Cherokee Nation citizen Frances Donelson sews a Choctaw tear dress in her home near Fort Gibson, Okla. In 1993 she started making tear dresses and ribbon shirts when her sister was a vendor at the Cherokee National Holiday. TESINA JACKSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX

Donelson keeping traditional Cherokee fashion alive

Cherokee Nation citizen Frances Donelson holds an adult Cherokee tear dresses she made. Since 2002, she has won 12 awards for her sewing at events for her tear dresses and ribbon shirts. TESINA JACKSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX  Cherokee Nation citizen Frances Donelson holds an adult Cherokee tear dresses she made. Since 2002, she has won 12 awards for her sewing at events for her tear dresses and ribbon shirts. TESINA JACKSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Frances Donelson holds an adult Cherokee tear dresses she made. Since 2002, she has won 12 awards for her sewing at events for her tear dresses and ribbon shirts. TESINA JACKSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
01/13/2012 08:36 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee people love their traditional games, foods, stories and clothes. In 1993, Cherokee Nation citizen Frances Donelson decided to use her sewing skills to keep the tradition of tear dresses and ribbon shirts alive.

“It’s just something that I’ve done for years,” she said.

The tear dress is the traditional dress for Cherokee women. The ribbon shirt, which has ribbons on the front and back, is popular for Cherokee men.

According to CN website, the dress is believed to be the style of dress from the Trail of Tears era, when most women had no access to scissors because of the removal and confiscation of belongings. So the material was torn from larger pieces. The traditional dress has diamonds around the skirt and sleeves. Today, some dresses have been modified to utilize triangles, circles and even the seven-pointed star of the Cherokee.

The Trail of Tears-era dress had quarter length sleeves and a mid-calf skirt length. Women’s dresses had button-down tops, while the buttons were usually fastened in the back for infants. Today, the dress has been modified to be floor length with full-length sleeves.

Donelson said she began sewing when she was young. But it wasn’t until 1993, when her sister was a Cherokee National Holiday vendor, that Donelson made tear dresses and ribbon shirts.

“She was doing jewelry and she said ‘you can make a couple of skirts and we’ll see about selling them,’” Donelson said. “So it just kind of evolved from there. I started working on the tear dresses. I’ve found by observation, looking at some, and I finally decided that I could make one of those and the first time I did I had only five. After I sold all five of them, I started making more.”

She quickly learned that it’s better to add elastic to the waist and wristbands to fit more people.

“I started making them a little bit more flexible because a lot of it is custom made and when you don’t know who you are going to make it for you have to make it a little bit larger or try different ways of making it flexible instead of having a fitted waist,” she said.

Donelson also makes Muscogee Creek and Choctaw tear dresses and ribbon shirts.

“I figured out I can do a Cherokee tear dress; it takes me approximately 20 hours,” she said. “The Choctaw dress involves a lot of handwork and I figured out that I sit for 80 hours doing one dress.”

Donelson has made dresses for people living in California, Texas, Hawaii, Washington and New Jersey. She has even made one for someone in Germany.

“People say ‘do you have a website?’ No I don’t have a website and I’m not on Facebook, I don’t do any of that,” she said. “All the orders I get are just word-of-mouth.”

She even made Principal Chief Bill John Baker’s ribbon shirt that he wore at his Nov. 6 inauguration as well as several dresses for his family.

“For the last three years, Frances has made a tear dress for our granddaughter. She’s made her one for every (Cherokee National) holiday,” said first lady Sherry Baker. “She just does a beautiful job and she always makes it to fit and she just goes out of her way to take care of it.”

Donelson charges $60 for an adult ribbon shirt, $45 if material is provided; $75 for a Cherokee tear dress for ages 3 to 7, $50 if material is provided; $100 for a Cherokee tear dress for ages 8 to 12, $75 if material is provided; and $150 for an adult Cherokee tear dress, $100 if material is provided.

