Oral history interview with Tonia Weavel

OOHRP, Oklahoma State University
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Little Thunder: My name is Julie Pearson-Little Thunder. Today is Monday, October 20, [2014] and I'm interviewing Tonia Weavel as part of the Oklahoma Native Artists Project sponsored by the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University. Tonia, you're a Cherokee National Treasure. You specialize in Cherokee tear dresses and other nineteenth-century clothing interpretations. You also work at the Cherokee Heritage Center as the Director of Education, and that's where we're interviewing today before you report for work. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Weavel: My pleasure.

Little Thunder: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Weavel: I was born in Perryton, Texas. I'm a Texan by birth, in the Panhandle. I was raised in Hardesty, which was a small farming community in the center of Texas County, Oklahoma, near Guymon. My dad was a transplant from Stilwell, so that's where I grew up. I went to school there twelve years, went to college at 1:00Panhandle State University for a couple of years, but we always vacationed in Stilwell. As a matter of fact, I didn't even know there was other vacation destinations until I got older because every summer we came to Stilwell. That's where I was not necessarily introduced to the culture, but that's where the culture was more prevalent.

My granny had eleven children, so I had lots of cousins. When my dad came home, he was the oldest boy. When he came home, everybody came to Stilwell to the home place to see him because he was one of only two that moved away, sort of. That was my upbringing. I was raised in a small farm community where domestic arts and sewing and cooking were well-placed things for women to do. I took home ec 2:00in high school. They don't teach it anymore, but that's where I learned to sew. My mother did embroidery and handwork, and my grandmother did some sewing. It didn't fill their day, but it was done as needed. That's a little bit about my background.

Little Thunder: What did your father do for a living?

Weavel: It's actually quite interesting. My dad, like so many other men of his generation--he was born in 1920. He lived through the Depression, and he went to the Second World War. When he got out of the war, they played baseball. He and his brothers were big baseball players. In the Panhandle, natural gas was a big industry, and natural gas companies sponsored baseball teams. They recruited players by giving them a job, and my dad was one of the ones who--he was a pitcher. He was a big, tall, strong, Cherokee man. They gave him a job if he'd 3:00come and pitch on their baseball team, so he went. That's what he did.

He met my mom, who was born and raised in Hardesty, and they married. He lived out there his entire life, and he worked for the natural gas company for thirty-five years. I feel like I'm a real hybrid because my grandmother on my mother's side literally went to the Panhandle in a covered wagon; my dad's family walked the Trail of Tears; so I was Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory. I feel like I was a child of the infamous marriage of the two Territories, but I have a good cross-section of all of Oklahoma, and I'm real proud to be from Oklahoma.

Little Thunder: Right. That's a great story. Thanks for sharing that. Brothers and sisters?

Weavel: I have a brother and sister. Both are deceased. We were quite--there was 4:00a big age difference in us. My sister was sixteen years older; my brother was eight years older. My mother had three children spaced out for quite some time.

Little Thunder: What about the role of Cherokee language growing up?

Weavel: My dad was a Cherokee speaker. Cherokee was his first language. They lived in--he was raised in Fairfield Community at Stilwell. The first five children of my grandmothers were all Cherokee speakers. Their grandparents lived with them who spoke only Cherokee, and my grandparents were bilingual. My dad grew up speaking Cherokee. They went to school at Marietta. They had such a difficult time at school that my grandmother took the remaining six children and 5:00integrated English to them right away, so my dad had lost a lot of the language. I think he could understand when he was around people. I would beg him to tell me, "Food's on the table." I don't know if he couldn't remember or if it just wasn't important to him, but in his generation, the language wasn't important. I am the first generation not to have Cherokee as a first language.

Little Thunder: You sort of explained that your grandmother, I believe it was, did handiwork and your mother, too, so you were around it in that way. Do you have any early memories of sewing before you got to home ec class?

Weavel: My mother would buy me embroidery kits. They were these great stamped pieces, and we had dishtowels that were embroidered, and pillowcases. My 6:00grandmother actually did hairpin crocheting, so she would crochet these gorgeous pillowcases with big lacey edges that were for her guest bedroom. No one was allowed to be in that room or certainly not to climb on the bed. We had a few things like that, but my mother taught me to embroider French knots and chain stitches and things like that. I really loved it. I really enjoyed doing that needlework. That was actually my first instance. The first time I learned to iron, my grandmother ironed her sheets, and so I ironed pillowcases. That was the first thing that they taught me to iron. I ironed handkerchiefs, when women would carry hankies in their purses. That was just a domestic trait that all the 7:00girls in my class, I mean, that's how we all learned to do those kinds of things. We learned them at home. We didn't learn them at school first. We were doing them at home before we ever got to home ec class.

Little Thunder: Right. You explained that you went to school there mostly, but I notice after high school--can you tell us where you went to school?

