Vanguard

Earlier this year I completed Road to Oklahoma, which I have been working on for about four years.  It has evolved as I have learned about and got in touch with my Muscogee ancestry and heritage.

I entered it in the 48th  Annual Trail of Tears At Show in Talequah, Oklahoma.  The Trail of Tears Art Show began in 1972 with the intent to create a venue where diverse art forms can be used to exhibit American Indian heritage.  TOTAS s the longest-running American Indian art show in Oklahoma.  I first heard about this show in 2016 and it was my dream to have a piece of artwork juried in to it.  I’ve shown and sold my work in the UK, but I feel that when Native people view my work, that it is ‘gotten’ at the deep level that it is made from.

Road to Oklahoma – Artist’s Statement
A road is just a road until you travel upon it. Then it becomes part of you. This road began with the Missisipian peoples, ancestors of my tribe, the Muscogee (Creek). Some of their motifs are part of this piece. Later, the Mvskoke were forced from their river towns – represented here by beads – along the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory, later Oklahoma. For my dad, the road promised escape from the traumas of the past to a new life. But, however far he travelled, the trauma travelled with him. Further down the road, he passed it on to me.

Road to Oklahoma,   34 x 11″

At the bottom of the piece, I added a bundle of red sticks to honor my Upper Creek ancestors  and my dad, Frank Charles Schwakhofer who was born in a time and place where he could not be Mvskoke.

I also made and added the Mississippian Hand, originally made from mica, from Angelina fibres.  My ancestors believed that our newly dead gathered in a hand shaped constellation of stars, prior to joining our ancestors on the Milky Way.

I am very, very proud that Road to Oklahoma won two prizes in this year’s Trail of Tears Art Show.  First place in it’s category and I won an Emerging Artist Award.  🙂

Next year is 2020, the centenary year of my dad’s birth.  I have been longing to go to Oklahoma for several years, to put my feet on the ground where my dad and ancestors lived and to re-connect with my people, the Muscogee (Creek).  I have had six pieces of artwork in Oklahoma over the past year.  I feel that these are emissaries and paving the way for me.  I spoke at a conference in Norwich this summer and met a few Southeastern Native artists, including two Muscogee (Creeks).   It feels great to be connected to some people in advance of my journey there.  I will be going Home.

Breaking the silence

Well, its been awhile!

My year so far has been pretty busy with entering art work and having it accepted into three exhibitions in the US.   Completing and entering the work was the easy part.  The  challenge for me was to package, measure and weigh and then find a carrier to ship it over.  Practical tasks can flummox me!  I found a website called Parcel2Go.com which presents a range of options, shipping times and prices to choose from.

One of the shows was “Breaking the Silence: #MMIW #MeToo” in Tahlequah, Oklahoma,  in conjunction with Northeastern State University’s 47th annual Symposium on the American Indian to “Celebrate Indigenous Women.”

The exhibition aims to bridge and raise awareness about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Me Too movements.  Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women #MMIW is a mission among Indigenous groups across the United States and Canada to bring awareness and action to the disproportionate number of Native women who are victims of sexual violence and murder, usually perpetrated by non-Native men.   #MeToo is a movement founded in recent years to create conversations surrounding sexual assault and violence and help survivors heal from experiences.

I entered two pieces into Breaking the Silence.

My Grandmother’s Shoes tells the story about how her sexual sovereignty, the culture and the very land was taken from my Muscogee Grandmother.

My Grandmother’s Shoes, 25 x 40cm

 

My Grandmother’s Shoes

Born in Indian Territory
her land was pulled out from under her feet.
Her moccasins were taken away from her at Indian School.

Rootless, ungrounded, barefoot
She walked down dusty roads.
Looking for Home.

New roads ran between boom towns
and oil fields.
Slicing through stolen land and
carving out Oklahoma.

Boomer sooner

There were too many men
with too much get rich quick oil money
and too much time
on their hands.

