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.


Senior Reporter
07/28/2015 08:33 AM
ROCKY MOUNTAIN, Okla. – The July heat and age doesn’t deter Flint Rock Ceremonial Grounds Chief Bird Wolfe from taking part in a stickball game on the grounds. Members of the grounds gathered on the Fourth of July to play stickball, share a meal, fellowship and take part in a stomp dance that night. “All are welcome here to dance and play stickball,” he said. Bird, 68, has been coming to Flint Rock since he was 8 years old, when the ceremonial fire was moved about 100 yards west to where it sits now. He can’t recall exactly how long the grounds have been there, but he said in his lifetime the grounds have not changed, and the ceremonies are the same. He carries Cherokee traditions and ceremonies handed down to him. He passes on that knowledge, he said, and strives to treat people right, “talk to them good, and appreciate them for what they do.” One person Bird has shared his knowledge with is his nephew, Nathan Wolfe, who said has led stomp dances at the grounds since he was 5 years old. “Ever since then I’ve just picked up on things and what people have taught me I just try to hold on to it and teach it to others,” Nathan said. Flint Rock members meet the first Saturday of the month and play stickball on Sundays at the grounds. Nathan said about 40 people regularly attend the grounds and participate in the stickball and ceremonies. “Sometimes we have a crowd and sometimes we don’t, but we keep going, even in the rain,” he said. He said people who visit the ground are “welcome to jump in at any time” to join in the stickball games or the dances. Some grounds make visitors wait a set amount of dances before they can participate, he said. “Here, we welcome anybody as soon as they get here,” he said. Nathan said the grounds close out its dancing season in October with two dances, on the first and fourth weekends. The last dance celebrates the grounds’ birthdate, and a hog fry and an all-night dance is held followed by a stickball game on Sunday morning. He emphasizes that the Flint Rock ceremonial fire was not moved to Tahlequah to the Echota ceremonial grounds. In 1998, Bird stepped away from the grounds as chief after his son Edward died. One of his brothers took over his duties while he was away. In that time some of the members left and established a fire and grounds near Tahlequah called Echota. He said just as it is common for people to leave their church and start their own church, it is also common for people to leave a ceremonial ground and start their own. He said people should have more patience with a ceremonial ground when things are not going well and think about their children who will inherit the lessons taught there and the grounds themselves. “This ground here is pretty much the original place. The fire never did move. A lot of people think you can take coals or ashes and you got a piece of that fire, but it don’t work that way. When you have to move it, you have to move the whole thing and what’s underneath, and none of them got that. It’s right here,” Nathan said. He said the only time the fire was moved was when there was a dispute over land the grounds once sat on, about 100 yards east of its current site. “Here nobody owns it. It’s for everybody,” he said. “No one can stake a claim to any of this stuff because it was given to our people in the beginning.” He said to keep the grounds going, parents get their kids involved in the grounds and traditions even when they are not at the grounds. “We teach them the differences between different cultures. We teach them to try to understand each other instead of holding a grudge against each other and say one is better than the other,” he said. “The people here, I know there’s not a whole lot like most grounds, but still their hearts are just as strong, and we want everybody’s heart to be strong.” Nathan said a person’s heart has to be good and really “in it” to be a part of the ceremonial grounds. You have to be a “good person” for the people. Also, the grounds are not just for traditional people. It’s for everybody, all indigenous people and whoever needs it, he said. “The medicine is here that the Creator put on earth for all of us to benefit our health and well-being, to nourish ourselves,” he said. “All we ask is people recognize that we’re still here. We’ve been here just as long as the others. That fire is old. There’s a lot of good that comes out of here. Anybody is welcome to come at anytime and go anytime they want. All we ask is if they come within our boundaries to have an open heart and good fellowship toward one another.” To reach the grounds, from Stilwell turn right on D0834 Road, which is approximately four miles west of Stilwell, from 100 Highway. Then follow the wooden arrowhead markers pointing to the Flint Rock Grounds. People may also call Nathan Wolfe for more information at 918-772-0868.