Weavel: I went to Panhandle State University for two years, which was a local community--well, it wasn't a community college. It was a four-year state college. Then I transferred my junior year to Stillwater, and I went to Oklahoma State University. I finished my degree in education, Secondary Education. Speech and English were my two areas of concentration, and I love theatre. I was a 8:00dancer. I took dancing lessons as a child in Guymon, so I was a tap dancer and a ballet dancer. I enjoyed that very much. In 1976 I was in the Trail of Tears drama as a dancer. That was between my junior and senior year in high school. That really introduced me to Tahlequah, Cherokee County, Cherokee people as such. I loved it.

I was sort of a Broadway baby, kind of. I liked to perform, so that's what I studied in college. Then I got my teaching degree. I always, and still do, have a love of the theater and have enjoyed that very much. The Trail of Tears drama, I joined during its heyday when the crowd would be full, and the cast was eighty 9:00strong, and I was a dancer. Then I danced again in 1978, and that summer I was also a tour guide at the Tsa-La-Gi Village. That's when tours would go through every twenty minutes, and there was an incredible crowd. It really was in the heyday of the Cherokee Heritage Center, what we know now, Tsa-La-Gi Village and such. That was a strong foundation for me. I finished my degree at Oklahoma State University and am a proud OSU alum.

Little Thunder: And of course in the drama, both, and at the Village, you're around a lot of nineteenth-century clothing.

Weavel: I was. I didn't take note of it. I just knew what they had on and what they wore, and it was Indian. I have to just do a quick explanation that in my research since, I realize that it has been, the 1940s, '50s, and '60s was a real 10:00strong pan-Indianism time for clothing. My cousin, who is very identifiable, competed--maybe she didn't compete, but she would perform the Lord's Prayer in sign language, as I think every girl, every Cherokee girl, in that time period knew. She wore a fake fringe dress, a headband around her head, and a single feather behind her head. That was very acceptable. It's really frowned upon today because now we know better or we know more, but at that time that was a real strong image for people.

There are pictures of W. W. Keeler with headdress on, and that identifying 11:00Indian look was acceptable and admired in that time period. When the Village started, those clothes were similar. Oddly enough, Betty Smith, who is also a National Treasure and a founding member of the Village, she raised three generations of children in the Village, and she worked here for a long time. She's a great friend to me. I designed the costumes for our new Village, Diligwa [1710 Cherokee Village], which opened in 2012, and I was really worried about the image that would be relayed from what those women would wear. I visited with Betty, and she said, "That's something we have in common because I designed the first costumes for the people in the Village." That made me feel really good because I knew the struggle that I had in researching authentic clothing of the 12:00time period because I knew that--.

Well, here at the Heritage Center where I work, we've been open for fifty years, and we still have visitors every day, which is amazing to me. People are still fascinated by the culture. They're charmed by Cherokee people. It's a wonderful place to be. I knew that the representation, that the visual image would last much longer than what they heard or what they learned about Cherokees. It was very important to me to make sure that it was as authentic as I could make it and still be modest in our timeframe because, as we know, women were topless, so we couldn't do that. That was a strong challenge for me. When the early Village was here, there was a different feel about how to represent Indian people at 13:00that time.

Little Thunder: Thanks for putting that in context. Then you went ahead and got a master's degree at NSU [Northeastern State University]. Am I right about that?

Weavel: Yes. Wathene Young, (many of your viewers may recognize her name) she had the American Indian Resource Center, and they were offering master's degree programs for candidates. It was offered, and it was an opportunity that was hard to pass up. I got an education degree in counseling. I taught school in Hominy, which is another culture of beautiful people. I taught school there for just two and a half years and ran the Indian Education Program, and realized that school teaching was not my forte, which was very depressing because I'd spent a lot of 14:00time going to school to do that and then realized that that wasn't my thing. I moved back to Tahlequah, and I got a job at Cherokee Nation when Cherokee Nation was still young and flourishing, and have been involved in Indian education on many levels all throughout my professional career.

Little Thunder: When did you first, then, start making Cherokee tear dresses or clothing?

Weavel: When I was twenty-four, I ran for Miss Cherokee. I did not win. Regina Christie won that year. I had to have a tear dress, and Ruth England from Stilwell, close to Fairfield, England Hollow, which is just on the backside of Fairfield, my home community, made me a tear dress. I thought it was wonderful because I could turn cartwheels in it. The way it's made, the way it's built, 15:00you could play basketball in it. That was my first exposure to tear dress. All this time, I had begun to sew for myself and my nieces, dabbled with quilting, and still was doing needlework, and cross-stitch, and crafts of all kinds. A friend of mine, Eleanor Raper, (that's her maiden name; I don't know her married name) Eleanor asked me to make her daughter, Callie, a tear dress. She was about five years old. I said, "I've never made one, but I bet I could."

I took the dress that Ruth had made for me; I turned it wrong side out; I examined it. I looked at how she had done it, and I tried to copy it, which I did on a fair level. That was the first tear dress I made. About three years ago, she ran for Miss Cherokee as a twenty-three-year-old, and she asked me to 16:00make her another dress. I felt like I had come full circle. As a child and as an adult I had sewn for her. I started making dresses, and I made them not very often, just for a few family friends. Then I met Wendell Cochran, who changed my whole tear-dress life. He is the master of tear dress. He is an extraordinary tailor. He's very good. He has a keen eye for color, design, style. We were connected through the Cherokee Youth Choir, which started ten or twelve years ago.