She said she doesn’t rely on her hobby for a living and tries to keep her costs low.

“…it’s something that I enjoy doing, so I try to keep it down as much as possible, but you always feel like you need something for the cost of the material and the amount of time you put into it,” she said. “Someone asked me once if I wasn’t doing this then what would I be doing. I’d probably be sitting and just watching TV and not doing much of anything. It keeps me busy and I enjoy doing it and as long as people seem to like the dresses I’ll continue making them.”
918-453-5000, ext. 6139

About the Author
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Tesina first started working as an intern for the Cherokee Phoenix after receiving the John Shurr Journalism Award in 2009. Later that year, Tesina received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and in 2010 joined the Phoenix staff as a reporter.    

In 2006, Tesina received an internship at The Forum newspaper in Fargo, N.D., after attending the American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota. She also attended the AIJI summer program in 2007 and in 2009 she participated in the Native American Journalists Association student projects as a reporter. Tesina is currently a member of NAJA and the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization. • 918-453-5000 ext. 6139
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Tesina first started working as an intern for the Cherokee Phoenix after receiving the John Shurr Journalism Award in 2009. Later that year, Tesina received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and in 2010 joined the Phoenix staff as a reporter. In 2006, Tesina received an internship at The Forum newspaper in Fargo, N.D., after attending the American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota. She also attended the AIJI summer program in 2007 and in 2009 she participated in the Native American Journalists Association student projects as a reporter. Tesina is currently a member of NAJA and the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization.


