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.


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.”


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


Art Felt

Today, I drew with wool.  Yuli Somme is a felt maker based on Dartmoor.  She has made a new kit for artists who would like to ‘draw’ with felt and wool.  Myself and three other women gathered at Yuli’s studio in Moretonhampstead to trial the kit and give feedback.


This is what I made.


Nightwatcher, wool, 16 x 21 cm.

October Tree, wool, 21 x 30 cm

October Tree, wool, 21 x 30 cm

October Tree, detail

October Tree, detail

I really enjoyed the process and already have some ideas for a couple of larger pieces I’d like to make.  The kits are a very good introduction to drawing with wool and have everything you need to go on and make whatever your imagination comes up with.  (We had a big discussion about not ending sentences with a prepositions, but the last clause is an infinitive structure, so ‘What the hey!’  Plus it’s my blog, so I can do what I want . . . . to.)

You will be able to purchase Yuli Somme’s Art Felt kits from her website Bellacouche and at a few Dartmoor venues soon!

Choosing to witness

“My ancestry and the history of colonization in North America,
place me as a witness to the untold stories of this continent.
I can either take up that role of witness or ignore it.
I choose to witness . . . . “

The first room that people enter when they come to my Open Studio is filled with my artwork inspired by the Muscogee (Creek), the tribe that I belong to.  The work honours my people, our traditions and tells many stories.  Most of the work is done by hand.


I begin with the first piece I made “Winter Trees Wept” which is about The Removal in the 1830’s of the Muscogee and four other tribes, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Seminole from the Southeastern United States to Indian Territory, 1500 miles to the West.  This was the most difficult piece for me as it contains the unbearable grief suffered by my people and by the land.

Winter Trees Wept

Winter Trees Wept

“‘Winter Trees Wept’ was the knife-edge that opened up the way into the richness of my Muscogee heritage.  I began drawing in October 2012 and real and imagined worlds have been flooding onto blank paper; marks made and stories told in charcoal, mushroom compost, paint and pastels.


I have been taking up wire, clay, wool, twigs, bark,  fabric, bird wings and claws and shaping some of the inhabitants of the Muscogee world.


Chufi (trickster rabbit), poyvfekcv fuswv (spirit bird), perro (boat), hvcce (river), enliketv poyvfekcv (soul shelter) and Birdman, a supernatural deity who resided in the Upperworld with the spirits of the Sun, Moon and Stars.



Birdman – twigs, thread, blackbird wings, tail & claws. 50 x 19 cm


Everywhere, there are maps.  I have printed off a map showing the location of the five tribes and the Removal routes to the West.  This helps me to explain so much.


 This map shows the Upper Creek Nation with our villages and towns along the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers.

Muscogee Red Stick

ecatecvlke enfvyvtetv pome enliketv, red stick leads us home – twig, oil pastel, watercolour pencil, acrylic paint 30 x 30 cm

This work feels so important and deeply healing to me and my ancestors.  It continues to be a privilege to share it with visitors to my studio and to my blog.

The quote which begins this post was recycled from this interview of Cree/Metis poet Marilyn Dumont



Courage to create

To celebrate Dia de los Muertos and to give an opportunity for all of us to honour a person who has given us the courage to create, I am giving away an ‘El Corazon’ Magical Card Case’ on my Inspiraculum Facebook page.

The etymology of the word “courage” is derived from the Latin word “cor” which means “heart.” To have courage gives one the ability to do things which one finds frightening.

“Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.”
— Mark Twain

Your person could be a teacher, parent or friend you have known, or an artist, living or not, whose work or life story has encouraged you.

I have many encouragers, but today, if I close my eyes and move into my heartspace, it is Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo was an incredibly amazing woman. Her life was filled with physical as well as emotional pain. She put her emotions into her painting, and as it were, she wore her heart on her canvas. Her work is a rare blend of true emotion, heartbreak, love, and life, as well as death. Most of her paintings were self-portraits. She said, “I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other considerations.” Her paintings are very open and honest. They reflect her emotions, the events in her life, changes in her feelings – whether good or bad. She recorded her life in paint. Her imagery and style were very original, dramatic, and courageous.

Her husband, the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, said: “Frida is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings. The only woman who has expressed in her work an art of the feelings, functions, and creative power of woman.”

A painting of hers which I find particularly powerful is ‘Las dos Fridas’.


Las dos Fridas, 1939

This double self-portrait shows the identity conflict between the two sides of her heritage, the European-influence and the Mexican-influence.  Holding her own hand, she is her only companion.

This is the Magical Card Case that I am giving away via my Facebook Inspiraculum page, inspired by the folk art of Mexico.

Mexican loteria card printed onto cotton with a silver milagro

Mexican loteria card printed onto cotton with a silver milagro

The card rises to the top when the silver milagro is pulled.  Magic!  A little compartment at the back is handy for a credit card, driving license, Oyster card, etc.

If you would like to take part, simply ‘Like’ my Facebook page and write the name of a person, dead or alive, known or unknown to you, in the comment box beneath the photo on my FB page.  I will announce the winner on my Facebook page on Sunday 3rd November.

Thank you for being here.  Your presence encourages me to share my artwork, my voice and my view on the worlds around me and within me.

Swallows lamp

Some more new work in my Illuminations collection are my rice paper lamps.  I’ve collaged a couple of them with posterized photographs printed onto rice paper and laminated onto the lamp.

Southbank Shawos Lamp - 22 x 116 cm

Suncast Shadows Lamp – 22 x 116 cm

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The Dark Heart of Summer Lamp – 22 x 116 cm

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The Dark Heart of Summer reflected in a mirror

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In the run up to Devon Open Studios, I took over our salon to work on my lamps.

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For my Swallows Lamp, I went back to my art quilt roots.  I machine appliqued and machine embroidered swallows, summer flowers and the sun onto a background of cotton organdie that I had painted light sky blue.

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After I had fused my textile designs onto the fabric, I got up very early one morning to stitch them into place, after a breakfast of tea and toast.  From my rooftop window, I could see the martens, swifts and swallows diving and skimming across the late summer sky as I worked.

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I used free motion machine embroidery to outline and embellish the shapes.  I also painted some background foliage behind the flowers.

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After I finished stitching, I fashioned the fabric into a sheath which fits neatly onto the lamp.

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Swallows Lamp, 22 x 116 cm

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I love how the light from within highlights the stitching.

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With all of my Illuminations, the light coming through the translucent fabric gives the piece a different quality.  They can be enjoyed as a three dimensional sculpture during the daytime.

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At night time, they inhabit the space in another way.

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