They had fifty choir members, and Wendell was farming out dresses to all these women to make. He tested me, which is Wendell's way, and he had me sew for him for someone else. He saw the quality of my work, quickly criticized all the 17:00wrongs, which I learned from and was grateful for, and studied with him and have worked with him for the past ten or twelve years in a really delightful collaboration, and learned so much from him because Wendell is the one who designed the tear dress, who has made it so that it is a custom fit for every woman, who has showed me tips and tricks and ways to measure, and to compensate for a full belly and a flat belly, and a tall, and a short. He's remarkable. I've learned so much from him. I credit him always to my tear dress knowledge.

Little Thunder: Yeah, that's interesting because often you think of it as being kind of a restrictive form that not every woman can wear.

Weavel: Yeah, every tear dress that I make is a custom dress. I don't go by 18:00size. I do ask your size if I'm going to sew for you, but it's all based on your measurements. There's a bodice and a skirt. If you've got a long torso, you make the bodice longer. If you have short legs, you make the skirt shorter. Some women will make a size ten dress, and some will make a size twelve and so forth, but I don't ever do that. I always have to have your measurements, and I make the dress just to fit you, no one else. It's custom work, and I'm proud to do that because it is a special dress and it's a special thing that most people will keep for a lifetime and maybe hand down to another generation.

Little Thunder: When did you first enter a dress in a competition?

Weavel: The Cherokee Heritage Center, I believe it was the third year. I think this is like the fifteenth or sixteenth year. The Cherokee Heritage Center 19:00sponsors the Homecoming art show, which is Cherokee citizens only. We accept work from Cherokee Nation, United Keetoowah Band, and the Eastern Band, but it was a Cherokee-only art show. I made a tear dress to enter in that competition. That was the first time I'd entered a competition. I didn't win, I didn't get a ribbon, but I was proud to enter a dress.

Little Thunder: What do you think, and, of course, your making the dresses is continuing to evolve, but what distinguishes your tear dresses from others?

Weavel: I don't know what distinguishes my dresses from others, but I was duly impressed when people said they recognized my work. There are few tear dress makers. Hopefully we'll have more, but there are very few women who actually do 20:00tear dresses. One of the things I did that received criticism and was well received, was I started to put the seven-pointed star. I started to appliqué the seven-pointed star on dresses. I think other people may have done it before I did, but I kind of was known to do the stars. Then I began to do other appliqué things like turtles, and hummingbirds, and different things like that. That sort of distinguished my work, but I don't know.

Little Thunder: I was going to say the appliqué, I think, was really--.

Weavel: Yeah, that might've been. A few years ago I started to do other things. I've done ribbon weaving for the contrast band in the tear dress, and I've also 21:00done cording with ancient pottery designs. That's a hand stitched--that's a time-involved effort to do the cording, but I really enjoy doing that because you can do so much with it. I've started to do a few other things, not to break too far from tradition but yet spice up and have some variety for our beautiful young Cherokee women who wear those dresses so beautifully.

Little Thunder: How about some of the other clothing that you make?

Weavel: I didn't make anything else. I didn't know that there were other things to be made until I began to research. I was aware of the hunting jacket, often referred to as a Sequoyah jacket, the one that he's so famously pictured in. I 22:00made one, and I entered it in the show. At the time--.

Little Thunder: Cherokee Homecoming?

Weavel: At the Cherokee Homecoming art show. Before the show opened, it was purchased, or it was claimed, maybe I should say. Howard Meredith, Dr. Howard Meredith, was the husband of our Board of Trustees President at the time. He had a keen interest in Cherokees. He immediately snatched it up and was very intrigued by it, which was flattering to me because I had such respect for him and his knowledge about Cherokee people. I began then to do hunting jackets. You know, our former chief, Chad Smith, is sort of renowned for wearing hunting jackets. That was his choice of dress. I never made Chad a jacket, but I have 23:00made others, and I made my children hunting jackets when they were four and five years old. I have two, now, teenage boys, but at the time I made them hunting jackets and turbans and dressed them.

That sort of began that era. Ribbon shirts are popular with Cherokee people, men, so every year my children got a new ribbon shirt for Cherokee Holiday. What's interesting about that is I was so careful I wanted to do it traditionally. Well, come to find out there's not a traditional ribbon shirt, in my estimation, for Cherokee men. When they were about four and five years old I thought, "I'm buying this drab olive green, trying to do traditional--." I said, "Let's go to Wal-Mart." We went to Wal-Mart to the fabric, and I said, "Pick out fabric." My youngest son picked dinosaurs, and my oldest son picked out a 24:00tie-dyed Scooby-Doo. I made their ribbon shirts, and I thought, "It has to reflect them. It has to be about them and who they are in 2000." For several years, they picked out their fabric for their annual ribbon shirt. My children didn't even own dress clothes. We wore ribbon shirts as our dress clothes for a long time. I've made ribbon shirts for several years, as well.

