How I learned to be Indian

The first time I exhibited my art work about my Muscogee (Creek) heritage, I was shocked when someone said to me ‘You are so lucky to be part-Indian’.  I wish that I had the wherewithal to ask just what she meant.  The history of all indigenous people in the United States is marked by physical and cultural genocide, and land theft and we have all inherited a legacy of Historical Trauma and Unresolved Grief.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s with a father who felt very ashamed about his Muscogee ancestry.  My dad Frank was born in 1919 to my Muscogee grandmother Mattie Davis.  His father Ted Schwakhofer was of Austrian-American heritage.  Both of my grandparents were 16 years old.  My grandfather had nothing to do with his son or the mother of his child.  All that my dad received from him was his surname.

My dad said that he could understand the Muskogee language, but never learned to speak it.  The White kids called him a ‘Half Breed’ and the Muscogee kids didn’t like him because he was part White.  From 1920 onward, Native American children in Oklahoma were educated in the mainstream school system, where they and all of the other pupils learned that Indians were ‘savages’, although my dad used to argue with his teachers about this.  My grandmother Mattie would have gone to a residential school where students were actively discouraged from speaking their native tongue by having their mouths washed out with soap, or worse.

My brother, sister and I grew up knowing we’re part-Indian, but not much more than that.  My dad used to get The Muscogee Nation News delivered to our house and letters from distant relatives in Oklahoma, but by and large, he’d cut himself off from his ancestry.  I grew up wearing my Muscogee heritage like a cloak of shame.

I’ve come back to working with fibre and textiles in the past several months.   I’ve been studying an inspiring book by textile artist Rosie James.   I took the plunge into a machine sewn portrait of my dad onto paper printed with the front page of The Muscogee Nation news from 1978.

I made a line drawing from a photograph and printed off some text to make a layout of the piece.

Then I put the front page into Photoshop and added some text directly onto the page.  It is too fine to embroider onto the paper.  I used a glue stick to attach a piece of cotton organdie to the back of the paper to stabilize it and keep it from ripping when I stitched the portrait.  Then I machine stitched directly onto the front of the paper.

This is how it looks from the back.  I had originally thought about stitching through the fabric onto the front of the paper so had traced the picture onto the cloth.  It gives an interesting effect which I may explore in later work.

Back

My Dad used to have The Muscogee Nation News delivered to our house in West Covina, California and kept them in a drawer.   He’d read them at the dining table, drinking a beer,  He’d say: “We’re part-Indian.  We’re Creek.  We’re one of the Five Civilized Tribes.”

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Gorgeous gorgets

I’d made some paper clay gorgets for my Road to Oklahoma a few months ago and have decided that I’d rather they be made from fibre.

So far I’ve tried needle-felted fleece, collaged ultrasuede and either back-stitch or trapunto onto cotton, satin or felt.

None of them are quite right and I am so frustrated.   My husband reminds me that I will work it out.  He has seen me in this place many times before!

I love drawing and meditating on these images.  I find the symmetry of the designs within the circles very balanced and harmonious.

Harmony, graphite, 2017

An amusing thing happened when I had drawn a design onto the back of a piece of felt forgetting to reverse it, so that when I finished stitching it, it was a mirror image.  Steve queried if it matters and I said. ‘Yes, it will disturb the harmony of the Universe’.

The movement in many of the designs is counterclockwise.  The Muscogee stomp dance is counterclockwise.  This is because our ancestors knew that the earth and the sun spin on their axes counterclockwise and the planets rotate around the sun counterclockwise.  The Muscogee Way is about finding balance and restoring harmony to the world.

Yesterday I watched a series of short videos about textile artist Sue Stone.
Her mantra is:   ‘Be brave, push boundaries, make mistakes’.  She advocates going deep into just a very few techniques, making way for exploration and discovery.  This makes sense, but I am still figuring out which materials to use.  I think that this is the time to step back and focus on another part of the piece where I know exactly what I need to be doing.

 

On the road again

Well now, I thought I’d written about this next piece two years ago when I started making it.

Working title for a work in progress: The Road to Oklahoma
It is about being torn apart, partings from, partings through, bloodline, arrival, departure, the long straight road that cuts through the land.

September 2015

The base is made from undyed fleece from a Whiteface Dartmoor sheep needle felted onto black acrylic felt. Torn red silk dupioni stitched down with white bugle beads bisects the road.  I machine stitched a sinuous Mississippian riverine motif along the left hand side.

The back side tells a story too.

It has been hanging on my design wall since 2015.  A couple of weeks ago, I have come back to work on it.

I made some gorgets from paper clay.  The original ones would have been carved from whelk shells by the Mississippian ancestors of the Mvskoke.