07/22/2015 11:44 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – Cherokee Nation citizen Lisa Rutherford received the Harrison Eiteljorg Purchase Award for a war chief’s mantle made of turkey and goose feathers titled “In Times of War.” The mantle, which is worn over the shoulders like a cape, will be a part of the museum’s permanent collection. Award winners were announced at the 23rd annual Eiteljorg Indian Market and Festival held on June 27-28. Thousands of fans of Native art and cultures, families and collectors attended the market and festival that featured more than 140 Native artists. Artists were awarded more than $28,000 in prize money and ribbons within 10 divisions. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western art seeks to inspire an appreciation and understanding of the art, history and cultures of the American West and the indigenous peoples of North America. The Eiteljorg is located in downtown Indianapolis’ White River State Park, 500 W. Washington. For information about the museum and to learn more about exhibits and events, call 317-636-9378 or visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
07/16/2015 10:13 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The next meeting of the Tahlequah Writers group is 2 p.m. on July 18 in the Cherokee Arts Center at 212 S. Water Street behind the Spider Gallery. Social activist Dr. J. Wade Hannon will discuss his written works. Hannon published his collection of poems, LOVE AND REVOLUTION, in 2010 and authored professional papers, along with articles and poetry in anthologies. He has a doctorate in counselor education and lived and taught in Fargo, North Dakota, and Chicago before coming to Tahlequah. Following the meeting, a new group of writers focusing on playwrighting will meet at the same location at 4 p.m. The public is invited to come to both meetings. Janis Contway, founder of the Oklahoma Playwrights Association, recently brought new Oklahoma-written scripts to Arts on the Avenue, working with the Tahlequah Community Playhouse. Bryn Smith recruited TCP readers as presenters of the works, entertaining local attendees in June. Those interested in the art of writing for live performances can learn the mechanics of playwrighting. The meeting is to gauge interest in forming a local playwrighting group. Tahlequah Writers is an informal group comprised of published writers and aspiring writers of a variety of genres. Attendees include poets, fiction writers, historians, essayists, humorists, playwrights, scriptwriters, and more. Meetings discuss the art of writing as well as the business of publishing and promotion. For further information, email <a href="mailto:"></a> or call 918-207-0093. People can also visit Tahlequah Writers on Facebook.
07/14/2015 10:27 AM
TAHLEQUAH - A Youth Stickball Tournament, ages 8 to 12 years-old, is scheduled for Saturday, July 18, 2015 beginning at 9 a.m. The tournament will be hosted by the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. The Warriors will battle the NDN Outlaws and Nighthawk Juniors in a double elimination game. The event is free to the public, bring your lawn chairs and come and support our tribal youth. The game will be played at the George Wickliffe Education Building on the UKB tribal complex located just off Hwy. 62. Take Willis Road to Whitmore Lane, first building on your left. For more information contact Wes Proctor, 918-506-0765.
