TAHLEQUAH – Self-taught potter. Cherokee National Treasure. Teacher. While there are many ways to describe her, Anna Belle Sixkiller Mitchell is widely known as the revivalist of traditional Southeastern-style pottery with her legacy impacting other Cherokee arts.
“There may have been other people that tried this, but she’s the first person to take it to the level…after removal in Oklahoma to revive the art of Southeastern traditional pottery,” Victoria Vazquez, Mitchell’s daughter, said. “She wanted to make it as much as like our ancestors would have before the Trail of Tears as possible.”
When working to revive the style, Vazquez said her mother had no one to go to on the subject, so she took to research.
“And so there are, you know, lots of burial mounds and records and books about things and artifacts that were found,” Vazquez said. “So she didn’t really have anyone to speak to that was doing it but…it was a conglomeration of research (and) talking to potters. She did outdoor firing, she did everything as traditional as she could. Most of the tools she used…are either handmade or found in nature. So that’s what set her apart from other potters.”
But before any of this happened, Vazquez said Mitchell began getting her hands dirty around 1969 after she and her husband, Robert, dug a pond on their land revealing clay. Mitchell then went on to teach herself the art.
“And just on a whim she decided she wanted to try to make a clay pipe for Dad because he’s descended from Sequoyah and he always loved the pictures of him with that pipe,” Vazquez said. “She taught herself to make pottery…and over the next…30 years, that’s what she did was she just became better and better at her craft and became well known for her exquisite Southeastern…pottery.”
While continuing to work in clay, Mitchell taught others the art, including Vazquez, Jane Osti and Crystal Hanna.
“When she started, I was already gone from home and married and moved away,” she said. “And then…when I was 40, I was single and my daughter was already grown. I went to live with Mom and Dad for a year so I could apprentice with her and learn. When I started learning pottery and how hard it was to actually do what she was doing, that’s when I became so impressed with…what she’d already done to that point.”
Vazquez said Mitchell also impacted other Cherokee art forms and artists such as Bill Glass, Knokovtee Scott, Mike Daniel and Martha Berry.
“She also inspired other artists that are not necessarily potters because of her study of our Southeastern symbols,” Vazquez said.
With her artwork being noticed through the awards she received and art shows she showed in, it gave cause for the tribe to honor her as a Cherokee National Treasure in 1982.
“Mom was probably one of the first women to be designated,” Vazquez said. “I remember being there at that Cherokee (National) Holiday when she received her award. To be top of your craft, to be awarded this by your tribe is just one of the most wonderful things that you can aspire to.”
Mitchell died on March 3, 2012, but her legacy continues through the artists she taught and the impact she had in Cherokee art and the lives of those around her.
“I know what a hard life she had and what a meager beginning that she had to life and that she overcame all of the hardships of having nothing and being raised in a boarding school to marry a wonderful man and then raise five kids,” she said. “Then to go on and do what she did with a pottery career, it’s just very amazing that a person can do what she did with so little, and she was always one of those who was able to almost make something out of nothing.”