Little Thunder: Do you do any beadwork at all?

Weavel: Beadwork is, Cherokee beadwork is beautiful, and just in the past fifteen to twenty years have the masses learned and known about Cherokee beadwork, thanks to Martha Berry, my dear and good friend who I think singlehandedly revived Cherokee beadwork for us today. I've learned from her, 25:00and I have done some beadwork.

Little Thunder: Taken a couple of workshops?

Weavel: Yes. -- I have done some Cherokee beadwork, and I really enjoy it. It's very time consuming, but it's so rewarding. I have made a couple of pieces for friends, and I really enjoy it. If I ever get caught up on sewing, I'll do beadwork. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: I thought I saw a shirt that had a bit of beadwork on it, (I could be wrong) buckskin shirt. I was looking at a whole page of photos. It might not have been yours.

Weavel: I don't remember. No, I don't think so.

Little Thunder: What's an award or honor that you've won for your clothing that you're especially proud of?

Weavel: The highest honor that I've--let me start again. The best award that I ever received was Best of Show in about 2009, I think, for the Homecoming art show. I was very ambitious and made a buckskin coat in the Cherokee fashion of an example I had seen. It was a double-caped coat with hand-embroidered designs. 26:00It was a labor of love, and it was a challenge to myself. I think that's the best award that I've won. I've won numerous times in our art shows, and I don't utilize art shows. I'm not an artist that makes a living doing artwork. I have a full-time job and a full-time family, and I'm a single mother. Much of my time is devoted to my children and their school activities. I don't get to devote time to art like a lot of people do, so art shows are a passing fancy for me. I don't have to sell and have art shows to live. I've won several ribbons at the art shows that the Heritage Center sponsors and that the Cherokee Nation 27:00sponsors during the Holiday.

Little Thunder: What's been one of the most surprising people that an item of clothing went to?

Weavel: One of my most treasured buyers, I suppose, was the Children's Museum in Indianapolis. They bought a tear dress, a unique tear dress that I had made using what now I call stacked stars. I was doing primary colors, red, blue, yellow, and green, and I had a star stacked up on a star, on a star, on a star. I'm a Stitch Witchery fan. I love Stitch Witchery. I use it, and I'm proud to say it. When I went to iron them, I tapped them, and they all turned like a kaleidoscope. They turned in a way that was just like, (Gasps) "That's how that's supposed to be." So that's how I made that dress, which was really a very 28:00unique and fun showpiece. The Children's Museum, I don't know who was here to buy it, but that's where it ended up. That was an unusual and fun event for me to have my dress go to.

Little Thunder: Do you have clothing in other museums, as well, that you know of?

Weavel: No, I don't think so.

Little Thunder: What's one of the best compliments you've gotten on a piece of clothing?

Weavel: The best compliment that I've gotten was on my work as a whole. I was nominated for National Treasure in 2012, and my good friend Wendell Cochran was the number-one nominator. Part of the requirement is to have a letter of recommendation, and he wrote a letter of recommendation to me that was glorious. 29:00My comment was, "If I never win, ever, I don't need to because Wendell's reaction and his adulation of me was enough to last a lifetime." I think that has been the highest compliment that I've received is from someone who knows the craft and is renowned as the Father of Tear Dresses to be complimentary to me was truly an honor.

Little Thunder: And you got to read the letter.

Weavel: Yes, I did get to read the letter.

Little Thunder: That's wonderful.

Weavel: It was very nice.

Little Thunder: How often have you been back to North Carolina?

Weavel: I have not--I have been to North Carolina twice in my life. I have 30:00cousins who live there but were born here. I don't have a very strong connection to the Homeland, to people in the Homeland. I have met a couple of ladies who sew. They actually taught me how to make the 1700 cloth and linen clothing, and I'm real grateful for that. When we see each other we have a great time visiting, but we're not in touch very often. Don't have much of a connection to North Carolina.

Little Thunder: Right. I know that you and Lisa Rutherford are friends, and I know that you two worked together on trying to reproduce a feather cape.

Weavel: Yes. (Laughs)

Little Thunder: I wonder if you could tell us a bit about that.

Weavel: Lisa and I, Lisa Rutherford and I, have collaborated on several things. When the 1700s clothing style became relatively popular, we were imitating and 31:00making things together, discussing, and talking. We decided we'd make a feather cape. It was in January, and the Heritage Center that year was closed in January, although the staff still came to work. It was a perfect time for us to get together and try to get our heads together about how to make a feather cape. We spent a week trying to figure out how to tie the net, how to tie on the feathers. We recruited David Fowler, who is the curator at the [George] Murrell Home, and he is an expert in Cherokee clothing, as well. We were just absolutely determined to figure it out, but we didn't. We gave up. Lisa continued to pursue it, and she's known today for her feather capes. She does a beautiful job, and she has since gone back to North Carolina to talk to ladies there to get 32:00techniques on netting and feather-tying. She continued to pursue it. I left it alone. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: You left it alone. I understand you two were also involved with a sort of last-minute fashion show in Tulsa. I wondered how much you do fashion shows and if you have any memories that are particularly--.