07/14/2015 08:33 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) – As Southern states left the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, opposing factions in the Cherokee Nation maneuvered to secure political advantage. Principal Chief John Ross proclaimed neutrality and resisted pressure from Arkansas to ally with the Confederacy. On July 12, 1861, Stand Watie, who had been organizing a battalion to support the secessionists, accepted a commission in the army of the Confederate States of America. The abandonment of Indian Territory by federal troops and rebel victories at Bull Run in Virginia and Wilson’s Creek in Missouri compelled Ross to ally the Cherokees with the South. Although they were now on the same side, relations between Ross and Watie remained as strained. The treaty with the Confederacy obligated the tribe to raise one regiment for the defense of the Nation, but both men recruited regiments loyal to them. The first significant action in Indian Territory occurred near the end of 1861 when rebel forces moved against a band of neutral Indians that coalesced around Opothleyahola, an 82-year-old Creek leader at odds with the mixed-blood leadership of his tribe. Pressured by the Confederates, he and his neutral Indians withdrew to the north. In November and December, Confederate forces fought two indecisive battles with Opothleyahola’s band. In a final confrontation on Dec. 26, 1861, rebel troops, augmented by Watie’s regiment, routed their opponents and sent them fleeing through a snowstorm into Kansas. One of Watie’s officers, Lt. Clem Rogers, father of Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers, scouted Opothleyahola’s position before the engagement. The tide began to turn against the rebels in Indian Territory in early 1862 with a Confederate defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas on March 7-8. Watie’s regiment fought with distinction, assisting in temporarily capturing a battery of Union artillery. Later, it scouted for the Confederate army and covered its withdrawal. Throughout the engagement, Watie’s command was the only Native American unit that remained cohesive despite the chaos of battle. The Union victory at Pea Ridge made Indian Territory vulnerable to Union invasion. Watie was ordered to the northeastern corner of the CN to screen against incursions from Kansas and Missouri. Adroitly avoiding Northern patrols seeking to pin him down, the Cherokee commander flanked the Yankees and launched a two-prong attack far to their rear near Neosho, Missouri. In his first independent command, Watie not only forced the enemy to withdraw from Indian Territory, but also demonstrated his skill in hit-and-run tactics. Throughout the rest of the war, he would prove himself a master of guerilla warfare. On June 1, 1862, a Union force of regimental size, with artillery support, marched south to destroy Watie. Six days later, the Northern commander attacked at Cowskin Prairie just as the sun set. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, Watie and his men took advantage of the dark to elude the enemy, although they had to abandon provisions and livestock. Several weeks later, a 6,000-man Union force, including two Indian regiments recruited from the survivors of the Opothleyahola campaign, launched an all-out invasion of the CN. Reaching Fort Gibson near the Arkansas River after routing rebels at Locust Grove on July 3, the Union commander, Col. William Weer, sent a patrol to Park Hill. It “captured” Ross, who made no attempt to flee despite repeated warnings of the enemy’s approach. When the Union invasion force withdrew from the CN in July, Ross accompanied it and rushed to Washington to convince Lincoln that he had allied with the South only because the Union had abandoned Indian Territory and left him no choice. The next month, Watie’s supporters elected him principal chief of the Cherokees to replace Ross, who, they pointed out, had deserted his post. The Confederates controlled the CN most of the remainder of 1862, but in a series of battles over the next year, Union victories destroyed the South’s ability to provision its army in Indian Territory and forced Watie to do what he did best – employ guerilla tactics against his stronger opponents. At the Battle of Old Fort Wayne on Oct. 22 and Prairie Grove on Dec. 7, Confederate armies were defeated despite the steady performance of men under Watie’s command. On Dec. 22, Watie could organize no effective defense of Fort Davis on the south side of the Arkansas River near the mouths of the Verdigris and Grand Rivers. Col. William Phillips, who commanded the Union Third Indian Home Guard Regiment, burned the Confederate supply depot. In April 1863, Phillips drove Watie out of Fort Gibson, occupying it and most of the CN for the Union until the end of the war. Watie countered on July 1-2 with a daring raid on a Union supply train moving down the military road where it crossed Cabin Creek. High water in the stream prevented the Confederate colonel from consolidating his command and forced him to fall back empty handed. Later in the month, Gen. James Blunt, commander of the Union Army of the Frontier, crushed the rebel army at the Battle of Honey Springs. Although Watie was