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Marble Falls graduate embraces Native American heritage with handmade dresses

Kateri Angel Marie Henderson

Kateri Angel Marie Henderson wears a traditional, ceremonial Navajo dress during a graduation photoshoot on Navajo reservation land near McGaffey, New Mexico. Henderson is a 2024 Marble Falls High School graduate. Smith Legacy Photo/courtesy of Johnny Henderson

Kateri Angel Marie Henderson grew up in the Highland Lakes but has deep roots in the Native American tribes of the Southwest. A Marble Falls Mustang since kindergarten, her high school graduation in May 2024 became a powerful means of connecting with her rich family heritage.

Together with her parents, Genice and Johnny Henderson, Kateri spent nearly three years piecing together traditional dresses and jewelry from her Jemez (Hay-miss) and Navajo backgrounds in preparation for a special graduation photoshoot that brought her closer to her culture.

“We made so many trips back to New Mexico (working on the dresses and jewelry), and that’s helped me learn a lot,” Kateri said. “There is so much more to learn, but I feel more connected to my heritage.”

Kateri was born in Socorro, New Mexico, and lived on the nearby Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation until she was 5 years old and her family moved to the Highland Lakes. While her parents grew up steeped in their native cultures, Kateri and her three brothers—Trey, Ray, and Shay—had a Texas Hill Country upbringing in Cottonwood Shores. 

Mother Genice is Navajo from the Alamo reservation. Father Johnny is half Jemez and half Navajo from the Jemez Pueblo. 

Genice was the driving force behind her daughter’s three-year-long quest leading up to the graduation photoshoot.

“I knew it would take a lot of time to get everything together, so I started back in 2022,” Genice said when asked about how the idea came together. “Planning all of this and letting my daughter represent her culture makes me so proud!”

The three outfits they created each represent different aspects of Kateri’s mixed, native cultures. Everything was custom-made, from the leather moccasins on her feet to the jewelry around her neck. 

One outfit combines a traditional purple ribbon dress with a black manta, which is still common in the Jemez Pueblo as formal wear for celebrations, festivals, and tribal events. 

The manta is a traditional piece of clothing required for modern Jemez ceremonies. In many cases, according to Johnny, phones and glasses are not allowed at such events. 

“The Jemez still have a very traditional, strong culture,” he explained. “You have to dress traditionally for tribal events and ceremonies.”

The Jemez are a tribe native to the Southwest with their own Pueblo. The 19 Pueblos in New Mexico are bonded by a common Pueblo culture, but each has its own unique traditions and language and is considered a sovereign nation with independent governments and tribal court systems.

Kateri’s other two traditional outfits are from her Navajo background. 

One is a “rug dress,” hand-sewn from a handwoven Navajo throw blanket. Johnny compared this type of dress to something you’d wear for an upbeat yet dignified event, like a high school graduation or formal. It’s also expensive and takes a painstakingly long time to make, he said.

Kateri Angel Marie Henderson
LEFT: Kateri Angel Marie Henderson wears a traditional Navajo rug dress during a high school graduation photoshoot on Navajo reservation land near Smith Lake, New Mexico. RIGHT: Henderson wears a traditional Jemez ribbon dress and manta at her graduation photoshoot near Red Rock Park in New Mexico. Smith Legacy Photos/courtesy of Johnny Henderson

The other Navajo dress is a long, elegant red outfit reserved for important ceremonies and life events. It is specific to Navajo coming-of-age traditions and practices but is also a result of a clash of cultures. 

The Navajo used wool, leather, and plant fibers for their clothing, but by the late 19th century, European fabrics like calico, velvet, and satin became more available and were woven into the cultural fabric.

Kateri also wore an assortment of custom silver and turquoise jewelry that paid homage to the strong tradition of Navajo silversmithing. She and her family handpicked each turquoise stone for her earrings, bracelets, and necklace. The necklace is made in the famous “squash blossom” style, which has been worn since the early 1900s. According to Johnny, the meaning of the blossom design is simple: It represents the cycle of life.

Johnny said life on the reservation lacked opportunities, so he and his wife decided to move the family to a place they knew would offer more for their children.

“Things were getting really bad on the reservation,” he said. “We could kind of see what it was turning into and what was happening with drugs and alcohol, gangs–bad stuff. We decided to move our whole family here so that our kids could grow up in a better situation.”

The Hendersons discovered Marble Falls thanks to Johnny’s father, Larry, who left New Mexico and got a job at Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery in Burnet County. He made the move to be closer to Johnny’s brother, Lawrence, who was recovering at San Antonio Military Medical Center from injuries sustained while serving in Iraq in 2010.

After a visit to Marble Falls, the family decided to pack up and move to Highland Lakes in 2011. They initially stayed near Inks Lake but relocated to Cottonwood Shores soon after arriving.

“We love it here,” Johnny said. “Everybody is nice. The people here have welcomed us in. It’s like a dream come true. This is our home.”

The strong presence of Christian faith in the Highland Lakes was another major factor for the Henderson family’s move. Johnny was raised Catholic, and he and Genice wanted their kids to grow up in a Christian community. They attend St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Marble Falls.

The Henderson’s native heritage and faith are perfectly exemplified in Kateri, who is named after the first Native American saint. St. Kateri Tekakwitha was officially canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. “Kateri” is the Mohawk tribe’s way of saying “Catherine,” which was the confirmation name taken by Tekakwitha when she was baptized at 19 years old in 1676. 

Johnny’s grandmother Josephine Henderson spent much of her life fighting for Kateri Tekakwitha’s sainthood. She eventually succeeded and even attended the canonization in Rome in 2012.

“When you’re confirmed, you get your own patron saint,” Johnny said. “But my daughter already had hers.”

dakota@thepicayune.com

1 thought on “Marble Falls graduate embraces Native American heritage with handmade dresses

  1. I just LOVE this! Love that such a beautiful young lady is so interested in her heritage…love that her parents were willing to put forth such effort to secure it for her – and for future generations of the family, too! Love that the local “paper”/publishing company felt the story worthy to publish! BRAVO!!!

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