10/09/2015 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – On Oct. 15, Cherokee Nation museums will provide free activities for families who want their children to experience fun, educational adventures during fall break. The museums are the Cherokee National Prison Museum, the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum and the John Ross Museum. At the Cherokee National Prison Museum there will be photo tinting with watercolors. At the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum there will be Cherokee syllabary lessons, and at the John Ross Museum there will be a beaded bracelet class. Educational activities will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will also be special activities such as a scavenger hunts at each museum. The Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum is located at 122 E. Keetoowah St., and the Cherokee National Prison Museum is at 124 E. Choctaw St. The John Ross Museum is located at 22366 S. 530 Road in Park Hill. For information, call 1-877-779-6977 or visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
Senior Reporter
10/06/2015 08:30 AM
FORT SMITH, Ark. – On Sept. 12, citizens of various tribal nations, as well as historians, gathered at the Fort Smith National Historic Site to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1865 Fort Smith Council. In September 1865 representatives from 16 Indian nations and the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs met at Fort Smith to re-establish post-Civil War relations between the tribes and the U.S. government. The Fort Smith Council of 1865 provided the foundation for the 1866 treaties that significantly altered conditions in Indian Territory and paved the way for Oklahoma statehood. Dr. Bill Corbett – a retired history professor from the Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma – presented “Why the Fort Smith Council?” to explain why the council occurred and state that what happened 150 years ago still affects people’s lives. He said from Sept. 8-23 in 1865 federal officials met representatives from as many as 16 tribes. “Ostensibly, the purpose of these officials was to re-establish relations with those assembled tribes who had treaties of alliance with the Confederate States of America,” he said. “During the Civil War all of the Five Civilized Tribes as well as many of the Plains tribes signed treaties of alliance with the Confederacy.” Because of these alliances, during the war Congress severed ties with tribes, which stopped government annuities or payments to tribes and the delivery of goods promised in treaties, Corbett said. Combined, the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations had the majority of citizens living in Indian Territory and controlled most of its land. Along with re-establishing tribal relations, Corbett said the federal commissioners expanded their agenda to chip away at the “autonomy and sovereignty” of the five tribes. He said their efforts failed in Fort Smith. The earlier Homestead and Pacific Railroad acts of the 1850s were also meant to chip away at Indian sovereignty and take lands for settlers and railroads. And in 1857, the Kansas Territory began to organize for statehood and looked south to Indian Territory to accommodate more settlers and rail lines. In 1861, a militant, pro-Southern faction emerged in the Cherokee Nation led by Stand Watie, an “arch enemy” of Principal Chief John Ross. Made of mostly mixed-blood Cherokees and “inter-married citizens,” the group advocated separating from the U.S. and allying with the Confederacy. Another Cherokee group called the Pin Indians, led by missionaries Evan and John Jones countered Watie’s group and supported the Union. Ross advocated neutrality, but eventually was forced to sign an alliance with the Confederacy in 1861 because Watie threatened to take over as principal chief and surrounding tribes had signed treaties with the Confederacy. Corbett said differences within the Cherokee Nation that began during the forced removals 23 years earlier resurfaced when tribal citizens chose sides for the Civil War. “The Civil War in Indian Territory for the Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles produced a conflict that killed thousands and destroyed prosperous farms and plantations,” he said. Throughout the Civil War, Ross lobbied the Office of Indian Affairs and indirectly the president on behalf of the Nation to defend the tribe’s sovereignty. The five tribes in Indian Territory held title to their lands and were promised in their removal treaties that no territorial government would be established over their lands, Corbett said, but throughout the war some members of Congress lobbied to take Indian lands as punishment for tribes siding with the Confederacy. U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dennis Cooley came to Fort Smith in September 1865 with “unequivocal conditions” for a treaty between the U.S. and attending tribes. He was to gain “peace and friendship” from tribes associated with the Confederacy, establish a central territorial government for Indian Territory, end of slavery there, gain tribal citizenship for former slaves, acquire land to relocate Indian tribes not living in Indian Territory, recognize tribes that remained loyal to the Union, sell bonds invested for Southern states and restrict the presence of whites in Indian Territory. Corbett said the 1865 meetings began on Sept. 8 with tribes that had remained loyal to the U.S. Cherokee representatives and other “disloyal” tribes met with Cooley and the federal delegation the following week. Some tribal delegates informed Cooley they could not make a treaty with him without the consent of their respective councils. Even before Ross arrived in Fort Smith for the meeting, Cooley “castigated” him for leading the Cherokees into an alliance with the Confederacy, but