elsewhere, his presence would not have changed the outcome. No longer able to provision his entire force, Watie furloughed many of his men and called them to duty to exploit Union vulnerability. Watie lacked the manpower and resources to challenge the Union army in conventional battle, but with intelligence about its location, provided by a network of informants loyal to the South, he attacked at times and places advantageous to him. On Nov. 12, Watie wrote his wife that he had seized Tahlequah where Pin Indians were holding a council. He killed all who resisted and burned the council house. Captured Union Indians, including Ross’ nephew, William Potter Ross, were not harmed. Passing through Park Hill, the Cherokee colonel could not resist the opportunity to settle old scores. He torched Ross’s palatial home, Rose Cottage. Col. Phillips spurred his men to rid him of the marauding Confederate colonel. A sizable portion of Phillip’s command fought a skirmish with Watie on the banks of the Barren Fork of the Illinois River on Dec. 18. The commander of the Union force claimed he inflicted greater casualties than he suffered but did not deter Watie from a raid into Missouri. Despite inadequate support and troops with little combat training, in May 1864, Watie’s success earned him promotion to brigadier general, the only Native American to earn that rank on either side during the Civil War. He immediately demonstrated the wisdom of his promotion by two victories. In June, he captured the J.R. Williams, a Union riverboat steaming up the Arkansas with supplies for the garrison at Fort Gibson. In September, he participated in a raid that captured a Union wagon train carrying supplies and munitions valued at $1.5 million to the Second Battle of Cabin Creek. These were victories made more remarkable by the limited resources available to Watie and the growing strength of the Union in Indian Territory and all other fronts. They also had no impact on the outcome of the war.
Senior Reporter
07/10/2015 09:04 AM
CATOOSA, Okla. – Cherokee artist Leslie Gates didn’t grow up learning about her Cherokee heritage, but she has made up for it by studying Cherokee lifeways and reading Cherokee legends and stories. Gates was born and raised in Ponca City, but she lives in Lewisville, Alabama. Her parents live in Tahlequah, so she has connections to the Cherokee Nation. “I am proud to be Cherokee, but was not raised up with it. Ironically, it was after I moved to Alabama and was doing some research for a piece that I was working on, I began to learn more about it (Cherokee culture). I was very fascinated and very intrigued, so I just got more and more into it. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know,” she said. Her artwork is centered on using gourds of all sizes to make pieces. “I like to use different sizes and shapes of gourds and put different pieces together. Most of them are kind of figurative pieces. I also use animal motifs,” she said. “I also do acrylic paintings and colored-pencil work and mixed media, which sometimes will incorporate both of those – the paintings and the drawings – and I also add pieces of paper.” She’s attended the Cherokee Art Market, held in Catoosa each October, the past two years and has participated in the Santa Fe Indian Market through the Nation’s “Spider Gallery” in Tahlequah. She said she likes to focus on participating in Cherokee art shows such as the annual “Trail of Tears Art Show and Sale” in April and the “Homecoming Show” in September, both at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill. She also enters her work in the Cherokee National Holiday Art Show in Tahlequah. Gates has a website at that showcases her artwork and the media she uses such as gourds, paintings/mixed media on canvas, colored pencil drawings, and Cherokee-inspired artwork. “I enjoy doing it. Working with the gourds is really fun. I guess my little thing that’s different is working with the eggshell that on a lot of my pieces. I work with crushed eggshell. Many of the pieces have it,” she said. “I also have some Cherokee information (on her website). I’ve got some pages where they can read about the seven clans for someone who doesn’t understand that. Several of my pieces deal with the seven clans. There’s a page that talks about the syllabary because I love using that in my mask work. Those have been well received.” In Lewisville, she works in the office of a pecan-shelling plant for her uncle and works on her art in the evenings and on weekends. She said she’s been interested in art since she was a child. “I’m literally one of those that’s been drawing since I could hold a pencil. The summer after seventh grade I took some summer art classes at the art center that was there in Ponca City,” she said. Later, she also took watercolor painting classes with the instructor who had taught the summer art class and continued to learn about art and eventually began using colored pencils. She said being Cherokee, it’s “exciting” for her to create Cherokee-inspired artwork to sell and take part in art shows. She added that as she has learned more about her Cherokee heritage and culture, her artwork has begun to take on more characteristics of the stories and legends she has read.