'A foot in both
Johnson smiles at a question from a reporter during an interview
at the Chickasaw Cultural Center.
MEERS, OK Meers' claim to fame aside from an "if-you-blinked-you-missed-it"
gold rush in 1901 is a mammoth hamburger made from the lean
beef of Texas Longhorns.
On the outskirts of this tiny unincorporated western Oklahoma
community lives Chickasaw citizen Elihu Johnson, his wife, April
and six young daughters. On a 30-acre patch of ground, Mr. Johnson
makes a living performing odd jobs and selling Native American art,
specifically wildlife pencil drawings, and elaborate bows, arrows,
fur quivers, knives
and deer-hide sheaths.
He stalks white-tailed deer and elk on 800 acres of unforgiving,
harsh mountain terrain. Panoramic sunsets blaze a sky along the
Wichita Mountains, a rocky, inhospitable escarpment divorced of
comforts, yet teeming with wildlife.
Mr. Johnson felled a 10-point buck deer with a muzzleloader
in October and his quest for elk began in December. Successful kills
assuage the family's primary need as winter grinds slowly southward.
Their life is a tad above subsistence thanks to his artistic lilt
of capturing a likeness of creatures and crafting traditional Chickasaw
For two years now, doors of opportunity have opened wide.
He earned the title of "Fellow" at the Southwest Association
of Indian Arts (SWAIA) one of America's top Native art shows
hosted annually in Santa Fe, NM With the title came a $5,000 grant
and the opportunity to showcase his talent to wealthy collectors
and aficionados of Native art.
He is Chickasaw and Kiowa, a man of few words, quiet and reserved.
All traits, he said, he inherited from his Chickasaw grandfather.
"I keep a foot in both worlds," Mr. Johnson said. "I have found
a place with the Chickasaw and the Kiowa, a place in the modern
world and in the primitive world."
Johnson greets a young admirer this past October while showing
his art at the Southeastern Art Show and Market in Tishomingo.
Mr. Johnson said the annual show, featured in conjunction
with the Chickasaw Nation Annual Meeting and Festival, was
a financial success for him and his family.
An appreciation of this man's ability to forge weapons into
works of art is to embrace the unconventional. Some of
his Chickasaw long bows have holes in them remnants of borers
such as beetles, termites, ants or even where a branch once swayed
in the breeze.
"I was told a bow with a hole in it, or a bow that isn't completely
straight, is structurally compromised," Mr. Johnson said. "I've
used all these bows and they performed wonderfully.
"As long as the two ends form a straight plane, the bow will
be true and strong.
For the first 30 years of his life, the artist identified as
Kiowa. The Kiowa were a nomadic tribe that roamed freely from Montana
into Colorado and Kansas, hunting bison along the vast prairies
of the High Plains. They acquired
horses in the 16th century and Kiowas are considered among the best
hunters and warriors atop a steed.
He registered as a Chickasaw citizen recalling his grandfather's
story about the tribe, how it was feared and respected by friend
and foe and how contact with Europeans occurred centuries before
settlers moved west, forcing
the Kiowa into Indian Territory.
"My heritage awakens emotions within me," Mr. Johnson said.
"When I touch that wood, I go back in time. I'm a hunter and a warrior.
I protect and provide for my family. If it wasn't for (Chickasaws),
we'd all be speaking Spanish
or French right now. That spirit lives through me when I make bows.
I am constantly thinking about my ancestors and what (a quality
bow) meant to them. It's spiritual and multifaceted. It connects
me to my past."
Typically, a Johnson bow commands hundreds of dollars, more
if the work was particularly tedious, difficult or ornate.
He struggles with "prices."
"If I didn't have to feed my family, I'd give them away," he
said. "I believe my clients and festival participants know they
are buying an item that is one-of-a-kind. No two are exactly alike.
They are priceless to me. I love all aspects
of it until it comes to affixing a price tag."
In November, the onslaught of winter was held at bay by El Nino,
but Mr. Johnson expects bitter cold in months ahead. He grew a gray-flecked
beard. The deer he harvested isn't enough.
"A deer isn't going to feed my family through winter," he said.
"I need an elk."
The deer he harvested yielded 75 to 100 pounds of venison.
"That will only feed my crew for a couple of months," he said.
"An elk will see us through to spring."
He has begun chopping wood to fuel a wood-burning stove and
fireplace in his crowded cobblestone domicile. While the family
enjoys electricity and running water, Mr. Johnson would be just
as comfortable in a small cabin with coal lanterns illuminating
He is not alone in begrudging these small comforts. Mr. Johnson
said the love of his life shares his affinity for the simple, hardy
"If it was up to my wife, we'd live in a tepee."