Profile of Margaret Roach Wheeler: "Mahota" Chickasaw

By Richard Green

Margaret Wheeler’s warm, welcoming smile greeted me as I entered the upstairs foyer of the beautifully restored McSwain Theatre in Ada. She is a small, attractive woman with shoulder-length silver hair, which beautifully complements her dark brown skin. Her face, and especially her eyes, are quite expressive when she talks.

I was there one day last summer for her help with an article I was working on. In James Adair’s book, History of American Indians, there is a passage about how the Indians used buffalo hair to make clothes, and I wondered if this modern Chickasaw weaver could tell me how her ancestors did it.

Actually, I didn’t get around to asking about that until later. Because arrayed around the large foyer were about 15 mannequins garbed in Margaret’s hand-woven fashions. On display were dresses, tops, coats, cloaks and even some men’s apparel. Some were gorgeous, with rich, but muted, colors and some, accented with feathers and shells, were quite showy. I was struck by the obvious creativity that went into not only the clothing, but how each was exhibited. Taken in full, they were more like works of art than items of clothing.

I asked her to take me on a tour, though I knew the opening of her exhibition would start in about an hour. As we walked and she talked and I gawked, she adjusted a garment with a stylish headdress.
I thought I was going to be interviewing a weaver, but as I tried to take it all in, I was thinking, this is weaving?

“Do you call yourself a weaver?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but also a textile artist,” she answered matter-of-factly, as though “textile artist” was a title as common as plumber. Later, she told me that as far as she knew, she was the only Native American weaving clothing. “There are many designers, but they are using commercial cloth, not weaving the material on a loom. This is my niche in the Indian market.

“But it’s very labor intensive,” she said, gesturing at an artfully woven cloak with shades of purple, and a design reminiscent of the motifs of the Mississippian Period (roughly 900 to 1600 A.D.). “One like this takes a couple of weeks of full days.”

As I continue looking at the exhibit in my provincial way, I’m thinking a few of these would look lovely on some women, but for the most part, I’m wondering, but not yet asking, who wears these clothes and where? To parties? And if one takes weeks of intensive work to complete, what must the price be? I notice no price tags and figure it’s like they say: if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

I recall I’m there to ask about clothing made from buffalo hair. The exhibition seemed about as removed from a buffalo hair spun and woven product as a Ferrari does from a Model-T. She confirmed that none of the clothing on display was made from buffalo hair, but she told me that she had obtained some once. To clean it, she staked it out in a running stream, like Chickasaw women did in centuries past. When the current didn’t prove strong enough, she took the buffalo hair to a car wash and finished the job. Then, she told me how she thought the Chickasaws might have spun it before women had looms. When I had what I needed, I suggested we finish the tour.

Margaret said she found some pattern designs during her fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. But she said that most of the pre-removal fabrics she had examined and photographed in the Smithsonian’ s facility in Suitland, Maryland, were prehistoric, mainly from the Spiro Mounds (in eastern Oklahoma). So it is difficult, if not impossible, to connect any of those fabrics with individual historic tribes.

As she commented on the exhibits and answered my questions, Margaret’s experience as a teacher was evident. She had told me she had taught at the Joplin (MO) High School for 10 years before turning her weaving expertise into a full-time business in 1984.

Even though the only thing I know about fashion is that I don’t know anything about it, my objective changed during my visit. Instead of just getting this one bit of information about buffalo hair for part of an article, why not see if I could get to know better this artist with such obvious talent and creativity? So I asked if we could meet again. She agreed, but said she was entering a busy season.

She explained she had been in Great Britain for two weeks, conducting weaving workshops and doing museum research on historic textiles. This had the effect of obliging her to compress more activities into the summer months. Two of them she was especially looking forward to were teaching weaving at the Chickasaw Arts Academy in Ada in July, and in August, she would be inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. We could meet during her two weeks in Ada.

“What I love doing,” she said, “is blending the new with the old. I’m adapting authentic designs to make clothing, using modern techniques and looms that our ancestors didn’t have, to recreate the look. I use modern fibers, and to save a lot of time, I work out the designs and color patterns on my computer before I start weaving.”

I smiled and said quizzically, “Computer?” She smiled, too, and said, “You know, we Chickasaws have always adapted.”

Chickasaw Loves

Margaret Roach has Chickasaw and Choctaw ancestry and perhaps a tiny bit of French ancestry. That is, if the undocumented story is true about 18th century Chickasaws capturing and raising a French girl named Nancy. She grew up, according to the story, to have Chickasaw children, one of whom, known as Homahota or Emahota, married British partisan Thomas Love from Carolina in the 1780s. One of their children, Nancy Mahota, was Margaret’s maternal great, great grandmother, according to Marie Garland, who compiled and edited Chickasaw Loves in 1970.

