Milleonya, a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, has channeled her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, artistic sensibility, and spiritual connection to her Native American heritage into her own home-based business selling handcrafted handbags that she calls Kachina Bags.
"A kachina is a spiritual being representing anything from the natural realm or cosmos," Milleonya explains. "A spirit can be an animal, deity, quality, an element, natural phenomenon, location, concept, or the spirit of a divine ancestor."
"Sacred" is the name of the first collection in a series she is designing. It embodies all that is sacred in Native culture in a dozen multi-colored handbags crafted of handcut Italian Napa lambskin leather. Each bag represents a different native culture in the U.S. and the world. Milleonya names each bag with such diverse traits as Powerful, Passionate, Sacred, Serene, Graceful, Warrior...
She suggests a woman chooses a bag that reminds her of herself — or calls on a spirit that she could use in her life.
"I pray on each and every bag to give that warrior spirit or healing spirit or confidence, etc., to bring to the woman — and the people around her," she says.
The young designer and entrepreneur describes herself as "PequaRican."
"It's a name my mother put together for me," she says. "She's Puerto Rican and my father is Cape Verdean and Pequot. We invented this word for a different culture.
"My mother is my best friend," she adds. "She always said, keep your feet planted, know where you came from, know your culture."
Learning as much as possible about whatever she puts her mind to is Milleonya's MO. She practically bubbles over with enthusiasm for the task at hand, undaunted by what she may not know — yet.
Originally from Providence, R.I., Milleonya attended the Connecticut School of Broadcasting and then worked as an audio video service technician and in-house producer in Foxwoods Creative Arts department.
"I would go to each department and learn about everything they did," she says. "I ended up as associate producer."
She then moved to Florida where she attended Full Sail University and received a degree in music engineering and recording arts.
She says she's always been into art and loved to draw.
"I wanted to come up with a fashion line — I had all these ideas."
She chose to design bags over another fashion item, pointing out that they're much more than an accessory for women.
"Women carry everything that's about them in a bag," she says. "It's like carrying around their spirit. And these are soft, delicate, stylish, unique — just like us women. "
And so she went to work at the Mashantucket Museum gift shop to get some retail experience. After just six months, she began her own business from the bottom up.
A single mother of an 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, Milleonya says her kids were at a good age for her to "go for it."
"My kids are so great," she says. "I couldn't ask for anything more. Every time I'm drawing, they'll start drawing with me and come up with ideas for designs."
"When you have a dream, a goal, you should go for it," she insists. "I'm not rich, I'm more broke than before. This is my only job. It took all my savings — I put everything into it. I invested in myself because I truly believe it will be successful."
Milleonya learned how to sew by asking if anyone could teach her.
"One of the ladies at the museum connected me with a woman — I went to her home and paid her to teach me," she says. "As soon as I learned the basics, I took what I had and said, 'I'm OK,' and created my first samples, my first collection.
"I do everything myself," she says. "I purchase the materials, I learned how to do a website. I found a leather manufacturer. Even the business plan, keeping the books."
She started out making each bag herself and now contracts them out to a craftsman in New York, who "is doing exactly what I was doing at home," she says.
"It isn't just about my culture, but everyone's culture," she stresses. "I have a strong belief we're all one. At the end of the day, we're the human race. Native isn't just Native American, but all natives, all people of the world. My biggest goal is to travel around the world, share it with the world — and that a portion of the proceeds will go back to the tribe it honors."
In addition to her mother, whom she says is "100 percent the reason of who I am today," she credits the Mashantucket Tribal Council with always believing in her.
"I showed Rodney Butler (chairman of the tribal council) my first drawings. He said from the start that this was awesome and he supported me. Everyone else has been absolutely supportive, has my back. I'm really grateful for all of them.
"I have a model now for my children," Milleonya says. "So many people say the sky is the limit. In my home the motto is: 'The sky is just the beginning.'"
Milleonya's Kachina Bags are for sale at Indian Nations at Foxwoods Resort Casino and online at her website: http://www.milleonya.com/bear.html where pricing and more information are available.