Exhibit of Native matriarchs to be on display at Choctaw Cultural Center
August 1, 2022
Choctaw artist DG Smalling’s latest exhibit consists of seven portraits of matriarchal Native American women. Smalling pays homage to women in his life who he says have paved their way through Indian Country and the state at large.
The paintings will be displayed at the Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant from September through November.
“I wanted to document this moment in Indian Country when in reclamation, the rise of matriarchs is also happening. I wanted to create a contemporary record of seven women who embody the 21st-century matriarch and her impact on Oklahoma. Indian Country does not divide or compartmentalize our societies between the spiritual, commercial, or political; rather, it is seen as a whole.
These seven matriarchs reflect that complexity,” said Smalling. “In Choctaw, Chickasaw, in Southeastern cultures, our tradition is the women were the matriarchs. The women were the leadership.”
Smalling said he likes that when people see these pieces, they may not understand what each aspect or vignette is about, but they know that these women are being looked at through the eyes of a Choctaw man, because that is the format, and these women are strong.
“They are elevated, that they have done something of accomplishment, and they need to be regarded,” said Smalling.
Smalling’s use of the diamond design is a commonality in each of the pieces.
In Choctaw tradition, the diamond pattern shows respect to the rattlesnake. Each painting has a banner that tells of the milestones of each woman. According to Smalling, The colors reflect tribal affiliation, regalia, choice or home landscape. The pieces, which Smalling call light and joyful, are of seven dynamic women: Justice Yvonne Kauger, Tara Katuk Sweeney, Sheila Morago, Lisa Billy, Janie Dillard, Nuchi Nashoba and the Rev. Dr. Carol Hampton.
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Kauger is a woman whom Smalling says is very much like a godmother to him. Kauger is the founder of the Gallery of the Plains Indian, coordinator of the Sovereignty Symposium, and co-founder of Red Earth. She was appointed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 1984 and was adopted by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.
Tara Katuk Sweeney, an Alaskan Native, was the 13th Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs and champion of Operation Lady Justice.
Smalling’s original piece of art entitled, “Lady Justice”, was chosen to represent the presidential task force as a symbol for its work.
Sheila Morago is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. She was previously Executive Director for the Arizona Indian Gaming Association from 2004-2011 and served as the Director of Public Relations for the National Indian Gaming Association, based in Washington, D.C. from 2001-2004. She was raised on and is a member of the Gila River Indian Reservation.
Photos by Shelia Kirven
Lisa Johnson Billy, Chickasaw-Choctaw, is a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, a Chickasaw Nation legislator, a former educator at the University of Oklahoma, and an appointed member of the board of trustees of the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation.
Janie Dillard is Choctaw Nation’s Senior Executive of Commerce.
“In Indian Gaming, and I am not just talking about Oklahoma or Choctaws, but in all Indian Gaming, Janie is very, very known and revered because she has taken very courageous decisions, lots of moxie over the years. In that vision, she has never been afraid of going after something that no one else would see,” said Smalling.
Nuchi Nashoba, Choctaw, is an actress, published author and President of the Choctaw Code Talkers Association.
Smalling smiled when talking about the portrait of Nuchi.
“What’s more bright than Nuchi? She’s just brightness,” said Smalling.
Rev. Dr. Carol Hampton, Caddo and Choctaw, is, according to Smalling, an imminent theologian, and champion of theology in being open-armed whom he quoted as saying, “If we want to be embraced, we need to embrace.”
Each painting has a pair of shoes represented within its banner.
Smalling said when he spoke with the women represented in the exhibit, shoes always came up.
The women in the portraits requested their work boots, moccasins that a mother-in-law made for their wedding, traditional mukluks, favorite shoes or stilettos.
In addition to the portraits, there is also a custom one-of-a-kind hand-painted casino chair that is part of the exhibit.
The wooden chairback became a canvas where Smalling created a variation of Operation Lady Justice.
Smalling said it is a prototype executive red chair and is one-of-a-kind. “The Operation Lady Justice chair is a one-off.”