To honor the matriarch, Margaret named her clothing company Mahota Handwovens, but never knew if the name had any meaning in English. I asked John Dyson, the tribe’s resident expert on translating Chickasaw from 18th and 19th century sources to English.

Emahota could be imaahota’ or “where items were sorted by hand,” such as honey from hives or different strands of fiber for weaving, Dyson responded. “Hotachi’ was the term used to describe the warping bars on a wooden loom, literally ‘that which causes [strand] separation.” One hopes this interpretation is true, given Ms. Wheeler’s fame as a hand weaver!”

Emahota finally followed the tribe west, leaving her homestead between Holly Springs and Oxford, Mississippi, in 1844. She died in her 80s and is buried near Burneyville. Nancy Mahota married an herb doctor named Boyd, and they and their children settled in Tishomingo. Margaret’s great grandmother, Louisa Corbit, ran a boarding house favored by Chickasaw politicians on Pennington Creek in the Chickasaw capital.

Margaret’s mother, Rubey, lived in that house after she was born in 1903. Margaret interviewed her about the boarding house before she died in 1997 and donated a copy of the recording to the Chickasaw Historical Society. Her mother’s family may have been prosperous at one time—Rubey attended the prep school of the Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha. But her mother was bilked out of her allotment, and by the time Rubey married Diamond Roach, the couple had few assets except for their educations, and then their children, Lawanda born in the 1920s, Robert, in the 1930s, and Margaret in the 1940s.

With his teaching degree, Diamond almost always had a teaching job, Margaret said, but sometimes, teachers didn’t get paid, and to put food on the table, he was also obliged to work in the oil fields or do other types of casual labor. Things got so bleak during the Depression that Diamond, the ultimate family man, took Rubey and Lawanda to his mother’s house and then disappeared for two weeks. When he returned, his face was bruised and swollen, but he had money to buy necessities. He never would discuss his absence. Rubey didn’t tell Margaret about this until she was in her late 80s.

Margaret was stunned that her father, would have disappeared without explanation. Though she still can’t fill in the blank, she has a theory. Because Diamond had a brother who was a prized fight promoter in California, it is possible the brother got him boxing matches of some kind.

Years later, Lawanda told Margaret that the family endured true poverty during the ‘20s and ‘30s. By Margaret’s birth, following the Depression, the family’s fortunes had improved markedly. Their father was employed as a teacher by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). He was obliged to move according to BIA needs, so the family lived in North Carolina, Arizona, South Dakota (Margaret’s birthplace), Washington state and Montana.

Despite the frequent moves, Margaret says her childhood was idyllic. She lived among different Indian cultures, and she helped her dad raise farm animals for the BIA schools. In the winters, she often traveled by snow mobile or dogsled. In school, she excelled in art, especially painting. She says she knew no fear and did not see or recognize the discrimination against Indians in South Dakota and Montana.

She loved her family unconditionally, and although Lawanda was already married and gone, she and her husband visited often. They’d swoop down out of the sky in one of the airplanes from her husband’s flying service, and Lawanda would regale her little sister with her tales of adventure. When Margaret was 16, Lawanda did them both the favor of asking Margaret to paint a mural on a wall of their Yuma, Arizona, home. Though her sister died in 1988, the mural still exists in the house.

Tragedy

Margaret married Glen Wheeler in 1960 in Oklahoma. They had two children, Kristine, born in 1961, and Wade in 1962. After graduating from college, Glen joined the BIA as a teacher and first taught on the Navajo reservation and then at the Seneca Indian school, near Joplin, Missouri. Margaret raised the children until they got older, then she got a bachelor’s degree and began teaching art in 1974 at Joplin High School.

“Kriss” and Wade both seemed to have every attribute desired by most boys and girls. Handsome/beautiful, popular, smart, sociable, funny, athletic, but also empathetic and unpretentious. When Kriss was 12, she won the Missouri state title in the Miss Charm Contest and finished seventh in the nationals. The contests had been fun up until the national, but she thought the competition had become too cutthroat and declared herself retired from such competition. Wade excelled academically and had a quick wit.

By 1977, Margaret was pursuing a master’s degree in art at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. By chance, she took a course in textiles from Marjorie Schick, whose main claim to artistic fame was and is extravagant, flamboyant jewelry. (Google her name for photos.) Margaret was influenced by her in two ways: she soon started making wall art from textiles, and her later interest in clothing as art or symbols probably stemmed from Schick’s stylized, highly visible jewelry.

