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
BY TESINA JACKSON
Reporter
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.”

tesina-jackson@cherokee.org
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.
TESINA-JACKSON@cherokee.org • 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.

Culture

BY STAFF REPORTS
06/24/2015 05:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. –The 63rd Cherokee National Holiday Little Cherokee Ambassador Competition application deadline is set for July 22. According to www.cherokee.org, the overall goal of Little Cherokee Ambassadors is to begin instilling leadership skills that will help them eventually become leaders for the Cherokee Nation. Participating in the Little Cherokee Ambassador event is intended to inspire youth to achieve their dreams. They are also encouraged to “lead by example” and become self-sufficient, as well as gain knowledge of their Cherokee heritage and begin to recognize their history, culture and language. Those who wish to apply must be a CN citizen, reside within the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction, be between ages 4 to 12 years old, ne physically able to perform duties, must not have previously served as Little Cherokee Ambassador in the same division and must provide a completed Little Cherokee Ambassador application by deadline. The Little Cherokee Ambassador competition will be on Aug. 8 at Sequoyah Schools’ Place Where They Play. Each age division will compete and the new ambassadors will be announced at the end of the event. Age categories range from 4 to 6 years old, 7 to 9 years old and 10 to 12 years old. Applications should be emailed to <a href="mailto: kristen-smith@cherokee.org">kristen-smith@cherokee.org</a>, hand delivered to the CN College Resource Center or mailed to Cherokee Nation Little Cherokee Ambassador Program, Attention: Kristen Thomas, College Resource Center, P.O. Box 948, Tahlequah, OK 74465. For more information, call Kristen Thomas at 918-525-2266.
BY STAFF REPORTS
06/18/2015 01:13 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Spider Gallery and The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum are coming together to celebrate Cherokee artists Bill and Demos Glass and their artwork. At 6 p.m. on June 18 a miniature replica of one of their pieces will be unveiled, which will offer a sneak peek of the larger sculptured work. During the celebration, Bill and Demos will also talk about their process when creating their art and the symbolism the art holds. The celebration coincides with Tahlequah’s Third Thursday Art Walk. All galleries and shops will be open until 8:30 p.m. on this day.
BY STAFF REPORTS
06/16/2015 12:30 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – On June 20, the Cherokee Nation is offering free museum admission to dads in recognition of Father’s Day. CN museums are the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum, the Cherokee National Prison Museum and the John Ross Museum. Originally built in 1844, the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum is Oklahoma’s oldest public building. The 1,950-square-foot museum features exhibits on three historic aspects: the Cherokee National Judicial System, the Cherokee Advocate and Cherokee Phoenix newspapers and the Cherokee language, with a variety of historical items, including photos, stories, objects and furniture. Touch screen kiosks offer visitors documentary style learning on various legal topics as well as teaching conversational Cherokee. The Cherokee National Prison was the only penitentiary building in Indian Territory from 1875 to 1901. It housed sentenced and accused prisoners from throughout the territory. The interpretive site and museum give visitors an idea about how law and order operated in Indian Territory. The site features a working blacksmith area and reconstructed gallows, exhibits about famous prisoners and daring escapes, local outlaws and Cherokee patriots, jail cells and much more. The John Ross Museum highlights the life of John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation for more than 38 years, and houses exhibits and interactive displays on the Trail of Tears, Civil War, Cherokee Golden Age and Cherokee Nation’s passion for education. The museum is housed in an old, rural school building known as School #51 and sits at the foot of Ross Cemetery, where John Ross and other notable Cherokee citizens are buried. 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., both in Tahlequah. The John Ross Museum is located at 22366 S. 530 Road in Park Hill. CN museums are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday For information on Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism, call 1-877-779-6977 or visit <a href="http://www.VisitCherokeeNation.com" target="_blank">www.VisitCherokeeNation.com</a>.
BY TESINA JACKSON
Reporter
06/15/2015 08:45 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Growing up Choctaw Nation citizen Joanne Davis spent a lot of time in the kitchen learning how to cook with her mother, grandmother and sister. But for the past 10 years, she has been making a Cherokee and Choctaw favorite, grape dumplings. “I’d have to get in there and learn how to do stuff, so I just grew up cooking and helping in the kitchen, learning how to make beans and gravy and stuff like that,” she said. On days when her mother didn’t feel like cooking, Davis and her sister would take over in the kitchen. “I’ve always liked to learn new recipes,” Davis said. “I watch a lot of cooking shows too, try out new recipes and stuff. I just enjoy cooking.” Without following a written recipe, Davis’ sister taught her how to make grape dumplings. “I don’t really measure, so I can’t say how much flour I use, but we use all-purpose flour and we use grape juice,” Davis said. “We put some grape juice on the stove to boil and add sugar to that and then I just mix up the dough, which is the flour and grape juice. Then I roll it out and cut it up for the dumplings and throw them in there. That’s the way I was taught to make them.” While tribes make grape dumplings different ways, nowadays they are commonly made with grape juice instead of traditional possum grapes. According to “Culture and Customs of the Choctaw Indians” by Donna L. Akers, a traditional way to make grape dumplings is to gather the wild grapes in the fall and dry them on the stem. To cook, boil the grapes and then strain them through cheesecloth and set the juice