ignored all of the things Ross did during the war to distance the tribe from the Confederacy such as repudiating the Confederacy alliance in 1862 and abolishing slavery in the Nation in 1863. When Ross arrived for the meeting, Cooley continued his assault on him calling him a “conspirator” against the government, Corbett said. The commission refused to recognize Ross as principal chief and negotiated with Assistant Chief Lewis Downing. The Nation signed a peace treaty with the federal government. The Creek Nation also signed a treaty but refused to make their slaves citizens, and the Seminole Nation signed the same treaty and retained their land holdings. The Choctaw and Chickasaw nations had remained loyal to the U.S. and signed a peace treaty and seemed accepting of many of Cooley’s conditions, Corbett said. He said he believes the Fort Smith Council occurred because of three reasons: to make Indian Territory “available to exploitation” by railroad companies, mining interests, businesses and speculators; to destroy tribal governments and establish a single territorial government; and to use retribution against tribes for siding with the Confederacy to force them to accept new conditions that violated their treaty rights, particularly the treaty rights of the Five Civilized Tribes. “The alliance with the Confederacy fueled efforts by political leaders in the North to undo the Indian republics,” Corbett said.
10/05/2015 12:00 PM
GLENPOOL, Okla. – Cherokee Nation citizen Bill Glass Jr. will be the Honored Elder Artist for the Greater Tulsa Indian Art Festival in February. Each year the festival honors a Native American artist. According to Tulsa Indian Art Festival, Glass’ art has helped him win awards throughout his career, including awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market, Heard Museum Show, Philbrook Art Center American Indian National Exhibition and Tulsa Indian Art Festival. “He was named a Cherokee National Treasure in 2009, Master Artist of the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in 1986, and is a recipient of the Cherokee Medal of Honor,” the TIAF release states. “Over the years, Bill has expanded his range of media to include bronze sculpture and installation pieces. In 1994, Bill designed and created large light fixtures for the Talking Leaves Job Corp facility. Bill and his son Demos Glass were among the five Cherokee artists that formed the Cherokee Artists Gadugi Team, Inc.” For more information about the festival call 918-298-2300 or email <a href="mailto:"></a>.
Senior Reporter
10/05/2015 08:41 AM
PARK HILL, Okla. – Cherokee artist Danny McCarter, of Tahlequah, possesses skills handed down by Cherokee people for hundreds of years. He makes blowguns from river cane and the darts shot from it. Along with knowing these skills, he uses a blowgun at his job as a villager in the Cherokee Heritage Center’s Diligwa Village. He interprets for the village’s visitors the Cherokee lifeways of the mid-1700s. To make darts, he uses a thistle plant and a wooden shaft, which is usually difficult for a person when first trying. “I can teach people to make a blowgun in one day...but the dart is really the art part because it takes a lot of dexterity to roll the dart and catch the thistle on there,” he said. “It looks simple when you see somebody do it that’s done it a thousand times, but it’s really difficult.” His late uncle, J.C. McCarter, who worked in the CHC’s Ancient Village, introduced him to the blowgun. Danny’s brother, Rob, and another villager named Scott Rackliff also had a hand in teaching Danny about the blowgun and dart making when they worked in the village in the 1980s. Danny said from what he’s studied it is not known where the river cane blowgun originated or who invented it, but it has always been used for hunting. Some cultures in South America used it in warfare because they could deliver tranquilizers with darts. However, he said, Cherokee people used the blowgun to hunt squirrels, rabbits and birds and relied on accuracy to kill those animals. Cherokee youths also used it to keep animals out of gardens. He said Cherokees were people small in stature, so most tools they used didn’t require great strength but technique instead. He said some people try to use a large puff of air to blow a dart from a blowgun when all that’s required is a “quick, hard” burst of breath. He said he’s won the Cherokee National Holiday blowgun contest with just a 4-1/2-foot long blowgun when competitors used longer blowguns to shoot at a target 45 feet away. He conceded that darts coming out his shorter blowgun are somewhat thicker or heavier so they can travel that distance. Danny begins gathering the Scottish Thistle that he uses to fletch his darts after it blooms about mid-August in northeastern Oklahoma. Its purple blooms will first appear in the northern part of the Cherokee Nation and later in the southern part. He said thistle in Sequoyah County might not bloom until mid-September. “You don’t want to pick it while it’s purple. You want to pick it while it’s brown. If you gather it while it’s purple and try to put it up (save it for later), it will mold,” he said. He said for accuracy and distance, thistle is the best material for fletching. He said most Oklahoma Cherokees only use their blowguns to compete in contests in which a circular target is 45 feet away and that most blowguns are 8- to 10-feet-long. As with a rifle, the longer the blowgun the farther a dart can travel and maintain its velocity. For fletching, he takes a dried thistle bulb and removes the brown, seedy part from the pod, avoiding pulling out the bulb’s white, fluffy downy that will form the fletching. “That’s all you want, just the downy part on the inside,” he said. He then finds a straight, wooden skewer and notches it on top. He said a person could carve the dart out of woods such as river