Sally Rook: Dances, Dreamcatchers, and Soap Designs

Sally Rook: Dances, Dreamcatchers, and Soap Designs

Questions and Answers with community faces

Caroline (Kenwabikise) Ramey (80) was born and raised on Beaver Island as one of 14 children. When her daughters, Sandra (Ramey) Jewell (45) and Sally (Ramey Smeltzer) Rook (38), were growing up, she would take them to pow-wows where they learned to dance and to craft classes where they learned to make dreamcatchers. These early experiences shaped Sally Rook’s foundation with her ancestral culture, but it would take two decades and a winding path for her to return to her roots. 

Rook grew up in Benzonia and graduated from Benzie Central High School in 2002. She gave birth to her first daughter, Korin Smeltzer, in November 2001 just prior to finishing her high school classes; her second daughter, Kayla Smeltzer, came in June 2004. (Both of these girls have since graduated from Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools.)

Rook then attended Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) right out of high school. As a young mother of two, it was not easy juggling employment and a full-time college schedule, so she eventually backed off to just a few classes per semester, though she finally graduated in 2008 with an Associate’s degree of Arts and Science. Later, Rook took a few classes through the University Center in Traverse City, but she decided to take some time off and make some life changes. 

Moving around a bit after going through a divorce, living in Traverse City for a while, then briefly moving back to Benzie, Rook found herself drawn in 2012 to Beaver Island, where her mother had grown up. Rook worked on a Native American fishing boat and also managed the gift shop in town. 

The short time spent on Beaver Island gave Rook a new-found connection to her indigenous culture, and things began to fall into place: she moved back to Benzie County, started college classes again, and was reunited with her now-husband, Dean Rook (42), who was born and raised in Elgin, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago; the pair had first met through mutual friends when they were younger, when Sally was still in high school, but they were not married until 2017.

In 2016, Rook graduated from Grand Valley State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental sustainability and holistic living. Although she worked for two and a half semesters after that on her Master’s degree in public health, Rook decided it was not her path. 

Rather, the Rooks began to get more involved in craft shows and selling soaps, a trade which they had both learned while she was doing an internship in holistic remedies and body care products during her Bachelor studies. In 2017, they not only got married, but they started their own business, Space Cake Soap Design, and were vendors at the Frankfort Farmers’ Market for a couple of years; after the pandemic hit—when soap was made “essential”—they were invited to vend at the Elberta Farmers’ Market, as well. 

As a federally recognized tribal member with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians since birth, Sally makes indigenous arts and jewelry—dreamcatchers, seed bead work, earrings, traditional medicines—while Dean primarily focuses on making the hand-crafted soaps and other body care products that they sell. Now preparing to enter another year at that market, the Rooks will be adding even more organically grown vegetable plants, herbs, perennials, and produce to their offerings, as well as a few baked goods.

Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Sally Rook as she was getting ready for the upcoming market season.

The Betsie Current: You have an extensive resume of working jobs at the intersection of food, farming, and community—jobs we did not have room to mention above, like in restaurants, food production, gardening, daycare, and other youth programs, as well as volunteering in conservation and political movements. Why do you think you have gravitated in these directions, and what do you find satisfying about these lines of work?

Sally Rook: When my girls were young, our family spent a lot of time at local Michigan music festivals and shopping at farmers’ markets. We also had a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm share through the Ware Farm of Bear Lake, and this served as an inspiration for me to eventually start my own farm and someday become a vendor myself at a market. I really think it’s important to offer families the knowledge of healthy food and, especially the youth, how important it is to eat healthy. So many families today are so busy and tied down in ways that inhibit their abilities to live a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle filled with growing their own food. This is one of the best parts of providing organically grown produce at markets, because it offers these options to families who are unable to do it for themselves. In college, I read Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma; A Natural History of Four Meals, which truly inspired me to look at food in a different light—check it out if you can!

Current: Can you explain for us where the name Space Cake Soap Design comes from?

Rook: To be honest, it was something we came up with one night while just having fun making soaps together. My husband, Dean, is an avid lover of space and space travel, and I decided it would be funny, as in, “We’re just a couple of ‘space cakes’,” and I guess it stuck. The “soap design” portion came from the fact that we design all our own soap molds out of silicone. One of our first designs was actually a cake-like muffin mold with a cherry on top. We’ve also molded bouncy balls and marbles for planets, using those shapes in creating a galactic-like bar of soap with swirls that resemble the Milky Way. We have had a lot of fun over the years designing and creating different soaps, but typically just stick to our Native Pride, Garden Floral, Premium Deluxe, and our Round Flower design molds. A couple years ago, we added “Healthy Choices’’ to our business cards. We really like that name, but since everyone already knows us as Space Cakes Soap Design, it could be a tough transition—plus, the current name is kinda fun! 

Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you? How has that changed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northern Michigan in March 2020?

Rook: Prior to the pandemic, I was a Youth Intervention Specialist for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. I worked with Benzie and Frankfort-Elberta Area tribal youth; I was a liaison for tribal families, helping to connect them to resources in the community related to education and family needs. I also tutored, offered transportation, planned and prepared foods, went on college visits, planned and executed after-school activities, and offered an open ear when times were tough. During the last few months of working for the Tribe, I taught a 13 Moons Indigenous Food Class. It focused on seasonal cooking per the moon cycles from a traditional standpoint. This really encouraged me to start growing vegetables more, and I decided to dive deeper into permaculture, something I had studied in my undergraduate classes. When the pandemic hit, the Tribe closed, like so many other businesses and agencies did at the beginning. When they slowly reopened, I was in the midst of many life changes and needed to step away from the stresses that surrounded my life; this, consequently, meant a full reboot, of sorts. Stripping away any and all areas that were not basic human needs. I gave up my employment, my cell phone, all social media accounts, any toxic friendships, and I decided to simplify all angles of my life. Though financially stressful at first, this gave me much needed time for building up areas in my life that were more nurturing for myself and my family. I found that—by diving into permaculture gardening, indigenous history, and the cultural ways of my ancestors—I could live happily, humbly, and be much more healthy, in both mind and body. 

Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?

Rook: Soap making has been a hobby for Dean and I for about six years now, and I grew up learning about indigenous arts from the Tribe and my mother. In the past four years, we’ve offered our products and artwork at various farmers’ markets, craft shows, and pow-wow events. Recently, since we decided to combine our hobbies and interests into a way of life, everything I do on a daily basis is something that can hopefully add value to the community and indigenous way of living. We specialize in wholesale bath and body products, such as soaps, essential oils, lip balms, and hand salves. Through providing healthy choices to our community, we find our work gives our own lives value—it’s all connected! We have recently added produce, because we believe offering healthy food options that taste great through proper growing methods not only make lives healthier and happier but bring families together in a way that recalls a point in human history when people lived healthy lives through food. Hunting and gathering was a way of life for centuries prior to colonialism, and by offering traditionally grown foods to the community, everyone can take the first step back to this type of a society.

Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?  

Rook: Since now our daily lives are one with our farmers’ market life, I feel that permaculture farming, producing soap, and filling the occasional dreamcatcher order is what I find most gratifying. Preparing, executing, and repeating the season yearly has proven to be a 10-month-long experience. From February through April, I’m preparing seedlings, inventorying what we need for the soap portion of the market season, and keeping up with regular household chores is plenty for my spring. Then, from May through October, it’s full on farmers’ market season, permaculture gardening, and indigenous ways of life. From September through November, I am mulching and putting everything away for the season. Then the holidays hit, and it’s “nesting time,” though that goes too fast. January is really for planning, and then it all repeats itself in February. As for “fun,” Dean and I love to hike. I have recently started dabbling into my culture more, and I am starting an indigenous pantry. I am learning about living off the land by identifying plants and species that are found naturally in Northern Michigan. Inspired by a book that Dean got me for Christmas this year, I’ve been cooking in more of a traditional manner, and I really am looking forward to summer, so I can share more of this information and knowledge with the community via my Facebook account and at the farmers’ market. Prior to the pandemic, my family and I danced in pow-wows for the tribal events, but there haven’t been any local pow-wows in our area for more than two years now. We look forward to doing this again some day.  

Current: How was your upbringing influenced by the Tribe? Why was it important to you to return to your cultural roots?

