By Shayna Mace | Photography by Hillary Schave
Family has always kept Kyla Beard grounded and connected to her Native American roots. Her dad is 100% Ho-Chunk and her mom is a descendant of the Puerto Rican Taíno, an Indigenous tribe that was scattered throughout the Caribbean. (The Taíno people were who Christopher Columbus encountered when he reached the New World in 1492.)
Her family originally settled in the tiny town of Cornell, Wis., (pop. 1,467) about 30 miles northeast of Chippewa Falls. When she was a sophomore in high school, the family moved to Portage.
“Coming to Portage was a bit of a culture shock, as my [high school class there] was about 200 people. I want to say I was definitely the only Indigenous youth [there]. We had a couple of other kids of color, but primarily Caucasian kids and teachers. But that’s kind of how it’s always been my whole life,” explains Beard.
Growing up, she spent a lot of time in Wisconsin Dells with her dad’s relatives. She recounts summers spent with aunts, uncles and cousins during “prime powwow season, with everyone coming together.” The family also attended religious ceremonies and feasts, where she learned a bit about her heritage.
Although she was immersed in Ho-Chunk culture sporadically and is an enrolled member, Beard admits the connection was tenuous at times. Her dad was adopted by a white family when he was young, and because of that, he didn’t have a strong relationship with his background for a long time. As he got older, he looked to strengthen that association for himself and his family.
“You can be surrounded by something and not feel a connection to it — or have a full understanding of it. And I think that’s kind of where I was growing up,” says Beard.
But it’s slowly come full circle for her. Currently, she works for her own tribe as the cage manager for Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, where she oversees a staff of 30 people.
“Basically, the cage is the bank of the casino. Any money that comes into or leaves the casino will flow through that cage. So, I oversee the frontline cashiers who interact with our customers as well as our back-end vault staff who control all of the cash inventory.”
In addition to her full-time gig, Beard loves learning and talking about Native American food sovereignty, which promotes growing, cultivating and enjoying Native foods, such as milkweed, berries and even beaver. She’s assisted Elena Terry of Wild Bearies with events and talks about the topic.
“Food is so central … to our culture,” says Beard. “[Learning about food sovereignty] did eventually reconnect me to my family and my [heritage] … so, it is really cool.”