Okla. Thanks to the Cherokee Nation's metalsmithing class,
a nearly lost ancient art form is making a comeback. Southeastern
Native jewelry has a look largely unfamiliar to most people due to
the popularity of the Southwestern style of Native American jewelry
with its familiar turquoise and silver look.
The tribe's metalsmithing program
aims to acquaint the public with Southeastern jewelry while helping
its citizens become more economically self-sufficient.
The inaugural metalsmithing classes were
in session as of March 2 after starting in the winter. Each student
were required to create three pieces of jewelry by the end of a
six-week term, and those pieces were to be sold at CN retail outlets.
Students were expected to carry on with their newly learned trade
and keep the Cherokee metalsmithing tradition alive by perfecting
their craft and mentoring less experienced students.
The tribe's Artist Loan Fund Program
is available to assist class participants with business planning
and financing so they may purchase the materials and equipment they
need to become successful entrepreneurs.
Interest within the CN about the metalsmithing
program is high. There is already a standing waiting list for the
Toneh Chuleewah, the class instructor
and a second-generation Cherokee metalsmith, said the public is
beginning to show an interest in Southeastern Native jewelry, and
he hopes to help it grow in popularity. He said he looks forward
to teaching his students a skill that will help them become financially
independent while spreading awareness about Cherokee culture.
"Self-sufficiency is being built
here. We want to promote our own designs because we have our own
identity," Chuleewah said. "This could be a large source
of income in the Cherokee Nation."
The metalsmithing class is not all about
business. It also gives a perspective on Cherokee history and culture.
Chuleewah said Cherokee artisans have traditionally used materials
not often associated with today's commonly known Native American
jewelry. Copper, rather than silver, and whelk shells, opposed to
turquoise, were often incorporated into jewelry created by Cherokee
metalsmiths. The copper was mined in the Great Lakes region, and
the whelk shells came from animals found in the ocean.
Chuleewah said the fact that those materials
were widely used by Cherokee artisans is an indicator of how much
intertribal trading took place in pre-Columbian times.
Ronald Elk, a metalsmithing student, said
he has been taught a great deal about Cherokee culture in the class
and intends to carry on with the trade he is learning.
"I didn't know much about Cherokee
culture until I got into this class," said Elk. "I would
like to teach other students and keep the tradition going."