Cherokee artists bringing back authentic tribal art
By WILL CHAVEZ
CATOOSA, Okla. – Some Cherokee artists who took part in the Cherokee Art Market Oct. 9-10 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa said their artwork now is more distinctively Cherokee compared to 15 to 20 years ago.
Painter and Cherokee Nation National Treasure Sam Watts Scott said when she began her career it was rare to see Southeastern art, which is what much of Cherokee art is modeled after.
“It was all Southwest or Plains. I think now we are becoming who we are as a people. I see a lot more of the Southeast symbols and the motifs in different artists’ pieces,” she said.
However, as Cherokees return to creating work based on Southeastern themes, their art is sometimes mistaken for Mayan art or Aztec, Watts Scott said.
“Actually, it gives me a good chance to educate them on the Southeast,” she said. “That’s part of who we were as Cherokee people. That’s our roots. That’s our culture.”
Watts Scott admits she started creating Plains-themed artwork, but grew into her cultural identity as she learned more about her Cherokee heritage. That’s when she began painting scenes representing her ancestors.
“Sometimes when you are not raised in your culture, it takes a while to get back to who you are. It’s been kind of a long road,” she said. “I’ve had to explain my art for years and years, but I think it’s worth it because it helps the general public learn who we are as a people.”
Her husband David Scott, also a National Treasure, uses gourds to create booger masks and other art. He said there have been growing pains to bring back authentic Cherokee art. He said he can take his Southeastern-themed art out of state and people don’t recognize it. Even area Cherokees are not familiar with Southeastern art, he said.
He said he believes Cherokee art is becoming more authentic because the CN is working hard to preserve the culture.
Lisa Rutherford, Cherokee Nation Entertainment archival curator, is part of that effort. She said when the CN builds a new clinic or casino it assigns the facility a specific theme, usually associated with a period in Cherokee history.
“I think a lot of the artists have been studying more. Artists are doing research better in order to get the themes assigned to each site,” she said.
Rutherford procures art for casinos or any new CN construction project.
“My job, when we have new construction, is to go find art for the facility and make sure it’s accurate historically and culturally, and of course, we want to support our Cherokee Nation citizens (artists),” she said.
The idea for assigning a theme to new casino or clinic and producing art to match that theme is to educate visitors and “show people what is real Cherokee art and what is not,” Rutherford said.
Cherokee beadwork artist Martha Berry said she has seen a parallel between the rise in interest for authentic Cherokee beadwork with the rise of the Internet.
“People became more interested in their genealogy and their heritage, and as they began to study, they began to have access to information and materials they didn’t have before,” she said. “I know with me, when I started researching this (beadwork), it was the photographs of the artifacts in the history books that made me realize there was a difference in the beadwork I had been used to seeing and what was actually Cherokee beadwork.”
Berry said when she began her research, all Indian beadwork looked like Plains beadwork because of Hollywood images and the regalia seen at powwows. She said she learned Plains beadwork because she thought she was learning what her ancestors did.
“It was a long trip amassing information before I figured that isn’t Cherokee,” she said.
However, David Scott believes more Cherokee artists will continue to create authentic art.
“You see a lot more people doing this kind of art,” he said. “It’s probably going to take several more years before people really understand this is part of us. We just continue to pick at it, and one of these days they’ll understand this art.”
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