Love Looks Like This: Celebrating Our Native American and Jewish Cultures With a 'Newish' Wedding

“While our upbringings were a world apart, our values were aligned.”

love looks like this

Photo by Larissa Cleveland; Art by Cristina Cianci

Brides is committed to guiding ALL couples through not only their wedding planning journey, but through relationship milestones and ups and downs. Every love story is beautiful, has its own distinct history, and its own trials—there's no relationship that looks the same. To celebrate that uniqueness, we're asking couples to open up about their love story, for our latest column, "Love Looks Like This." Below, Gabrielle Sagalov tells her story from San Francisco.

We grew up worlds apart. Yuri in Russia, then Israel, then Toronto, Canada. I’m a citizen of the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation and spent most of my life in a small Indigenous community in central Canada. 

Right when he moved to the Bay Area to start a business, I moved to Toronto to start a career in finance. It wasn’t until 2013 our paths would overlap. I was visiting a friend in Palo Alto and having never visited the Bay Area, I wanted to see the sights. Sadly my friend had no vehicle. “Not to worry,” he said, “we can borrow my friend Yuri’s car.”

Instead of just offering up his car, Yuri took the day off to drive my friend and me around. Soon after jumping into the backseat, I spilled my coffee, but true to Yuri’s relaxed nature, he let it go. We didn’t start dating until a few months later when he was in Toronto on a business trip. We reconnected over a drink before walking around the downtown area on a cold winter evening. We strolled under the stars, walked past the buildings where Yuri attended college, and as we were wrapping up the date, it started to snow. He leaned over and kissed me in what felt like a slow-motion movie moment.

We spent the first two years of our relationship long distance—with a six-hour flight and an international border between us. The only future we planned was our next trip together. It was unconventional, but we loved spending time together and felt no reason to rush. After I moved to the U.S. in 2015 for a dual MBA/MPA program with Stanford and Harvard, it was three more years of long-distance, each of us crisscrossing the continent, until I finally settled in the Bay Area full time.

We came up with the term Newish, or Native American and Jewish, shortly after we got engaged in 2019.

We came up with the term Newish, or Native American and Jewish, shortly after we got engaged in 2019. Yuri’s Jewish identity has always been important to him, just as my Dene (Native American) identity is to me, and we weren’t sure how they would align. I grew up in a part of the world with a very small Jewish population, so my understanding of his religion was limited. As a newly engaged couple, I enrolled in a Jewish 101 class offered by a local synagogue in San Francisco, and he studied books by my favorite Indigenous authors (side note: I believe everyone should read "The Inconvenient Indian" by Thomas King). We wanted to better understand one another and be mindful about how we would integrate our identities as a family. We researched other Newish families—Taika Waititi is a famous example—and even interviewed Jennifer Podemski, a Newish actress I knew from my work. I reached out to friends to learn more about Dene commitment ceremonies.

Through these efforts, we discovered that there was a lot of overlap in our identities—histories of displacement and marginalization, and a high value for language, community, and cultural ceremonies. We realized we could celebrate both of our identities without crowding out the other. When it was time to plan our wedding, we knew we wanted to incorporate aspects of our cultures into our big day. 

couple
Photo by Larissa Cleveland
couple
Photo by Larissa Cleveland

Like many couples looking to marry in 2020, we had to cancel our original wedding plans for a summer wedding in Spain due to COVID-19. But by September, we decided to "go for it" and booked a fairytale venue, Beltane Ranch in Sonoma, for a more intimate gathering. While the majority of our guests, including our Canadian families, would attend via Zoom, we invited a few close friends from our quarantine bubble to celebrate alongside us. 

The date was also significant: We were going to marry on Indigenous Peoples Day weekend, on October 10, 2020, which gave us only four weeks to plan.

On the morning of our ceremony, I took a small amount of tobacco and laid it in the ground as an offering, asking for a blessing for the day ahead and reciting a silent prayer. A custom I was taught by Elders where I grew up. Prior to the ceremony, I invited a few friends to take part in a sweetgrass smudge. It’s something my family and I have done my entire life, and the smell of burning sweetgrass brings me back to community feasts on my home territory. 

I paired with my Berta gown with pieces handmade by Native American artists. A Native American cobbler, Shauna Whitebear of White Bear Moccasins, handmade a pair of white bison leather moccasins, which she lined with blue fabric for my ‘something blue’ and hand stamped the date of our ceremony on the side. On my bouquet by Wild Club Design, I added a small moose hair tufted broach to the front. Fur tufting is a common art form for Dene people, where artists knot animal hair through hiding and then trim it into circular, often floral, shapes.

breaking the glass
Photo by Larissa Cleveland

While each of our identities was celebrated on our wedding day, it was the preparation that made the biggest difference.

recessional
Photo by Larissa Cleveland

It was important to Yuri’s family to incorporate Jewish elements into our Newish wedding as well. After opening the ceremony with a land acknowledgment (our officiant was the friend who introduced us), we said our vows under a beautiful birch chuppah in front of our digital guests, while our in-person guests were invited to wear kippahs (the traditional Jewish head covering) if they so wished. A good friend helped direct our virtual ceremony through the wedding website Joy, complete with three camera angles, so our virtual guests could see each of our faces as we recited our nuptials. At the end of the ceremony, Yuri broke a glass in traditional Jewish custom before we said a few words to our virtual guests.

While we weren’t allowed a dance due to COVID-19 restrictions, Yuri and I got to do the first dance—we selected the short and witty "The Way I Am" by Ingrid Michaelson—and our friends insisted on an impromptu hora.

bride in leather jacket
Photo by Larissa Cleveland

Late into the evening, as we took our seats for our outdoor dinner, I threw on a blue leather jacket by an Indigenous designer, Angela DeMontigny. Adorning the back of the jacket, embroidered in Cree syllabics, it read "Of the Stars," which was the perfect way to connect our first kiss to our first dinner as husband and wife.

couple dancing
Photo by Larissa Cleveland

We had spent the time to build our foundation, so the wedding day felt like the starting line for our future.

hora dance
Photo by Larissa Cleveland

While each of our identities was celebrated on our wedding day, it was the preparation that made the biggest difference. Investing time to better understand one another’s cultures, having discussions about what the other valued, and how we wanted to start our Newish family. We had spent the time to build our foundation, so the wedding day felt like the starting line for our future. While our upbringings were a world apart, our values were aligned.

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