Weavel: I haven't done--I've done very few fashion shows. There have been a few attempts by local people. About three years ago, during Cherokee Holiday, there was a Cherokee fashion show. It actually included other tribes, as well, which was very interesting. I participated a little bit in that. We were also asked, Lisa Rutherford, Margaret Wheeler, and I were asked to do a fashion show for a Native travel conference that was held in Tulsa. I had a few items to show, as 33:00Lisa did, but Margaret Wheeler, who is a Chickasaw genius, she does beautiful, amazing work. She has such flair. I was so pleased to meet her and to enjoy her company. She was the fashion show. Lisa and I just had a few extra pieces. (Laughter)

Little Thunder: Have you given any workshops on tear dresses or other clothing?

Weavel: I have. At the Cherokee Heritage Center we do cultural classes throughout the year. They are from beadwork to pottery to hide tanning. We do a variety of things that are Cherokee in nature, and we teach the public. They're able to come and take a short lesson and try their hand at whatever craft it is. 34:00I have done several sewing workshops. I was naïve enough to think that you could teach tear dress in four hours, which is crazy. When I make a tear dress, it takes me from ten to twelve hours from start to finish. I thought I would just teach the techniques for different things because a marker of the tear dress is a gusset or a square piece that's set in the sleeve to give extension of the arm. That's tricky to stitch in. I thought, "I'll teach that, and I'll teach a few other little things that are markers of tear dresses," and it was terrible.

You have to have a basic knowledge of sewing before you can begin to make a tear dress. You have to know just a few things about sewing. I did a tear dress class 35:00about two years ago in which I got a little bit smarter about how to conduct the class. We did four Friday afternoons, spaced about two or three weeks apart. Each time we met, the ladies went home with homework. They were to bring their garment back with the homework done, and we'd move on to the next step. I vowed to meet with all the women until they each had a tear dress. It ended up being about eight weeks. It is a process to teach. It's difficult to teach, but once you know, you should hopefully know for the rest of your life. I've also done hunting jacket classes, ribbon shirts, 1700 Cherokee clothing classes, so I've done quite a few. I've taught quite a few classes.


Little Thunder: What about the younger generation's attitude towards sewing? What kinds of interest are you seeing?

Weavel: There is, in my opinion, a terrific decline in sewing. It's not a necessary skill to know today. You can live a full and complete life without ever knowing how to mend your shirt or put a button back on your pants. It is a dying breed, unfortunately. However, I think with the Cherokee Renaissance, as I like to call it, in the past twenty years, with our government picking up the pace and becoming more involved, and with Native people all over, not just Cherokee, there's a resurgence of what's ours. The art world, I think, has 37:00exploded with beautiful, wonderful people who are recreating art and then integrating new ideas in our world today. There's been a Cherokee Renaissance in my opinion.

With that comes clothing, so I think there are young people today that are interested. There's a young lady who's in her mid-twenties, and she's been texting me quite frequently because she made a hunting jacket. She wanted to know how do you do this, and how do you do that. I'm happy to help her because now there's somebody younger than me doing it. I think with that resurgence of the culture, I think will come clothing, and people will understand and do things that are authentic to our time periods, as well as make innovations to those things that make it uniquely us in the twenty-first century.

Little Thunder: Nicely put. What are some of the places now as you're 38:00sewing--obviously people will commission you sometimes to do things. Are there places where you have to do a quantity of clothing? Who are some of your clients?

Weavel: I usually do commission work, and I typically have work all the time. I'm a one-person show. I have no desire to have people help me because I'm very firm on the fact that it's my work and it's represented that I represent my work. I am a solo artist. However, I have been commissioned in a way to make the tear dresses for the Cherokee Youth Choir. I've done that for ten years or more. Sometimes there's a quantity. Sometimes they need ten or twelve dresses, which 39:00is a big order. This past summer I was fortunate to be asked by the Cherokee Marshal Service, our law enforcement officers, to make ribbon shirts for them to wear during Cherokee Holiday and other special events. I had an order of thirty-seven ribbon shirts, which I completed by myself, wee hours of the night, but I was proud to do it. I was happy to do it so that they were able to be represented by Cherokee clothing. Even if it is a ribbon shirt that perhaps is not specific Cherokee, but at least they're represented by that.

Little Thunder: So tell me a little bit about your duties here at the museum as Education Director?

Weavel: I'm fortunate to work at the Cherokee Heritage Center, and I really like 40:00my job. Our mission here is to preserve, promote, and teach Cherokee history and culture, and I feel like we do that every day. We have a lot of people who come, curious about Cherokee culture and often enamored by our culture. It's a wonderful place to work because we are very detail-oriented to the authenticity of Cherokee people. I work in the education department, and my main job is to educate schoolchildren and the public with the culture. We have structured classes that we host throughout the year, and we have particular days where we invite schoolchildren to come for special events where they can actually participate in and enjoy the culture. They can make pottery. They can weave baskets. They get to play all the games. They can hear storytellers. They can see and feel and touch our culture. It's a wonderful event for schoolchildren.