They were a family in full, not just living the American Dream, but as individuals and collectively, improving their lives and their prospects for success and fulfillment. That came to a screeching halt, literally and figuratively, on the night of April 15, 1977. Kriss’s boyfriend, Mark, slammed on his car’s brakes too late to avoid a violent collision with a traffic pileup that blocked the highway at the bottom of a hill.

Kriss was killed instantly. Mark was bent and broken and couldn’t walk again for a year. Since Kriss was beloved by nearly everyone in town, it was suggested that the funeral be at the Seneca High School, but Margaret said no, that Wade would still have to go to school there. So, the funeral was held at the largest church in town, with outside speakers to accommodate the overflow crowd.

Kriss’s death released in Margaret a rush of adrenaline that heightened all of her senses and powers of concentration. This enabled her to plan the funeral, and attend to details before and afterward. She called her brother and told him he must be with their parents when they receive the awful news. When no one else could, Margaret summoned the name of a minister the family admired years before, and then she tracked him down and got him to officiate.

Such extraordinary focus often precedes a subsequent collapse, but Margaret says that didn’t happen. “When I told people we were blessed to have Kriss for 16 wonderful years, I really meant it and still do. I think I would have had a harder time with her passing if she had been rebellious, made bad grades and gotten into drugs because then you have to deal with possible guilt; did I or the family contribute to that?”

Since that was not the case, Margaret, Glen and Wade coped with each other’s help, and in the process, became closer as a family. And because Mark’s family situation wasn’t as strong and supportive, Wade asked his parents if Mark could live with them. Margaret thought, “Oh, God, can I do this?”

She could. Mark lived with the family for his year of rehabilitation, and it turned out to be a great blessing for both boys because neither was alone.

Career Path via Museums

When Margaret was ready to reestablish a routine, weaving was there for her like a gift or a balm. In time, she put together a small exhibit of her wall art, “and thought it might be fun to weave myself a dress to wear for the exhibit. I liked the process. But it wasn’t until the dress was finished that the “light bulb” came on. Why not just weave clothes with Indian themes or accents?”

By the early 1980s, she had shown a variety of her clothing in local fashion shows. “I tried to be innovative, so had woven dresses that resembled buckskin and patterns that looked like beadwork.

In 1981, Glen had quit teaching for the more lucrative insurance business and Wade had graduated from college. With income up and expenses down, she retired from teaching, and started her own company, Mahota Handwovens. From her retirement fund, she paid a business consultant $1,000 to do research and development and devise a business plan. His report was discouraging. No commercial buyer or investor was interested, and one said that her clothing looked like “dishrags.”

Figuring these judges were insufficiently educated to judge, Margaret showed samples to museums renowned for their Indian collections and expertise. They all responded enthusiastically, and Gilcrease, in Tulsa, asked her to do a style show of some 20 pieces, which was held in 1985. Other such invitations followed, and she lined up fashion shows at Red Earth in 1986 and 1987. She knew she was on to something, and her confidence grew.

The museums’ staff was enthusiastic because they could see that Margaret was a weaver and an artist. Moreover, she seemed to be unique, as a Native American weaver of clothing. Indian people designed Native American clothing, but none of them created the fabrics from scratch on a loom.

“I was na├»ve, not thinking really beyond the museums,” Margaret says. “But I knew I wanted to be known by them, and that I didn’t want to sell my clothes at Indian markets on hangers in a booth. I wanted my clothes on models, so customers could see the action of the clothing.”

That was the ideal, not the practical approach.

For her, museums were vehicles for marketing, and they paid small stipends for the style shows or to do lectures or workshops. She also went to museums to do sketches and write down ideas and back then, “I’d do original designs laboriously on graph paper for each item of clothing. Then, I’d take a couple of weeks to weave this highly stylized clothing and hang them on wooden stands I designed and sell the combination as a sculpture, with the advantage that you could remove the vest or skirt to wear.” Margaret paused for effect. “Well, these never sold. No, I think I sold two. People said they loved them, but I think they loved the idea of them.”

In due course, Margaret found her way to Santa Fe as many artists do, and found a niche that paid very well. She was showing her clothing at fashion shows at some prominent hotels and later the adobe residences of the exceedingly well off. The models and rooms would be provided and Margaret and Glen (when he could) would stay at these hotels and be treated royally as part of the deal with the hotels.

The fashion shows there and in other mainly southwestern locales in the late ‘80s and ‘90s included Margaret providing the history of the piece, the influences and the tribe; her products were mostly southwestern or plains designs then, to match the location, and, of course, those styles sold well.

While she did well financially, she chafed over the fact that many of her customers had their own, sometimes, bad ideas for clothing that they wanted her to produce for them. Even clothing she didn’t like, however, was very labor intensive, and she got farther behind in filling orders-despite working long hours seven days a week. Plus, she was hounded by people who had paid half the price upfront, and many of these were used to having their orders filled yesterday.

