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Cherokee Nation revitalizes metalsmith tradition through community classes By Lindsey Morehead

oneh Chuleewah is a second-generation Cherokee metalsmith. His father operated a small jewelry business out of his home in Pryor, Okla. and passed the trade on to his son. Today, Chuleewah is one of the nation’s last re- maining jewelry artisans. As the instructor of a new metalsmith program at the Cherokee Arts Center in Tahlequah, Okla., Chuleewah hopes to help restore what was thought to be a lost art. “Our elders are passing on and as they go, there’s no one to replace them,” says Chuleewah. “Now there are people calling every day wanting to know more about the classes.”


“Southeastern designs are totally different than Southwestern and that’s one of the big reasons why we wanted to get the jewelry program going,” says Chuleewah. “We have all of our Cherokee gift shops in the casinos and they’re fi lled with Southwestern jewelry because that’s what’s available.” Class participant Carl Ferguson, who works in the oil and gas industry, says he hopes to begin creating jewelry full time.

The metalsmith classes, open to members of the Cherokee Nation and the general public, are offered in six-week sessions throughout the year. The cur- rent session runs through Dec. 12.

“The first classes were developed through the (Cherokee Nation’s) work program to train people with a new skill that were having a hard time fi nding jobs in the marketplace,” says Chuleewah. “That’s how it was started. Then a lot of people in the com- munity began expressing interest.”

The metalsmith program is part of an overall push to preserve the Cherokee arts. Donna Tinnin, Cherokee community tourism specialist, says the tribe recently renovated a downtown Tahlequah building in the Lake Region Electric Cooperative service area to house its budding arts program. The center will help restore a number of threatened na- tive arts, including loom weaving. Only four Chero- kee loom weavers remain, says Tinnin. “In the commerce department, we discovered the ‘artists as entrepreneurs’ business sector was miss- ing,” says Tinnin. “We have tons of wonderful Cher- okee artists, but we realized we needed to support them more.”

The Cherokee Nation now offers a loan fund program to help select class participants purchase needed materials and equipment. A professional development program teaches business planning. “Self-suffi ciency is being built here,” says Chuleewah. “We want to promote our own designs because we have our own identity. This could be a large source of income in the Cherokee Nation.”

Tinnin adds, “Once they’ve taken the classes, learned the business and entrepreneurial skills and perfected their craft, hopefully they’ll move out onto Main Street or back into their own communities and start their own galleries or studios.”

Southeastern-style jewelry, made primarily us- ing copper and whelk shells, is largely overshad- owed by the more recognizable turquoise and silver of the Southwest.

Handcrafted copper South- eastern-style bracelet. Photo Courtesy Toneh Chuleewah

NOVEMBER 2011 25

“I think there’s a big market for it,” says Fergu- son. “We have had people coming down here look- ing for it in the casinos, begging for it to be in the gift shops. There’s no one doing it, so the door is wide open.”

Ferguson began taking classes in April. With some additional instruction, he says he plans to begin sell- ing his wares along the eastern seaboard. “I just happened onto these classes and decided this was something I really enjoy,” he says. “I’m 64, so I may be too old to be doing this, but I’m going to try.”

The program also aims to develop the Tahlequah area as an arts destination. “There’s so much art around here, yet it hasn’t been developed,” says Chuleewah. “You have your big places, like Santa Fe, (N.M.). The art market is huge out there and you have a lot of money fl oating around, so our artists here tend to gravitate there. We want to develop the market here so people don’t have to move away to make a living.” Tinnin says her offi ce is working to educate the public on Southeastern tribal designs and culture. “People come to town and say, ‘Where are the

tepees? Tahlequah

You don’t have dreamcatchers?’” says Tinnin. “Well, that’s not ours and neither is the silver and turquoise jewelry. We’re not Plains Indians; we’re not Southwestern Indians; we’re Southeastern In- dians.”

Chuleewah says he believes there’s a market today for Southeastern-style jewelry, which is largely geo- metric in design.

“In interpreting the old designs, there’s a lot that we could fi nd in modern styling,” he says. “People wouldn’t even realize these designs are 100-plus years old. As with all the Indian tribes, a lot of the patterns tend to center around spirituality.” Soon, he says he hopes to see his students’ work featured in local gift shops.

“Instead of outsourcing to someone who doesn’t know anything about anybody here, and doesn’t really care, these pieces are made by Cherokees for Cherokees,” says Chuleewah. “It’s people in the community who have come together to give some- thing to our elders and to recognize them for what they’ve done.”

It honors people like his father who taught him the trade.

“I’m proud to be a part of this,” says Chuleewah. “We’re keeping the tradition alive.” OL

How to Learn the Tricks of the Trade:

WHAT: Cherokee Arts Center silversmith class WHEN: Mondays at 7 p.m. until December 12 WHERE: 212 S. Water St. in Tahlequah DETAILS: Classes are $40 each MORE INFO: 918-453-5536

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