Little Thunder: What changes have you seen (you sort of implied them and talked a little bit about them) in terms of Cherokee Nation and their support for the arts and culture over the last decade, maybe?

Weavel: The Cherokee Nation has, I believe, really embraced Cherokee artists and the perpetuation of our culture through art. Our business side of our tribal affairs has instituted that every new structure built will include a certain percent dedicated to the purchase of and the fabrication of Cherokee art, which is really refreshing. To know that our art is being seen and our culture, even 42:00through those motifs and those images of Cherokee peoples from thousands of years ago, is refreshing to know that it's ours and that people who come, of course, are from all walks of life. They're exposed to our art, which is really what artists want.

The artists have been--it's been a big boost for artists, too, as well, to have a buyer and to have someone appreciate and purchase their art. It's been a win-win all the way around. I appreciate that the tribe has done that, but they also have done things that help local artists get situated. There are programs through Cherokee Nation that help artists be better business people, about how to manage their art and how to cultivate buyers and cultivate sales. That's been 43:00a real big help, too, and I appreciate that that small section of the population has been embraced by the Cherokee Nation.

Little Thunder: Let's talk a little bit about your process and techniques. Do you have a new fancy sewing machine or an older one? (Laughter)

Weavel: I have a story about my sewing machine. I had a little machine that I was real pleased with, and when I graduated from college my dad said, "Let me buy you a new sewing machine for a college graduation gift." I said, "No, no, no, no, this one's just fine," so I refused it. When my dad died in 1987, a portion of the life insurance money came to me. I had just a little bit, and I 44:00went to Tulsa. I went to a sewing machine store, and I said, "I want the best machine you have." They showed me a machine that was $2,300, and I bought it. So my dad really did buy me a sewing machine. That was 1987, so I've sewn on that machine ever since. I bought a quality machine.

I know it backwards and forwards. I don't even have to look. I have sewn hundreds of hours using that sewing machine. When it breaks down, I'm just in a panic, but there's a lady in Tahlequah who is a great sewing machine repairman. I still prefer that, even though I've bought a couple of other machines. It's the machine I go back to, and it's my very, very favorite. I sewed on it last night. I have a small studio space of sorts. Actually, it's just a sewing room 45:00in my house. When my children were young, I was unemployed, recently divorced, didn't have a job. Sewing funded our way.

My children would literally lay down at my feet and take naps as I sewed. My schedule--I'm a night owl, so I like to stay up late. My kids would go to bed at my feet as I sewed. That's a real special time for me because my sewing did get us through. When I was unemployed my sister said, "Why don't you open a sewing shop? Why don't you make this a business?" I just never could because it's my hobby. It's my therapy. It's my shut-the-world-out kind of time. If it was a 46:00business then I was afraid I would have to do it. Now, even though I sew often, I sew when I want, and I like that. I have to go to work from eight to five every day, but I get to sew when I want, and I appreciate that.

Little Thunder: And what you want.

Weavel: Yes.

Little Thunder: How about fabric? Do you buy all your fabric locally or online? Do you ever make trips to buy fabric?

Weavel: I love to shop for fabric, as many seamstresses do. When I finally gave myself permission to buy good fabric, then I started making better items. I was always cost-conscious in the beginning and always tried to find things that were cheaper than other things, but when I learned the quality of the cotton, the 47:00quality of the fabric made the garment, then I realized I upped my standard. That was a good revelation for me. I like to use the best because it makes the best garments. The things that I make typically are not things that are worn out and sold in a garage sale or cut up for a rag, so it's important that they last. I do shop locally. I do shop online. I love to shop online, and I do make fabric runs. I'm very particular. I make lists of what I need and the kinds of things I need. All of those things are important to me, and I have a pretty good stockpile at home of things that are necessary.

Little Thunder: Now, if someone's commissioning you to do a tear dress, for 48:00example, and they bring their own material, have you ever run into problems with that because it's not as good?

Weavel: No. I actually prefer people to buy their own fabric because their blue and my blue may not be the same blue. I know that they're going to get what they want and they're going to have the dress made as it is, so typically not. I'll encourage them to buy good fabric, but I'll make whatever they bring to me.

Little Thunder: You've experimented with some jackets that look quite contemporary, like more of what I think of when I think of Native-inspired fashion.

Weavel: Yes.

Little Thunder: Can you explain how you started getting interested in those?