A pretty barefoot Muscogee girl
She found a pair of cast off red satin shoes
at the side of the road.

Cracked and cheap, too small
They pinched her feet
but made her feel like
A honky tonk Queen.

Men in fast black Buicks
stopped and offered her a ride
to nowhere.

Once she got on that ride,
she could not get off.

She was spirited away.

– Melinda Schwakhofer,  2019

I am so proud and pleased that this work is being shown in Oklahoma.  This is where the story belongs.  People who are there, especially people of Native ancestry, will ‘get’ this work on the deep gut level that it has come from.   In fact, My Grandmother’s Shoes was purchased in the show.

Bloodlines uses many layers including maps; text; self-portrait; my Muscogee relations as shape shifters; newspaper headlines from the 1970s and historical images of Native women.   It tells of my adolescence when I was made to carry the story of my Muscogee Grandmother which was a story of sexual exploitation that had been handed down through generations.  It shows how the thread of abuse can be passed between generations,  and so can resilience and the will to survive.

Bloodlines, 2019

Bloodlines, 99.5 x 59.5 cm

I wrote down memories which I have carried for over 40 years.

Layers of memories, from our lifetimes and before our lifetimes, make up all of our stories. It is very powerful to tell them in any way we can – speaking, writing, making art work; and so profoundly healing for our stories to be deeply listened to and genuinely heard.

 

 

Finding my voice

My Vne Este Mvskoke exhibition came down last Thursday.  Through this ten-year body of work, I have used art making to talk about my journey into my Muscogee heritage and to tell unspeakable stories from my tribal and personal history.

I have also created the opportunity for myself to stand up and talk to people about my work and about issues relevant to Native Americans.  I spoke about my current exhibition at two Private Views that I held.  Throughout my exhibition, I also had a Pop Up Native American cinema in which I raised funds for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center in the US.  Before each screening, I spoke about the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in North America and then introduced the film.   And last Friday I gave a 45 minute talk and dinner about my current exhibit and my Mvskoke Journey.

To be at ease when speaking in public before an audience was a goal that I set for myself about a year ago.   I’ve recently read my poetry at public events, and through my work with Art Raft for Health, I have found myself standing up before funders to talk about it.  But I have not found public speaking comfortable.  My breathing becomes shallow.  My voice goes quavery and comes from the top of my chest.  I also rush and try to cram as many words as I can into the small space I feel has been allotted to me.

I know that this comes from having grown up in a society where, as a woman, I have not been given the space to speak and to be listened too.  Woman who speak are labeled nags, scolds, bossy, shrill or (fill in the blank).  Nor have I had much opportunity to see and hear other women taking their space to speak about what matters to them.  In fact, in films female characters feature in less than 20% of speaking roles.

A friend of mine helped me to become aware of my breathing and to deepen into a place of strength and confidence when I speak before people.   Talking about my art work, my ancestors and past and current issues in Indian Country gave me a reason to move into a deeper place.   My copywriter husband helped me to craft my story into a concise and meaningful talk.  I consider my self a pretty good writer, but writing to speak is a different bag of cats.

My talk went really well.  People thanked me for my truth and honesty, and I have been asked to come and speak in a few places around Devon over the summer months.  It feels really good to have set and reached a new goal.

My next goal related to being audible in public is to begin story telling and performance.  There are a lot of Muscogee (Creek) tales that I would like to share.  The story of Little Red Stick, a Mvskoke girl who ran away from the Removals to stay in her Homelands accompanied by Wolf and Spirit Bird continues to grow and unfold inside of me.  Her story will be a live performance with spoken word, music, art work and film projection.

Untamed, 2012

Vne Este Mvskoke – Private View

My exhibition has set sail with my Private View on the 6th of April!  It was very well attended and a few of my pieces have found a home with people.  I didn’t have the time to take many photos, but here I am with my series of six tafv/feather mono prints which have gone to a collector.

