, they now keep in touch and eat lunch together occasionally. The meeting encouraged Yox to continue building her stock of knowledge about the Johnson family on her Potawatomi side.

“My dad and my grandma always told us, ‘This is who you are related to; this is who you are. You’re Potawatomi.’ Always,” Van Veen said. “And then when I find people who don’t know that — they don’t know their heritage and their families — I always say, ‘You need to go back and find that out.’ That’s very important.”

Learn more about Potawatomi heritage and history through the CPN’s Cultural Heritage Center at potawatomiheritage.com.