Weavel: I am happy to make authentic Cherokee clothing, and I try very hard to make the clothing represent as close to authentic as what we know. At the same 49:00time, I think that we should have Cherokee-inspired clothing and modern-day things that are contemporary and are fun to wear, and yet still represent Cherokee-ness. I have made several pieces, and a lady in particular really liked them very much. She liked really bright and bold colors, and I was happy to do work for her. It just inspired me a little bit more to have other things done, to make other clothing, like other artists perhaps. I don't know. When I got clothing magazines, especially those western-wear types of things, I would cut 50:00out things that inspired me, to make a little book to refer back to and say, "Oh, that would be cool if it were a spiral design instead of the cow brand," or whatever. I just in the past seven or eight years have started doing things like that. I've found a little niche, a little market of people who appreciate and have purchased those things and have actually commissioned me to make other things for them. That has been a real joy, to step out of the box of the traditional clothing and to make things that are Cherokee-inspired.

Little Thunder: I imagine you take photographs of everything that you do as part of your documentation?

Weavel: How do I say it? I have a portfolio, but I don't have a complete 51:00portfolio because to me it's not about what I have done. It's about what I'm ready to do. I don't always have a complete portfolio, and my other artist friends sometimes are appalled by that. Sometimes I think, "Oh, maybe I should've taken a picture of that before I sent it." I kind of have a private one. I don't have a website. I don't have it online, but once it's done, for me, it's done. I'm not an artist in the sense that I have a book full of things for you to choose from. A portfolio doesn't hold a lot of weight with me.

Little Thunder: I understand. You sort of talked about your creative routine or that you liked, at one point, working at night. While you're working, do you set 52:00aside weekends, certain number of hours on the weekend? What is your creative routine?

Weavel: My creative routine is when I can. My good friend Martha Berry, who is a bead artist, works her beadwork like a job. She sits down at a certain time, she gets up at a certain time, takes a break, has lunch, goes back to her beadwork, and works for a certain number of hours. That schedule works beautifully for her. I am not nearly as structured. Because I have children, and because they are high school boys who are in athletics, I've drug many a thing to a wrestling match, or a baseball game, or a football game, and worked on it. When my children used to play roller hockey, I was making, I think, thirty pair of 53:00moccasins for the Village. I took my moccasin work and in between the hockey games would stitch up moccasins. I take it wherever I can. I am very conscientious of my time, and I enjoy setting aside time to do it. Even at home, I feel like I have to have the dishes done and the kids fed before I can truly enjoy my sewing time. I'm structured in that way, but I sew whenever and wherever I can.

Little Thunder: I didn't realize you made moccasins, too.

Weavel: From our cultural class series, we've had a variety of classes, and Mary Horsechief-Henderson makes moccasins and has taught several classes. I learned from her, and I was able to make moccasins. I was commissioned by the former 54:00director of the Cherokee Heritage Center when the new [Diligwa] 1710 [Cherokee] Village was constructed to make the clothing. I researched clothing, and then I was commissioned, not to only make the clothing but to research the correct clothing and then to make them. We were integrating the trade era where we were able to show metal and steel implements, as well as a change in the clothing style to include linen and cloths. Not only did I have to design those, I had to make them. I made several sets for the Village to start with. I made about thirty pair of moccasins. I think everyone had two pair. There's two styles of Cherokee moccasin. I don't think a lot people know. There's an ankle cut, and then there's a cut that wraps around the calf and is tied up on the leg. I made 55:00both of those styles. I hand-stitched the buckskin leggings and did some other things, so I was sort of baptism by fire to learn to sew with buckskin.

Little Thunder: And have you ever made clothing for the displays, as well?

Weavel: Yes, on occasion we've done some things that were specific to Cherokee time period. Then we've used--Cherokee style was integrated by 1830, 1840, and certainly by the time the Cherokees were living in Indian Territory or Oklahoma. Those costumes and that era of Cherokee clothing has been reproduced, as well.

Little Thunder: Looking back on your sewing part of your life so far, what do you think was kind of a fork-in-the-road moment for you where you just really--


Weavel: There were two forks in the road for me. The first fork began when I finally made a dress that I wasn't embarrassed to wear myself. I remember trying to be fast and hurry up and get it sewn. When I took my time, and when I fixed my mistakes along the way, and when I cut things on the grain so it hung straight, I remember thinking, "This looks pretty good." Then I wasn't embarrassed to wear my own clothing and was proud when people couldn't tell if it was homemade or it was store-bought. That was a big fork in the road, that I finally could sew well enough to not be embarrassed.

The second fork in the road I think would probably have been making that first tear dress for that baby. Whenever I did that, I realized that I could make tear 57:00dresses. To me, it was like making just a regular set of clothes, maybe a short set for someone, initially. I think what really turned my head was when I made the leather coat, the embroidered coat. I was talking to my good friend Martha Berry. I said, "You know there are only four known buckskin Cherokee coats in the world. Two of them are in Berlin, and two of them are in Minnesota. You know, there are only four." She looked at me lovingly and said, "And now there are five. You will always be associated with that coat because your DNA is all 58:00over it."

When she said that, it lifted me to an artist's status. Before, I was just a dressmaker. When she said that, I just felt like I stepped up on a platform as an artist. She really turned my head at the way I looked at how I made things, and I appreciated that. Even though now I still make things that you can throw in the washing machine and wash and hang up and wear again, it's a pleasure to perpetuate and to embrace Cherokee culture by making these items of clothing for our young people to wear and look so beautiful in.