Series of six tafv/feather monoprints

These are some of my first artistic expressions of my Mvskoke heritage. Delicate and strong., these feathers have given me wings and taken me on a far backwards and far forwards journey.

tafv/feather mono prints series of six, 2008

Steve put together a lovely video which gives a flavor of the evening.

Speaking of flavors, I made some Private View snacks with Muscogee inspired ingredients.  Cornmeal biscuits and straws and homemade venison & beef jerky.

 

These gave people a nice taster of the sort of food I will be cooking for a talk and three course dinner in mid-May.  I’ll be posting the invitation to this event on Tuesday, so stay tuned. 🙂

Six Towns Held by River Spirit

Dear Readers,
The last time we were on the Road to Oklahoma together was  November.  I’d been struggling to make the gorgets come out right and had decided to focus on another part of the journey. I set about finding the probable town(s) that my Great Great Great Grandfather Pahos Harjo had lived in prior to Removal to Indian Territory.

I ordered a print copy of the Creek census of 1832/1833, which has come to be called the Parsons and Abbott Roll, from Mountain Press.  It is the most comprehensive pre-Removal document, as it was the result of a village-to-village trek on the part of the census-takers, and contains the names of all the heads of households arranged by Creek towns.

By a treaty of March 24, 1832, the Creek Indians ceded to the United States all of their land east of the Mississippi River. Heads of families were entitled to tracts of land, which, if possible, were to include their improvements. In 1833 Benjamin S. Parsons and Thomas J. Abbott prepared a census of Creek Indian heads of families, which gave their names and the number of males, females, and slaves in each family. The entries were arranged by town and numbered; these numbers were used for identification in later records.

A big issue here is that Creek men were not the ‘heads of the family’, the women were.  But this is part of yet another story of patriarchal values being thrust upon Indigenous people.

All of this information is online, but I get fuddled when switching between multiple tabs, and it’s difficult to search through long lists on a screen.  I had a go about four years ago, but it is so much easier to look through sheets of paper.  Information on the internet, great resource that it is, has an ephemeral quality.

My print copy has been transcribed and typed, but here is a glimpse of the original handwritten document.

creek census image

I went through the lists of all of the Upper and Lower Creek towns to identify my Great Great Great Grandfather’s name – Pahos (Pow Hose or Par Hose) Harjo.   Another problem is that the Mvskoke language was not a written language, so there were approximations made when recording people’s names and place names.

I identified about a dozen towns with something close to his name.  Six were in Upper Creek territory and about five were in Lower Creek territory.   The Upper Creeks, unlike the Lower Creeks, resisted colonization in every manner that they could and held as fast as they could to their traditional ways.  They supported traditional Muscogee leadership and culture, including the preservation of communal land for cultivation and hunting and opposed assimilation to the United States culture.   I have several good reasons for knowing that my ancestors are Upper Creeks.

First of all, I know that my ancestors settled first in Tuskegee Town soon after they arrived in Indian territory after they were Removed.  The emigrants tended to settle together and named the new towns in the West after the towns they left behind.   In our homelands, Taskigi was  located in the triangle formed by the convergence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers.  I found this information on the Dawes Roll (more on this another time).

Second, my Great Great Grandfather was named Tecumseh, after the great Shawnee leader who had encouraged the Upper Creeks to fight against the encroaching United States government into their territory.  In 1811, Tecumseh had begun a pan-Indian movement to throw the Americans out of Native American territories. This led to the Red Stick War in 1813 in which the Upper Creek Muscogee went to war against the Lower Creek Muscogee (who were allied with the white Americans).

Third, my Great Grandmother Malindy Phillips who  was born in Indian Territory in 1878 never learned to speak English, keeping fast to the old ways and retaining her Native language.

