Oklahoma's Own: Cherokee Nation Preserves Art Of Metalsmithing

Wednesday, April 27th 2011, 3:44 pm
By: News On 6

Craig Day, News On 6

TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma -- Just off the square near where the historic Cherokee Capitol Building stands tall, there's an old WPA building where inside, a nearly lost ancient art form is being preserved.

A handful of students make up the Cherokee Nations' first metalsmithing program. One of them is Ray Walker.

"I'm trying to get the soder to flow around the base of it," Walker said.

Walker is making a decorative box out of copper, while learning a craft practiced for hundreds of years by the Cherokee people.

"Preserving it, that's what I like to see," he said.

But what tribal leaders saw over the past few decades troubled them. Few Cherokees were learning the skill.

"Because there wasn't a great market for it, a lot of our silversmiths' went to do other things," Chief Chad Smith said.

So this inaugural six week metalsmithing class started with the goal of keeping metalsmithing alive.

"It really has turned out very well," Chief Smith said.

Toneh Chuleewah is a second generation Cherokee silversmith and teaches the program.

"I would like to see these guys grow into famous artists eventually," he said. "To me, it's passing on knowledge to tribal members that is disappearing."

Their finished jewelry and works of art will mostly be copper, featuring ancient Cherokee designs, inspired by nature and tribal history.

"Taking the metal from just a basic form and doing a lot with it," Chuleewah said.

And doing a lot to make something beautiful and also something special to the Cherokee people and those who appreciate fine craftsmanship.

"We believe if we just nourished it a little bit, it would flourish and I believe that's what we're going to see," Chief Smith said.

"If you lost it, I guess you'd just be empty," Walker said.

It's hoped the students use their skills for a lifetime of creativity and retail success. The program is off to a great start. There is already a waiting list for the next session.