cane and bois d’arc, which he said both make pretty and sturdy darts. Other woods used for dart shafts are oak, ash, maple, hickory and walnut. However, to save time, he purchases a 100-pack of wooden skewers, usually used to skewer food, for his dart shafts. After notching the top of a skewer, he takes quilting thread and knots on one end and places in the notch. He then places the downy part of the thistle pod against the stick and wraps the thread around the downy to attach it to the stick. It takes an intricate use of his hands and his teeth to attach the thistle downy to the stick with the thread. He ties the end of the thread where the downy ends on the stick and then rolls the stick in his hands to get rid of any remaining seeds or loose downy. “We’ve used all kinds of materials for that fletching. We’ve used the downy feathers of birds, squirrel tail, and rabbit fur. The Choctaws of Mississippi use raw cotton because that’s what they have in their area, but really thistle is the greatest material,” he said. “It’s keeps your dart in the middle of your gun. It also gives you something to blow against, and it also gives you a guide like feathers on an arrow.”
09/30/2015 04:00 PM
DAHLONEGA, Ga. – The next meeting of the Georgia Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association will take place at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 14 at the Funk Heritage Center in Waleska. The Funk Heritage Center is located on the campus of Reinhardt University near the intersection of Hwy. 140 and Hwy. 108. The center is Georgia’s official frontier and southeastern Indian interpretive center. It features the art collection of the late Margaret Rogers as well as the Sellars collection of antique and specialized tools. The featured speaker at this month’s meeting is Dr. Joseph Kitchens, executive director of the Funk Heritage Center. Dr. Kitchens will talk about the Hickory Log collection of artifacts. These artifacts were uncovered when excavation began at the site of the current Wal-Mart in Canton. He will also discuss the plans to create a new exhibit space to accommodate some of the artifacts and interpret the history of the Trail of Tears, the tragic and forced removal of the Native Americans from the southeast. The Funk Heritage Center was recently added to the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail as an interpretive site. The historic trail is administered by the National Park Service and supported by the Trail of Tears Association. The Nov. 14 meeting will coincide with the recognition of Native American Day at the Funk Heritage Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This is a free public event. There will be hot dogs and drinks for sale or people may bring a picnic lunch. Call the museum at 770-720-5967 for directions. Also during the meeting, an election for the positions of president, vice President, secretary, and treasurer for the Georgia TOTA chapter will take place. The Trail of Tears Association is dedicated to identifying and preserving sites associated with the removal of Native Americans from the southeast. The organization is also committed to educating the public about this tragic period in our country’s history. The association consists of nine state chapters representing the nine states that the Cherokee and other tribes traveled through on their way to present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma. People in Georgia need not be a member to attend Georgia chapter meetings nor have Native American heritage, just an interest and desire to learn more about this fascinating subject. Meetings are free and open to the public. For more information about the TOTA, visit the National website at or the Georgia Chapter website <a href="" target="_blank"></a>. For questions about the Nov. 14 meeting, contact Tony Harris at <a href="mailto:"></a>.
09/29/2015 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Indigenous Scholar Development Center at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah will host a Cherokee storytelling series throughout the fall semester beginning Sept. 30. The theme for the series is “Persistence.” Cherokee storyteller and former Miss Cherokee Janelle Adair will lead each event. The Sept. 30 kickoff event will take place at 6 p.m. at Second Century Square. The ISCD invites the NSU campus community to the series. There is no cost to attend. Adair is a United Keetoowah Band citizen and has been telling stories for 16 years. “She is passionate about storytelling and brings to life the stories that her ancestors have told and passed down from generation to generation,” said Hannah Foreman, scholar development coordinator with the ISDC. During the series, Adair will incorporate explanations about how and why storytelling is a valuable tool still used by many tribes. She will also explain the significance of many stories passed down from generation to generation and elaborate on the types of storytelling. Adair said this opportunity will serve as a learning experience for those who may not be familiar with the history of Cherokee storytelling. As an NSU alumna, Adair also believes the theme of persistence will speak directly to the students. “Persistence, to me, describes what it takes to get through college. What many people don’t understand about the Native student population is that most of them aren’t pursuing a degree for personal gain or achievement. They’re often going to school to use that degree to help others,” Adair said. “Natives are selfless people. They look for ways to take care of someone else, and that can be family or the community in general. They set their goals around the idea of ‘What can I do to make things better for someone else?’” For more information, visit the ISDC located on the second floor of the John Vaughan Library on the Tahlequah campus or call Foreman at 918-444-3042.