I stitched them to the top right hand side of the piece with red thread,

but then decided to change to cream thread.  The metal disc is the cremation remains disc from my father’s ashes.

On the lower left side is another Mississippian gorget, printed onto organza of a Red Stick warrior.  This represents and honours my Mvskoke ancestors who lived in what is now the state of Alabama until we were ‘removed’ to Indian Territory in the 1830’s.  We were called Upper Creeks by the European invaders to differentiate us from the Lower Creeks who had settled in what is now Georgia.

This is also about my dad Frank Charles Schwakhofer, who was born in Muscogee, Oklahoma in 1919.  Because he was half Muscogee (Creek) and half white, he never felt like he fit in anywhere.  Both the white and the Indian kids called him a ‘half breed’. He never learned to speak Creek, but he could understand it.  He left home as soon as he could.  First, riding the freight trains out to California in the mid 1930’s when he was 16.  Then when he got older, he always had a car.  He drove off and never looked back.

I printed a map with the city of Muscogee in the middle onto cotton organza.  This map is from 1905, when it was still Indian Territory, soon to become the state of Oklahoma.  I hand embroidered the roads in red thread and sewed a gold bead right smack on top of Muscogee.  The photo of my dad, also printed onto organza, is from June 1955. On the road somewhere.

an Indian and his car

 

As good as new

Well hey!  I finished quilting all 161 squares and 60 triangles this weekend.  I’m not really sure why there are an odd number of squares, but I did count them at least twice.  During the quilting I’d noticed that some of the peach fabric squares in one of the nine patches were very threadbare and holey.  I put a pin through it to remind me where they were.  We slept underneath the quilt that night, fortunately not getting pricked.

I replaced them with some teeny ones using a buttonhole stitch around each one.  I love the cute little animals on these 1930’s reproduction fabrics!

Then I washed it, ironed the prairie points flat and have put it back on our bed.  The quilt on the wall is our wedding quilt Cleaved.

This has been such a fun and satisfying project that I am thinking about making another quilt.  🙂

Equanimity

I’ve been a student of the Enneagram for about 4 years with UK-based teacher Karen Webb.   I’m a Type 4 – The Artist or The Romantic.  I can’t possibly (nor would I attempt to)  go into an in-depth explanation here.  Briefly, the Enneagram is a model of human personality which is principally used as a typology of nine interconnected personality types, which are represented by the points of a geometric figure called an Enneagram.  I think of it like the Meyers-Briggs, but with many multi-facets and spiritual depths.

The Enneagram

The virtue of my type is Equanimity – mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.

About three years ago I had designed a new fibre art piece with the words ‘As it is on Earth, so it is in Heaven’.  The piece would combine stones and feathers, opaque and transparent material.  A synthesis of seeming opposites, but balanced.  The words surprised me, as they come from the Lord’s Prayer.  I’m not mainstream religious and don’t care much at all for Christian texts.

I went to a 3 day workshop with Karen Webb before I started to make the piece.  Unusually, there was a representative of each of the nine Enneagram types among the participants.  At the end of the workshop, Karen recited the Lord’s Prayer to illustrate that each line corresponds to the virtue, or gift, contained in each of the types.  Lo and behold, mine was the very line I had chosen for my piece, or had it chosen me?

Anyhow, following the workshop, I made the piece which I call Equanimity as a gift for someone who is a Type Four.  It is made from bleached mulberry bark, beach-gathered slate, two layers of silk organza and seabird feathers.  The words are written in metallic silver paint.

Bleached mulberry bark, slate and wire

Seabird feather and white bead

so it is in heaven

I used a clear perspex lath to hang it from so it could be in front of a window or a light source.  The threads from the feathers dangle several inches below the piece.

I like the juxtaposition of earth and air, and the combination of materials.

My day in pictures

Greeting the new day

Zesting orange peel for Florida Orange & Yoghurt coffee cake

Just another roadside attraction . . . .

Steve working on his screenplay betwixt leading guided tours

Today I led my first Stuff Your Inner Critic workshop.  In our kitchen.  While my artistic explorers were stitching, I read a little bit out loud from the chapter ‘The Imagination works slowly and quietly’.

Stuff Your Inner Critic workshop in progress

There was time for some writing and reflection on some of the sabotaging messages our Inner Critics whisper or shriek to us.

What she said

Hello!

Stuffing her Inner Critic

Contemplating his Inner Critic

Tiger Lily

What (or who) is behind this door?

The wonderful Inner Critics made by my brave, creative compañeros today

At the end of the workshop, I presented each doll with a milagrito, a little miracle.  They are only small, but muy powerful.

His gift is the key

Her gift is a soft touch

Mulligatawny soup for supper

Gleaming

Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom