Daniel Island and the surrounding peninsulas are vibrant communities home to a diverse group of interesting folks. Jessica Knuff is one of those industrious and talented residents.
Part Pee Dee and Cherokee, she is a successful career woman, activist, and artist.
Before relocating to the area almost three years ago, Knuff worked overseas as a professor of political science and international security studies. Prior to her jobs in academia, she was a researcher at the United Nations and the Center for Refugee Studies in Rome, Italy.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a career that has involved lots of international travel and adventure,” she said.
Knuff is currently employed with the U.S. Department of State.
After returning stateside, Knuff stayed true to her roots, becoming active in several organizations supporting Native American interests. Knuff serves on the board of the Native American Foreign Affairs Council. The council is composed of employees from the state, USAID, and foreign affairs federal agencies, all working together to honor the cultural heritage of Native Americans. “I am very proud of the work we do. Native Americans make up a very small percentage of the Federal workforce, but we are working hard to have our voices heard where it matters,” Knuff said.
In addition to the Native American Foreign Affairs Council, Knuff also is an active participant of the Indigenous Women’s Alliance of South Carolina. The alliance seeks to empower all Indigenous women in South Carolina.
Last November Knuff was the guest speaker at Daniel Island Historical Society. Knuff gave a fascinating presentation on Daniel Island’s Native American roots and explored the area’s rich history.
The talk touched on Daniel Island’s Eitwan Indian tribe. In her presentation she explained how most Native American history has been passed down orally. This tradition helps to keep an accurate record of the past. An overview of Daniel Island’s Native American history and Knuff’s presentation is available on the Daniel Island Historical Society’s website at dihistoricalsociety.com.
One of Knuff’s passions is helping bring awareness to the plight of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). This issue has plagued Native American communities for centuries and continues to be a serious threat.
The epidemic affects Native women on both a nationwide and international scale. The murder rate for American Indian and Alaska Native women is 10 times the national average. Roughly four out of five Native women have experienced violence. Unfortunately the exact number of incidents is not known because there is no central database.
Two recent federal laws, Savanna’s Act and Not Invisible Act, will increase coordination and communication across law enforcement agencies. The acts require the Department of Justice to report statistics on MMIW to a centralized database. Knuff stressed continued public support for more legislation is necessary to help the Native American community.
“I would encourage people to become aware of how serious of an issue this is for Native people ... The epidemic is widely discussed in Native communities, but without mainstream American awareness and support it is hard to push for change,” she explained.
“Respecting Native culture and speaking out against degrading representations of Native women and fetishized costumes/images is one way residents can contribute to the MMIW movement. Raising awareness on the issue, starting dialog with local tribes, and attending events in support of the MMIW movement are all great ways to become involved.”
Knuff is currently working to establish a nonprofit organization to benefit Native tribes in South Carolina. The nonprofit will provide scholarships to tribal members for training and conference fees.
“There are a number of events that come up during the year that tribes can participate in, but funding issues prohibit participation,” she said. ”A recent example that highlights the need for such a nonprofit involved conference fees for a member of a local tribe to do a training on the repatriation of human remains of tribal members… Issues like this are covered under federal law, but you need training on how to file and fight for repatriation of ancestor remains. A fund to cover expenses like this would greatly benefit the Native community in South Carolina.”
Knuff also is a talented designer. Her Native American heritage is artistically woven into the creations sold at her local business, Dotsuwa Designs.
“Beadwork is medicine. It is a way I connect to culture and tradition…Promoting my beadwork allows me to raise awareness for Native history and contemporary causes in local communities,” she said. “In addition to beadwork, I also work with horsehair and natural products such as porcupine quills, coyote and elk teeth, polished ox bone and rattlesnake vertebrae. All my natural products are ethically sourced and purchased from Native vendors.”
Knuff crafts her creations with a traditional style and loves incorporating florals and animal prints into her designs.
“If I can draw a design, I can bead it. I can bead anything from shark earrings for Shark Week to baby Yodas for the Star Wars fans,” she said.
Just in time for the holidays, Knuff has created a line of handcrafted ornaments.
Daniel Island resident Sean McColl has given Knuff’s jewelry to his wife and other family members. He loves the unique Native American vibe incorporated into each piece.
“I don’t think most people realize the amount of time and effort she puts into hand-making each piece. It is a tremendous amount of work, but results in truly phenomenal unique jewelry. I also love the fact that it is Native American inspired and that there is a story behind each design, which I enjoy learning about and telling recipients when I give them as gifts,” said McColl.
When COVID hit and lockdowns forced the closure of local markets, Knuff immediately built up her brand on social media. Her dazzling designs can be seen on Facebook, Instagram, and at dotsuwadesigns.com.
Knuff converted a small studio in her house into a showroom. DI residents can shop without leaving the island by making an appointment and browse her in-home studio.