May 27, 2011

Profile of Margaret Roach Wheeler

Profile of Margaret Roach Wheeler: “Mahota” Chickasaw
By Richard Green

Clothing or Art?
Margaret Wheeler’s warm, welcoming smile greeted me as I entered the upstairs foyer of the beautifully restored McSwain Theatre in Ada. She is a small attractive woman with shoulder length silver hair, which beautifully complements her dark brown skin. Her face, and especially her eyes, are quite expressive when she talks.

I was there one day last summer for her help with an article I was working on. In James Adair’s book, History of American Indians, there is a passage about how the Indians used buffalo hair to make clothes and I wondered if this modern Chickasaw weaver could tell me how her ancestors did it.

Actually I didn’t get around to asking about that until later. Because arrayed around the large foyer were about 15 mannequins garbed in Margaret’s hand-woven fashions. On display were dresses, tops, coats, cloaks and even some men’s apparel. Some were gorgeous with rich but muted colors and some, accented with feathers and shells, were quite showy. I was struck by the obvious creativity that went into not only the clothing, but how each was exhibited. Taken in full, they were more like works of art than items of clothing.

I asked her to take me on a tour though I knew the opening of her exhibition would start in about an hour. As we walked and she talked and I gawked, she adjusted a garment with a stylish headdress.

I thought I was going to be interviewing a weaver, but as I tried to take it all in, I was thinking, this is weaving?

“Do you call yourself a weaver?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but also a textile artist,” she answered matter-of-factly, as though “textile artist” was a title as common as plumber. Later, she told me that as far as she knew, she was the only Native American weaving clothing. “There are many designers but they are using commercial cloth, not weaving the material on a loom. This is my niche in the Indian market.”

“But it’s very labor intensive,” she said, gesturing at an artfully woven cloak with shades of purple, and a design reminiscent of the motifs of the Mississippian Period (roughly 900 to 1600 A.D.). “One like this takes a couple of weeks of full days.”

As I continue looking at the exhibit in my provincial way, I’m thinking a few of these would look lovely on some women, but for the most part, I’m wondering, but not yet asking, who wears these clothes and where? To parties? And if one takes weeks of intensive work to complete, what must the price be? I notice no price tags, and figure it’s like they say: if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

I recall I’m there to ask about clothing made from buffalo hair. The exhibition seemed about as removed from a buffalo hair spun and woven product as a Ferrari does from a Model-T. She confirmed that none of the clothing on display was made from buffalo hair, but she told me that she had obtained some once. To clean it, she staked it out in a running stream, like Chickasaw women did in centuries past. When the current didn’t prove strong enough, she took the buffalo hair to a car wash and finished the job. Then, she told me how she thought the Chickasaws might have spun it before women had looms. When I had what I needed, I suggested we finish the tour.

Margaret said she found some pattern designs during her fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. But she said that most of the pre-removal fabrics she had examined and photographed in the Smithsonian’ s facility in Suitland, Maryland, were prehistoric, mainly from the Spiro Mounds (in eastern Oklahoma). So it is difficult, if not impossible, to connect any of those fabrics with individual historic tribes.

As she commented on the exhibits and answered my questions, Margaret’s experience as a teacher was evident. She had told me she had taught at the Joplin (MO) High School for 10 years before turning her weaving expertise into a full-time business in 1984.

Even though the only thing I know about fashion is that I don’t know anything about it, my objective changed during my visit. Instead of just getting this one bit of information about buffalo hair for part of an article, why not see if I could get to know better this artist with such obvious talent and creativity. So I asked if we could meet again. She agreed but said she was entering a busy season.

She explained she had been in Great Britain for two weeks, conducting weaving workshops and doing museum research on historic textiles. This had the effect of obliging her to compress more activities into the summer months. Two of them she was especially looking forward to were teaching weaving at the Chickasaw Arts Academy in Ada in July and in August she would be inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. We could meet during her two weeks in Ada.

“What I love doing,” she said, “is blending the new with the old. I’m adapting authentic designs to make clothing, using modern techniques and looms that our ancestors didn’t have, to recreate the look. I use modern fibers, and to save a lot of time, I work out the designs and color patterns on my computer before I start weaving.”

I smiled, and said quizzically, “Computer?” She smiled, too, and said, “You know, we Chickasaws have always adapted.”

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