Native Art with Cherokees

Nexus: Exchange and Share by Brenda Mallory, Cherokee Nation

I was lucky enough to attend two events recently that showcased local Native artists. I am particularly proud that among the artists in both shows were members of my Mt. Hood Cherokees group.

Members of the Portland art-loving community enjoy the inaugural show at the Center for Native Arts and Cultures. Notice the handmade kyak hanging from the ceiling.

Cherokees are traditionally associated with the Southeast United States (our homeland in what today is parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia) or Oklahoma in the center of the country (where we ended up after the Trail of Tears). It’s no surprise, however, that in truth Cherokees – as well as all other Native tribes – are scattered across the United States today. Like all Americans, we tend not to hold still.

So yes, we are local Natives in Oregon!

Pedro and others examine Native arts at the show
Sculpture at the show.

In April, Pedro and I attended the inaugural exhibition at the Center for Native Arts and Cultures in Portland called Where the Waters Come Together. The show was hosted by The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) and sought to explore the relationship of our waters from an indigenous perspective. Work from members of multiple tribes were there, including the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde, Inupiaq, Yupik, Hanis Coos, Coquille, Kanaka Maoli, Native Hawaiian, and of course, Cherokee.

The new space that will honor Native Arts in downtown Portland
We enjoyed several Hawaiian dances by young people and adults.

Opening night included a program, and we were treated to dances with drumming and singing by the Kaleinani O Ke Kukui halau (school) in Portland. I had no idea there were hula schools in Portland, nor any idea there were so many Native Hawaiians here, but I’m glad to have learned this.

Brenda Mallory, in the denim jacket, was among the artists honored that evening.
Brenda Mallory’s piece Common Connections, made of found glass.
Nexus: Exchange and Share, 2022, Cloth, felt, wax, nuts and bolts, dimensions variable. Brenda Mallory’s work is often made from found materials and explores connections. This one, she said, was created with thoughts of communications between trees in a forest, neural networks, and other natural network systems. This is my favourite piece at the show.
The curator of the show, to the left, talks with Erin. She, her husband Allen behind her, and Brenda Mallory in the pink lei, are all originally Oklahoma Cherokees.

The other show was a week later and Pedro was not able to attend with me. This was, once more, an inaugural event after the opening of an arts center. I went to the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, in Beaverton, Oregon (a suburb of Portland).

The opening show in the museum is Celilo – Never Silenced. Locals here are familiar with the painful story of the completion in 1957 of The Dalles Dam along the Columbia River. The dam flooded a Native community, as well as a sacred and renowned salmon fishing area at Celilo Falls. But what is possibly even more tragic is the loss of this gathering area for an annual market/trading place/ceremonial ground that was used by hundreds of Native tribes that came from hundreds of miles in all directions. It was a massive center of commerce, politics, and society where bonds were made and skills were taught and shared and wealth was created. The one-time Native center of power is today under water.

Though the falls is gone, people still wish to honor her legacy. To honor and memorialize what happened, the Reser dedicated its time and space to Native people to speak about it. There are works of art from multiple artists from multiple tribes. Among the works is photography from Mt. Hood Cherokees member Joe Cantrell.

The reason I was at the Reser at the end of April was for a different art project: an orchestra piece written for Celilo Falls. Joe invited me but in his dear, humble way, did not tell me I was a part of it. I am so glad I showed up with a camera for the panel of creators that told the story of how they came together to build the music.

The Artist Talk event April 30 at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts
The Artists Panel from left: Karen De Benedetti, Joe Cantrell, Nancy Ives, and Ed Edmo.

Nancy Ives wrote the orchestra piece and worked closely with Ed Edmo to tell his story. Ed’s childhood home was one of those flooded by the dam. Also in attendance via Zoom was conductor Yaki Bergman. This talented group of people talked about each step of the collaborative process, in which one person connected to another, who connected to another, and each one contributed in a magical way to provide exactly what was needed for the next step.

Nancy had the inspiration to create music, and asked her friend Joe for help. Joe introduced her to Ed Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock tribes) who was interested in working on the project. At the same time, I had just introduced Joe to my Yakama salmon fishermen friends, and the matriarch Martha. He told Martha about the project, and she insisted that if Nancy was going to write music for Celilo Falls, she must come to the river. Martha took Nancy to the Klickitat where they fish, which is a living waterfall, and had Nancy lie on the ground and put her face on the rocks to feel the pounding river and hear the falls through the stone. Nancy said that Martha had a huge impact on her work and provided exactly the push she needed at the time she needed it. I realized, that without my GoFundMe campaign in 2020, I would have never met Martha, and Nancy and Martha would never have met. I was a little awed at that thought.

My friend Joe talked about his contribution to the project

When Joe spoke, he said his dear friend Crystal Trulove had introduced him to a group of Native salmon fishermen living in Lyle, Washington. He said, “She is standing at the back there right now, taking photos.” And everyone in the place turned to look at me.

A serendipitous surprise was that five minutes later, our friend Martha arrived! All the way from Lyle Point on the river, hours away from the art center. Martha looked a little unsure, having arrived after the program had already started, and I went right over to her to show her a place to sit. Her eyes flashed with delight when she saw me and reached out for a big hug. It made me feel so good.

Karen pointed out the specific talents of each: the musical knowledge of Nancy and Yaki, the visual and big picture knowledge of Joe, and the poetry and storytelling knowledge from Ed. An important Cherokee concept is that of gadugi, which means coming together to work for the common good. I couldn’t help but notice all these people from different walks of life were demonstrating gadugi.

Nancy played her cello and sang for us, an interpretation of one of Ed’s poems.
Ed told us the story of Coyote, who dug the Columbia River and made the salmon swim upstream, so that he could take care of his people.

