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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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.

artfelt001

This is what I made.

artfelt002

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!