Major Robinson, an enrolled Northern Cheyenne from Montana, and his wife Michelle, a transplant from Orlando, Florida, with Irish/Scottish ancestry, met in their former career of designing and building theme parks for Universal Studios. Two years ago, they launched a boutique gift shop, Sage & Oats Trading Post, in downtown Helena to help bridge a cultural divide. Their tagline, “Let’s be Different Together,” is a way of celebrating their individual unique ancestries and finding commonalities.
The store idea came to the couple nearly 14 years ago, while Major was working in the Montana Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs and Michelle was working as the communications director for the Montana Department of Labor. They were taking a break in a local coffee shop, when Major pulled out his sketchbook and the couple started to brainstorm the store concept.
The two had already invested the first six years of their marriage living on Major’s reservation where they owned a bed and breakfast, complete with tipi lodging, to encourage visitors to experience staying on the reservation. Major would reach out to local artists and connect visitors with them to purchase handmade items, but at the time there were limited opportunities for tribal members to have this connection.
Fast forward to 2018, when a space opened up and the dream began to take flight. The couple decided, much like the invitation to dance at a pow-wow during intertribal rounds, the store needed to embrace our cultural diversity through inclusion. With Major’s background in design/build projects and Michelle’s passion for retail, they knew they wanted to create a pipeline to take tribal wares to a global market.
The name Sage and Oats comes from Major being a tribal member (he’s the Sage) and Michelle being of Scottish and Irish heritage (she’s the Oats).
The tagline “Let’s be Different Together” is about accepting that we are a blend of many cultures, although we may only identify with one or two. When Major and Michelle were conceptualizing the store, they picked up the book “Montana: A Cultural Medley,” to research the various cultures that came to Montana.
Today, we think of California, Washington, and Oregon as states with large immigrant populations, but in the early twentieth century, Montana had more immigrants than any other state west of the Mississippi, with the exception of North Dakota. So, part of the buying experience is telling the story of Montana’s history. Through the store, placards are dotted near handmade cultural items to educate people that Greeks lived in Butte; Japanese were in Missoula; Scottish were along the Flathead; Croatians lived in Lewistown; Mexicans were along the Yellowstone Valley; Germans & Chinese were in Helena, etc.
At a time of great division in our country, the couple hopes people will find commonalities.
It is important to the couple that the store offers affordable, authentic handmade items. The store is full of unique items, which include but are not limited to: Native made tipi nightlights, beadwork, dreamcatchers, Polish etched rolling pins, Rosemaled/Scandinavian housewares, Irish bog art, Scottish pottery, and Czechloslovakian loomed hand towels.
The couple looks for unique products to express our cultural identities. The couple connected with Sweetgrass Trading Company to inquire about a wholesale account to bring in Native made foods. Food is a gateway to experiencing another culture. The Native food line is surrounded by Scandinavian candies, Scottish teas, Irish soda bread mix and jams, as well as Made in Montana honeys, huckleberry and chokecherry syrups, and more.
“We are very excited to have [SweetGrass Trading Company] products in our store and feel they bring another layer of cultural experience to our customers,” Michelle said.
It remains important to the couple that every aspect of the shopping experience comes with a story. For example, the woman featured in the Sage & Oats logo is Barbara Braidedhair, a personal friend of the family and a lifelong advocate for Indian Country business development. It is Barbara’s smiling face which greets everyone as they cross the threshold and is adorned on products exclusive to Sage & Oats, such as their Tobacco Offering, Sweetgrass, and Dreamcatcher native scented candles and their Frybread & Honey soaps.
For Major it has always been about showcasing the Plains Tribes so that people are educated about the artistic treasures created in our tribal communities.