Little Thunder: What has been one of the high points of your sewing career?

Weavel: I think the high point of my sewing career was when the Cherokee Nation recognized me as a National Treasure. That is a wonderful honor, and for your 59:00peers to embrace that and to nominate you and support you in that effort was truly a high point for me, even though that kind of honor is really just a plaque and I feel like I'm still a student and I feel like there's so much more to know and to learn. I've not reached the pinnacle of wisdom about Cherokee clothing, or sewing, or design, or technique, but I enjoy the journey getting there.

Little Thunder: What about a low point?

Weavel: I think when I am truly--people commission me to make their items. I'm a 60:00procrastinator, and sometimes I wait a little longer than I should to begin. Some of the low points are when I am just so overwhelmed by the volume of work that I don't want to do anything. Those periods are particularly frustrating, where then it has become a job for me and where I have promised by a certain date and the time is creeping up, that sometimes I get very frustrated with that. I think that's probably--just the frustration.

Little Thunder: Is there any project you're currently working on that you're especially excited about?

Weavel: Actually I'm quite excited. It's not a sewing item, but it is a beadwork 61:00item for a particular friend. He has helped me make the design and choose the colors, and it represents Cherokee ceremonial life. I have a particular thought about that. Much of the meaning in design and motif should just have meaning for that wearer and should have deep significant meaning that the public should not always be privy to. Not that it's secret, and not that it's sorcery or scary, but that it's private, and it's personal, and it's important. I'm working on a 62:00piece now that encompasses all of that. I'm especially proud of it, though no one may ever see it and it will never probably ever be on public display, although I have a feeling this person will wear it and utilize it, which is delightful. Those kinds of personal and private things that are represented in a clothing item is especially fun to do.

Little Thunder: We're getting ready to take a look at your work. Is there anything that we've forgotten to cover that you'd like to add?

Weavel: I just think that Cherokee clothing has a genre and a niche all its own, although our clothing represented the climate and that our neighboring tribes 63:00(Creek, Seminole to some degree, Choctaw, and Chickasaw) we have similar clothing styles. There are still a few things that are uniquely Cherokee and that we utilize as Cherokee, but I'm excited to see the future. I'm excited to see other people who integrate those authentic structures of clothing into modern-day fun items to wear. That's something to look forward to.

Little Thunder: Okay, we're going to pause just a minute. Would you like to tell us about your hunting jacket?

Weavel: The Cherokee hunting jacket, this particular piece was made for a child, my son, but it represents all the things in a hunting jacket: the lapel collar, the fringe, which Cherokees were known for their red fringe, and the patch 64:00pockets, and the turned-up cuffs. It was used as sort of a utilitarian jacket for the men, although today we've stylized it to be a fashionable piece of clothing.

Little Thunder: That's really nice. How about your woman's jacket there?

Weavel: This contemporary piece that I made, I wanted to represent Cherokee-ness in it. The spiral design (I call it the double spiral) is a curvilinear design which is very common in our beadwork patterns, our pottery, and many other motifs. It's represented by red and white: red for war and white for peace, and the balance therein.

Little Thunder: It's beautiful. Next, a woman's shirt, blouse, and skirt.


Weavel: The skirt and shirt represent the 1700 Cherokee women's clothing. What's curious to me about this style is that once wool became available to Cherokee women, they made their skirts from wool, but they made them in the same style that they wore their buckskin skirts in. They were both wraparound. They lapped over the front, making it easy to maneuver, run, sit, do whatever they needed to. It was a very utilitarian garment. The trade shirt represented here was of course borrowed from the European men who actually brought them as trade.

Little Thunder: And then your tear dress here.

Weavel: The tear dress is the official dress for our Miss Cherokee. There are several markers of the tear dress that make it a tear dress. One would be the 66:00standup ruffle. You see the standup ruffle on the bodice and the standup ruffle on the flounce of the skirt. The tear dress is also known to be authentic is to have the gusset or the set-in arm piece, which allows for full movement of the sleeve over the head. Those are the two markers that identify Cherokee tear dresses. The other things are that everything on the tear dress is either a rectangle or a square, and the fabric is literally ripped or torn because it's all in straight pieces. The only curve is the neckline of the dress.

This particular dress has seven-pointed star appliques, although diamonds were very common and are still used today. We love to decorate with ribbon, so our dresses today are beautiful and colorful, although the original tear dress was a 67:00utilitarian dress that was made for working in the fields. It buttons down the front for convenience and ease. It has the bottom ruffle, the flounce, which is a full skirt so you can run or sit or do whatever's necessary. The bodice is attached to the skirt for modesty so your shirttail never came out of your skirt. The original dress is three-quarter length sleeves and hem, so that you weren't getting them extra dirty. It's very much a working woman's dress.

Little Thunder: Beautiful. Well, thank you for your time today, Tonia.

Weavel: My pleasure.

------- End of interview -------