Rook: As children, my grandparents were students at the Indian Boarding Schools, and due to these injustices, I believe our family’s culture was stolen away, in a way. Many indigenous families who experienced this still have not recovered from what was taken at those schools. Thankfully, in recent years, there have been more stories arising and more information is being published about these experiences. Unfortunately, this directly affected my upbringing, as verbal communication isn’t a strong point in many Native families. My mother wasn’t raised with the Anishinaabe language. We didn’t start attending any language or craft classes until I was about 12 years old. It takes generations of healing to break these cycles, and this is one of the main reasons I’m so interested in learning more! I recently have started to dabble more in learning Anishinaabemowin. My other love is dance. When we were little, my sister, Sandra, learned the women’s traditional dance, which is also what my mother would do. But I started with fancy dancing, and soon I was so taken with the jingle dress dance that I decided that was what I was meant to do. The jingle dress dance is a healing or prayer dance. I taught my daughters to dance as early as possible, and this is the dance they do, as well. I feel that the best way to right the injustices of the past is to support the First Nations’ people and by purchasing and/or just spreading the word about indigenous arts and crafts! I do make dreamcatchers for sale, but I prefer custom orders specifically requested, because then I can put all my positive energy into that person’s catcher. I smudge each one with sage to rid it of any negative energy that might be around, and though I’m told I don’t charge nearly enough, I always try to price them reasonably and affordably, because I truly believe that filling homes with my artwork helps bring joy and indigenous knowledge to the world.

Current: Though you have been a federally recognized member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians since birth, we know that you were given an indigenous name recently in 2020. Can you tell us a bit about your indigenous name?

Rook: Due to some health issues I was having, I went to the traditional healer with the Tribe, and it was there that I was given a name: “Neezhō-Nimikeekway.” This means “Two-Thunder Woman,” and was described to me as a weather front coming from one direction and—at the same time—a front coming from another direction, with them colliding in the middle. This has deep meaning for me, and it’s perfect! After your name is given, you are supposed to hold a feast with your family. I wasn’t able to do a big dinner, because of the pandemic, but my husband and I made a makeshift corn soup with bread.

Current: How have you seen Northern Michigan change since you grew up here? What are your hopes for the area in the future? What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area? What does Northern Michigan/Benzie County need?

Rook: Definitely more development and more people migrating here from the cities; more diversity, which we love! Both my girls “got out,” in a way; Korin is living in Traverse City, and Kayla is starting her own family and is working on moving there, too. I love it here for the lovely water and landscape, but some of the mentality of Northern living has worn on me over the years, to be quite frank. So, Dean and I would like to eventually travel more and perhaps get a place in a warmer climate with a longer growing season, but we also want to have a place to come back to here. However, since I’m becoming a grandmother soon, we’re postponing those thoughts, for now, to stay closer to family.  

Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?

Rook: The biggest challenges to living in this area are definitely travel distance, prices, and the season changes that come from being a tourist-based community. At the same time, word of mouth travels fast, as we know. This can be used in a good way, if used correctly. One of the most rewarding parts of being in this community is being close to family—as a soon-to-be-grandmother any day now, this has risen to the top of my list, for being more involved in sharing indigenous culture and knowledge to everyone around me.

Current: What does your perfect winter day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?

Rook: We don’t get out much, and we stay home mostly, but we like to eat out sometimes, though rarely since COVID. So a “perfect winter day” for us might consist of going for a winter walk—maybe on the Betsie Valley Trail or just walking in the woods—going to the gym, and then a little “Netflix and chill.”

Visit “Space Cakes Soap Design” on Facebook; also you can “friend” Neezhõ-NimkeeKway Sally on Facebook to learn more about indigenous culture and to order dreamcatchers. Email for more information.

Support Native American artists and businesses by buying art, jewelry, clothing, and other items made by indigenous people and communities. Do not buy “Native” items that are not made my Native Americans and that are just taking advantage of indigenous cultures to make money—for instance, dreamcatchers from a gas station or sage to “smudge” your house. Also, be aware of scams by non-Native people who claim that proceeds from sales are benefiting First Nations people; these scams are illegal, according to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 and should be reported. If you are worried about the authenticity of a purchased item, call the Indian Arts and Crafts Board hotline (888-ART-FAKE), or contact the board through its website. Learn more at the Wall Street Journal.

Featured Photo Caption: Sally (Ramey Smeltzer) Rook poses with a double dreamcatcher that she made recently as a custom order. As a federally recognized tribal member with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians since birth, she makes indigenous arts and jewelry—dreamcatchers, seed bead work, earrings, traditional medicines—while her husband, Dean Rook, primarily focuses on making the hand-crafted soaps and other body care products that the pair sell online and at farmers’ markets. This year, they will be adding even more organically grown vegetable plants, herbs, perennials, and produce to their offerings, as well as baked goods, all from their plot of land in the reservation in Benzonia. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.

Author Image
Aubrey Parker

1 thought on “Sally Rook: Dances, Dreamcatchers, and Soap Designs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.