aside. Then mix cornmeal, baking soda and salt until doughy and roll into shape and drop into the grape juice and cook until done. The dumplings absorb the grape juice and the remainder of the juice is thickened. Davis said with her way of making the dumplings for a small group of people usually takes about 30 minutes. However, she and her sister usually make them for large events, if asked, such as the Free Feed during the Cherokee National Holiday over Labor Day weekend. They also make fry bread to go along with the dumplings. “I enjoy making them and I feel like I’m contributing to the dinners,” she said. “I just enjoy cooking in general. I’m making stuff that people like. It makes me feel proud of myself.” <strong>Cherokee Nation recipe for grape dumplings</strong> 1 cup flour 1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder 2 teaspoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon shortening 1/2 cup grape juice Mix flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and shortening. Add juice and mix into stiff dough. Roll dough thin on floured board and cut into strips 1/2-inch wide, or roll dough in hands and break off pea-sized bits. Drop into boiling grape juice and cook for 10 to 12 minutes. – <a href="http://www.cherokee.org" target="_blank">www.cherokee.org</a> <strong>Choctaw Nation recipe for grape dumplings</strong> 1/2 gallon unsweetened grape juice 2 cups sugar 2 tablespoons shortening, melted 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 cup water flour Bring grape juice to a boil with the sugar. Mix water, shortening and baking powder. Add enough flour to make stiff dough. Roll out thin on a floured board and cut into pieces. Drop each of these one at a time into the boiling juice. Cook over high heat about 5 minutes. Then simmer for about 10 minutes with cover on before serving. May be served with cream or plain. – <a href="http://www.choctawnation.com" target="_blank">www.choctawnation.com</a>
BY STAFF REPORTS
06/12/2015 12:00 PM
COLCORD, Okla. –There will be free Cherokee language classes starting June 18 at the Talbot Library and Museum. The classes are from 9 a.m. to noon every Thursday and Saturday for five weeks. Those in attendance will learn beginning phonetics and will partake in syllabary writing practice. Students are encouraged to bring a writing utensil and a notepad. The class is open to anyone who would like to attend. The Talbot Library and Museum is located at 500 S. Colcord Ave. For more information, call class instructor Lawrence Panther at 918-232-6909 or email <a href="mailto: panther@nsuok.edu">panther@nsuok.edu</a>.
BY WILL CHAVEZ
Senior Reporter
06/10/2015 08:16 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – A panel exhibit is on display at the Cherokee Nation Veterans Service Center through Nov. 30 that highlights how Native soldiers and marines developed unbreakable codes to help win both world wars. “Code Talkers: How Natives Saved the United States” features standing panels that provide the history of Native Code Talkers and how they developed their unbreakable codes. In World War II, Germany’s military code was eventually broken. However, the enemy not could break the codes of Cherokee, Comanche, Navajo and other Native warriors. No machine understood their languages. Travis Owens, manager of Planning and Development for Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism, said research was done to determine if there were Cherokee Code Talkers in World War I or World War II. “We did a lot of research and found out there was only one proven Cherokee Code Talker named George Adair. We presented some options for what we could do to memorialize the Code Talkers knowing that we could only document one so far,” Owens said. “One of those options was to to do a special exhibition on the history, not just Cherokee, but how Code Talkers saved America – the history of all tribes involved.” He said the exhibit highlights the Code Talkers’ legacy that included Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Choctaw, Comanche and Navajo soldiers and marines and why they served. The exhibit also highlights Adair who served with the 36th Division in Europe during World War I. In 2000, Congress passed a law that awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the original 29 World War II Navajo Code Talkers and silver medals to each person who qualified as a Navajo Code Talker. In 2007, 18 Choctaw Code Talkers were posthumously awarded the Texas Medal of Valor for their World War II service. These two events are highlighted in the exhibit along with the fact The Code Talkers Recognition Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, which recognized every Native American Code Talker who served in the U.S. military during WWI or WWII with a Congressional Gold Medal. In 2013, 25 tribes were awarded Congressional Gold Medals in recognition of the dedication and valor of Native American Code Talkers during WWI and WWII. The CN received one of those medals, which is on display in the exhibit. Owens said the exhibit also addresses the misconception that every tribe had Code Talkers who served. People will also learn about how the Native soldiers and marines created their codes, which tribes had a formal code-talking program, why Natives adapted better to military life and why Natives fought in World War I when they weren’t citizens of the United States. In the early 20th century, the Great Depression was particularly hard on Native Americans. Jobs and money were scarce, and families and communities were suffering. The military offered free room, board, clothing, food and pay to enlisted soldiers, which was a huge draw to the Native American population. The armed forces provided a job and place to live, while allowing them to send money home to their families. This history is highlighted in the exhibit. “This Code Talker exhibit honors the brave Native soldiers who used our Cherokee language and other Native languages to defeat enemies in multiple wars dating back to World War I,” Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden said. “Had it not been for their courageous efforts, the outcome of those wars could have been drastically different. We are proud to share their story with the public.” The CN Veterans Service Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information about this and other historical attractions, visit <a href="http://www.VisitCherokeeNation.com" target="_blank">www.VisitCherokeeNation.com</a>.