Cherokee Nation mourns loss of metalsmith Toneh Chuleewah

Toneh Chuleewah 

TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation is mourning the loss of one of its most renowned artists with the loss of metalsmith Toneh Chuleewah on Aug. 3. 

The award-winning artist was known for creating works of art from copper, silver, gold, brass, nickel, aluminum and steel in both traditional and contemporary styles. He was a second-generation jeweler, following in the footsteps of his father, Quannah Chuleewah of Pryor. Toneh was born in 1959 and had been practicing his craft since the age of 14. 

“I like making art for art’s sake, not just making it for a living,” he said in a 2011 interview. “I want to do what I feel I want to do at the moment, otherwise, it’s a job.”

For his most current works he concentrated on the revival of pre-Columbian copper work of the southeastern tribes of the United States. He held a bachelor of fine arts degree in museum studies from the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also completed an internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“Toneh Chuleewah told the story of the Cherokee people through his intricate artwork,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “He was best known for his detailed Southeastern-design gorgets and medallions, making them for Cherokee National Treasures and winning artists of the Cherokee Heritage Center. Toneh also believed in sharing his passion for art and giving back, often teaching classes at the Cherokee Arts Center. He has left a great void in the Cherokee Nation and Native art community.”

Chuleewah was from the Evening Shade Community near Vian in Sequoyah County. Along with teaching metalsmithing at the Cherokee Arts Center in Tahlequah, he also owned bicycle shops for most of his life. 

“Toneh was not only a talented artist. He was always enjoyable to talk with about technical skills, concepts and stories in the work. He was a lifelong learner of culture and stories. Toneh was a master craftsmen who directly or indirectly taught many of us as he revitalized the wearing of copper to a much greater level. Many of us that work in this medium were influenced by him,” said Cherokee copper artist Joseph Erb. “Although I never beat him in a jewelry competition, I was always getting better as I strived to achieve his high level in vision and technical skills. He had an influence on the direction Cherokee arts have gone in the last 20 years, and I believe his impact will be felt for generations to come. He will be missed, and we will cherish the creations he made.”

CN Cultural Specialist and artist, Matt Anderson, said Chuleewah’s “footprint on Cherokee arts will last as long as the iconography that he helped revive.”

“His contribution to the revival of Mississippian period iconography are found in his highly-sought after copper jewelry. He taught many here at the Cherokee Arts Center and held metalsmithing classes when the doors first opened. His legacy will live on in the work his students create and in those they share the craft with. He will be missed in the Southeast Indian Artists Association of which he was a vital part,” Anderson said. “The winners of the Cherokee Heritage Center art show competition will miss the prize (copper) gorgets he created all these years. He was a kind man, a great artist, a skilled photographer, a gifted chef, an antique bicycle parts enthusiast and a friend that will be sorely missed.”

Recently Chuleewah said he appreciated concentrating on his pre-Columbian copper work. 

“I feel passionate about playing a part in bringing southeastern design to the attention of the world,” he said.  

Funeral services are pending and will be announced later.

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