The piece will be performed by the Portland Chamber Orchestra on June 4, 5, and 11 with conductor Yaakov Bergman. Please click the hyperlink to see more about the performance and see videos about Celilo Falls.

21 thoughts on “Native Art with Cherokees

      1. Ha!! No! It’s not warm enough. But when it rains 9 months out of the year, a lot of us just go camping in the rain. We did get lucky and the second day was unusually sunny, but still cool. If I could have my choice, I would choose a place with all the delicious greens of Oregon, but no humidity, and temperatures consistently above 70 degrees and often in the 90s. ha ha ha

      2. But then you might not have such fabulous nature to go camp in. I spent a lot of time in Maneuvers when I was in the Army, and a lot of them in Brittany, and in winter. Rains all the time… And believe me our Govt issue tents were not very good… LOL

      3. I can imagine the weather conditions you endured! People often compare our weather to that, and when my kid and I visited Ireland for the first time in March 2019, it rained every day and was between 1 and 8 degrees C and people kept asking us, “Isn’t the weather just awful for you tourists?” and we just shrugged and said, “Pretty much exactly like home.” ha ha! Thanks for your service and sorry about the poor quality tents. I joined the Air Force instead, and our facilities were always pretty nice, even on maneuvers. Something I like to rub in for any of my friends from other branches. 🙂

      4. Haha! We spent one easter in Ireland once. Never again. Even in summer I might have my doubts…
        Thanks for your service too. The Air Force anywhere always have the best facilities. My father was drafted in the Army for WWII. Terrible. Then came a dapper Air Force captain to recruit. my father signed immediately. Much better uniforms.
        Take care.

  1. It’s really encouraging to see Native American cultures celebrated like this, as opposed to being a mere section at a museum or a chapter in history books. That makes me wonder if there are Native languages classes these days. If that is the case, I imagine one day when the US will incorporate these languages into its national identity just like how Maori is to New Zealand’s today.

    1. Bama, that is an exciting thought! It would be wonderful to have a Native language included as a national American language. I can’t speak for other tribes, but the Cherokees have a vigorous language program, with a Cherokee immersion elementary school as well as an immersion adult school (all subjects are taught in Cherokee). Just recently I traveled through Navajo country, and when I stopped for gas and other things, Navajo was spoken all around me. I did not know that the Maori native language was an official part of New Zealand culture, and now I want to research that. As you can guess, I am happy when any indigenous culture is celebrated.

    1. ❤ It was, Derrick. Joe had been hinting at it for months, but he's so humble and understated (and I'm so practical-minded), I simply had not put it together before this. I will try to attend the performance in June. She played a little bit for us on her cello, and I swear I could hear the water in the music. It was surprising and wonderful.

  2. I think your favorite piece, about the trees, is my favorite too. I love the scale of the work, really stunning! Thanks for sharing. I may have to revisit the post a few times to really absorb all the art. WowZers!

    1. OH Bonnie, I’m glad you liked it so much. I forgot to take pictures at the Reser, too. There is a large gallery filled with art, and I didn’t take a single photo. *sigh* Yes, the part about the trees was especially compelling, as I have only recently heard about this – how a grove somehow communicates among the trees – and I’m still a little bewildered by the idea. Brenda Mallory’s work is always so good.

  3. I love it, Crystal, the coming together, the beauty of connections, your role, and how Brenda Mallory’s work pulls it together. –Curt

    1. Thank you, Curt. The topic of the Artists Talk series, was all about coming together, collaborating, the magic that happens when people with different talents and perspectives work on a common goal together. It was truly amazing. After this show I realized I want some of Brenda’s work. I recall some of her pieces from a recent show that really struck me and I’m going to ask her if anything is still available for purchase. I have Joe’s already. 🙂

      1. Are you familiar with Rick Bartow’s art Crystal. He grew up with my cousins family in Newport. My fathers brother, Voight, and his wife, Mable, raised him. He thought of my cousin Howard as his brother. Rick has passed on now. I would have met his as a kid but, sadly, never as an adult.

      2. I had not heard of Bartow, but looked him up. I see that he was Wiyot, and I recall that’s a tribe from northest northern California, so it makes sense that they would be in your area there in southern Oregon.

  4. I too hope you had a good Mother’s day. What a wonderful story on so many levels. It’s time we turned things around. You are doing good work here, Crystal. That interconnection is vital and real. I love the art on the web of roots and how they talk to each other. Learned about that not so long ago and know it’s true. I like that word; gadugi, even if I don’t know how to say it. All of working for the greater good. Gosh, I miss you so much. Giant squishy hugs. m

    1. Our group really started using the word gadugi (pronounced like it looks, with hard g’s, gah-doo-ghee) after seeing this movie: Cherokee Word For Water. It’s about our chief Wilma Mankiller and her husband Charlie Soap. The two of them made the movie together, but sadly Wilma died in 2010 before the movie came out. Charlie came to Portland to attend the showing with us. It’s about building a water system in Oklahoma, using just volunteers, and the way they get Cherokees to help is to remind them about gadugi. It’s a moving story.

      Squishy hugs back atcha. I still can’t believe you’re so far away. I miss you more because of the distance, which doesn’t make any sense, but there it is. Love you.

  5. This is so inspiring, all of it. Gadugi, I love the word. And you helped it come along. I love the art too, especially Common Connections. They may appear common, but they are always nothing but. Thank you!

    1. Mmm, I think Brenda would appreciate what you said about that. Connections are anything but common. I like the word too. I’ve only picked up a few Cherokee words – I don’t study very hard on it – and gadugi is one I can use with a little confidence.

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