So I felt very confident when I identified six possible Upper Creek towns that my ancestors came from.  Still, sometimes I’m often afraid that it is all a mistake.  That I don’t have any connection to the Muscogee.  I think that this comes from the years of shame, secrecy, ambivalence and feeling ‘other and outcast’ about being ‘part-Indian’.  All of those feeling passed to me from my Dad, along with the fact of my Muscogee ancestry.

When I got the font, the font size, the color of ink and the paper just right, I printed off the six towns:  Clewalla,  Fish Pond, Hatchet Creek, Kialege, Oelarneby, Ottise.

Then I broke half in two.  The tears came.  It is true.  We were there and we had to leave it all behind.

I made an altar to hold all of this.

I placed the town names along with some shell squares onto a reproduction of a map from 1816 that the Mvskoke had taken to a treaty meeting.   I encircled them with the red thread of my River Spirit necklace.  I placed a black and a white feather, a paper clay mask and my Dad’s cremation disc on all four sides.  Then l lit a candle.

It hurts, I hurt.    I want to be mistaken so I don’t have to feel the loss.  Loss is too inadequate a word.  It is a tear, we have been torn.  Ripped open and ripped apart.  It hurts to rip it back open and it feels clean.  It feels quiet and still.  It can heal now.

It can heal now.

River Spirit holds the towns and the ancestors left behind and our journey.
River Spirit washes away the pain.
River Spirit cleanses the wound.

For my exhibition, I made a mixed media piece comprising all of these elements.

Six Towns Held by River Spirit, mixed media, 30 x 40cm

By the way, I did not use my River Spirit necklace in this piece.  We went for a walk in early February, along the river which flows just outside of Moretonhampstead.

I gathered several piece of river drifted wood and used one of them for Six Towns.

 

Locv – Earth Diver

Creation Story of the Muscogee (Creek) Indians

The first thing that happened,
Hesaketamese dreamed the world.

First World II, oil pastel

Hesaketamese drew a deep breath.
Hesaketamese exhaled
and breathed the world into being.
The world was nice enough and very round.

First World I, acrylic

Hesaketamese made Locv, the turtle.
She was first made and wise.


Locv could stand on the land.
She could go down into the water,
She could burrow into the earth with her strong legs,
She could disappear into her shell.

Locv – Earth Diver, acrylic, chalk and oil pastel

Hesaketamese made more animals and birds and insects.
But Hesaketamese was young and inexperienced.
There were too many creatures to fit upon the land.
Being first made, Locv helped the others
and let some of them ride on her back.
The animals and birds always had to find land
to stand upon.

They always had to move from place to place.
The water was very rude.
When the birds and creatures found a place to stand,
water came and they all had to go somewhere else.
The other thing was that the sky was
very misty and foggy and cloudy.
The sun shown above the haze
but the animals and birds and insects
couldn’t see clearly and bumped into one another
and kept getting lost

Locv helped the birds and animals and insects.
She carried some of them on her back.
Locv dove beneath the water.  She gathered mud
and swam back to the surface of the water.

Locv gave some mud to all of the birds
and animals and insects.
All of the creatures put their mud together
and made enough land
so that everybody had  place to stand.
All of the creatures knew where they belonged.

But it was still very foggy.
The animals and insects and the birds
could still not see.
The birds flew up above the fog and clouds.
They saw the sun and the clear blue sky.
The birds flew back down beneath the fog and clouds.
All of the birds flapped their wings.
They made a breeze which became a big wind.
The wind blew all of the fog and clouds away.
The wind dried the mud until it became the earth.

All of the birds and animals and insects
knew where they belonged.
Everyone found their place.
Bear, deer, turtle, bird, wind, rabbit.
Everyone knew their clan and their kinfolk.
The water knew where to flow and later on,
when the people came, they knew their clan.
They knew who they clinged to.

‘ēme aossetv emēkvnv’ (they came out from the earth) mushroom compost & pastel, 40 x 60 cm

All of the people built their villages
along the rivers that flowed through the land.

Six Towns Held by River Spirit, Needlefelt