From creating, selling native beadwork, Skenandore expands to presentations on Oneida culture

Eliza Skenandore in front of the three sisters' garden she helped plant and care for on the Oneida Cultural Heritage Grounds

Eliza Skenandore in front of the three sisters’ garden she helped plant and care for on the Oneida Cultural Heritage Grounds

Eliza Skenandore might have grown up on the Oneida reservation, but she says it was years before she came to truly appreciate the culture of the Oneidas.

“I went through the Oneida school system all the way from kindergarten to 12th grade,” she said. “But it was when I was working at NWTC and surrounded by that culture that I felt like something was missing.”

Before taking that job, she had trained as a multi-media tech at ITT Technical College and interned at the Oneida Nation Museum. At the time, the museum was relocating and that gave Skenadore an opportunity to get a close look at all of the displays.

She said, “I got to touch every item, and during that time, I saw all of these pieces and fell in love with the arts; especially the beadwork.”

The love of art grew, and in 2011, she started studying clay and felt work. In 2012, she began studying beadwork and it became her passion. Within a few years, Skenandore taught her first beading class at the museum, and as she proved herself as a teacher, she also began to teach Oneida culture and language.

Her level of expertise continued to grow through career experiences. She worked as a cultural interpreter at the museum, and then, as a multi-media specialist at the Oneida Cultural Heritage Center. During that time, when she wasn’t working, she was learning advanced beadwork stitches. When her next career move brought her to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Skenandore was no longer working on the reservation.

“That’s when I really missed the Oneida culture,” she said. “Some people reached out to me and asked if I could give a class on how to do beadwork and we met through Zoom. I shipped them bead kits, and taught them how to do a beaded key chain. It brought back that passion and I feel more like myself.”

Beadwork created by Eliza Skenandore.

Beadwork created by Eliza Skenandore.

That led to selling Oneida crafts online, and the start of Starr Merrie Native Gifts (, a business she started with her husband, Shawn. She chose that name because it had the personal touch of using her two middle names, Starr Merrie.

The business started slow, but has evolved into a much greater vision.

She said, “I originally sold felt bows and polymer clay and it grew into doing beadwork, and this year, I added presentations and teaching.”

As the focus shifted, Skenandore honed her presentation skills and took part in several area pitch contests. After winning one, he advanced to the NEW Launch Alliance Pitch Event where he took third place. Those successes have encouraged her to move forward with the diversity and cultural programming aspects of the business.

“Last semester, I took an entrepreneurship class at NWTC and did a first draft of my business plan. Right now, I’m taking a finance class and that is really helping me. Next semester, I’m taking marketing and that is an important component that I’m anxious to learn more about,” she stated.

As she works toward obtaining a certificate in entrepreneurship, the business plan will be completed in the final course. Her husband currently helps with the financial aspects, but she said she’s learning more about margins and the percentage of profit coming from the various parts of the business to enter into the plan.

With a multi-media background, she found the website and social media marketing were easy to put up. But she says she is getting help on some of the business aspects, like forming an LLC, from a mentor at NWTC. Another challenge has been setting up e-commerce to make ordering of the crafts and supplies more convenient.

“Currently, our sales are in person or through social media,” she said. “That requires having people message us and then using PayPal for the transactions.”

But even though e-commerce will help streamline product sales, the real growth will likely be in training. The website has a list of presentations that are available with topics ranging from teaching the history and culture of the Oneida people to spiritual practices. She hopes to educate area residents so that when they see signs that say, “Oneida Reservation,” they will have a greater appreciation of what that means.

Skenandore is creating pamphlets and brochures about the programs; those will be distributed to schools, libraries, universities, and businesses — all of whom would benefit from offering the training.

“We even have Oneida members who didn’t go to tribal school and don’t know our culture. Some are coming back to find out who they are,” she said.

Within five years, Skenandore would like to have a bricks and mortar shop. She and her husband envision a combination building with museum-like exhibits, a retail space, and a room for teaching. All of the native arts will be featured — corn husk dolls, bead pieces, pottery, digital arts, basket and drum making, and woodwork.

As part of winning the first business pitch contest, Starr Merrie Gifts received one year of space at the Startup Hub on the NWTC campus. She will use whatever time she can (she works full time and has a 9-year-old son) to create a business, step by step, that will become well-known in the community.

“This started as something that would be just a hobby and it has evolved into something that could become our livelihood,” Skenandore said. “This is an opportunity for me to share my culture with others; to help preserve the language and culture, and to create nation building so that our culture is seen and taught.”

Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Skenandore’s Starr Merrie evolves from selling crafts to Oneida culture

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