When she took the time to do the original work that was emotionally and artistically fulfilling and nourishing, she got farther behind on her orders. Something had to give, but she couldn’t afford to return to critically acclaimed work that didn’t sell.

Like many artists in the beginning of their careers, Margaret had worked with different media. She decided to combine sculpture with weaving and the traditional with the modern. She sculpted faces on long, wooden poles similar to the poles outside of lodges in traditional Mandan villages. But instead of hanging hides off the poles, she hung specially woven robes with long tails that would move with the wind.

Again, art buyers and collectors loved the concept, but not many had a place to display a 15-to17-foot pole, and if the poles were outside, as Margaret envisioned, what kind of woven material would hold up to weather? After she discovered an all-weather synthetic, polypropylene, at the Tulsa Weaver’s Guild-one of many she belongs to—she got into the pole business. At one of her first exhibits in New York City, she sold a pole to a buyer living in a lodge (probably quite a big lodge) in Montana.

Later, she produced three sizes of poles all with hand-carved faces and wearing woven fabric of different colors and design. She called them the Mahotans and divided them into three clans. The Windpeople are 6to 12 feet high, for outdoor garden sculpture. The Woodland clan were 1 to 3 feet tall, and the miniature Venetians were 5 to 24 inches tall.

The raw poles were provided by Glen, who cut them in the woods on the couple’s three acres of land outside Joplin. She sold these stylized poles with metal bases (some containing native grasses) at Indian markets, which she would drive to pulling a trailer for the taller Mahotans. As you would guess, the pole business was physically taxing and over about three years, she says clothes “crept back” into her repertoire and poles receded somewhat.

Tribute to Diamond and Three Butterflies

After she had a number of local and regional style shows and was acclaimed by her peers, Margaret, in 1988, made her national and international fashion debut at her first “Convergence,” a biannual teaching conference. It is sponsored by the Handweavers Guild of America, though it is really international in scope. The culmination of the conference is a fashion show comprising the work of about 50 artists. Margaret was selected, and as far as she knew, she was the only Native American making Native American style clothing.

She continued showing her work at Convergence throughout the 1990s, but two were special, each an homage to family members who had passed away. When her father died at age 91 in 1993, she wanted to honor him with a symbolic piece that would be shown at Convergence. She thought of an Edward Curtis photograph of a Cheyenne man wrapped head to foot in a white blanket. Only one hand, which he is holding up, and his eyes are showing. “That photo had been in my house for years,” Margaret says. “But after dad passed, I saw that Cheyenne man as a tower of strength, like my father.

“I took that idea and wove a cloak with a stylized hood that covers the entire head except for a slit for the eyes. The cloak has a diamond pattern that is black, gray and white; the bottom, but is dark, representing the part of dad’s past that he didn’t want to talk about. But the garment’s darkness gradually gives way to lighter fabric which represents an accumulation of wisdom as dad grew older.”

At the fashion show in Minneapolis, the model wearing the piece, “Tribute to Diamond,” walked up and down a runway the way models do to a musical accompaniment as a narrator explained the background. Then, on cue, the model stopped and threw out her arms, revealing that the cloak’s inside was filled with color--representing her father’s inner beauty. The crowd’s response was overwhelming to Margaret.

The second tribute was originally intended to honor only her mother, Rubey, at the Convergence in Atlanta scheduled for 1998. Envisioning a butterfly, Margaret drew a mock-up design showing the topside and underside of the wings that would patch two colors, ruby and green, and patterns together.

Then, she decided to add two more “butterflies,” memorializing her sister, Lawanda, who had passed away in 1988, and Kriss, who her surviving brother Wade said packed more living into 16 years than most people did into 60. That belief was enhanced after Kriss’s death when her parents learned for the first time that their daughter had been making periodic, mutually enjoyable visits to residents of nursing homes.

Lawanda had been the hero of Margaret’s youth. Not only did she and her husband fly at a time when most Americans were earth bound, but she acted from moral conviction as a social and political activist in the early days of the civil rights movement when doing so wasn’t fashionable and could be dangerous.

She completed the new mock-ups: “I thought of Lawanda as regal, so that piece was purple and yellow. Kriss’s colors were rust and blue because I get an emotional response to those colors.” Then, she took the designs to her mother, who was in failing health for her review and approval. Unfortunately, Rubey died in 1997, two decades after her granddaughter and almost one decade after her daughter.

“The Three Butterflies” was presented in Atlanta, less than a year later. It lasted a little more than five minutes, par for the course. Margaret thought it was like life, beautiful, but not perfect. “At these big fashion shows, you take a risk handing over your pieces that may be intensely personal to a choreographer who presents them in his or her own way. They get the models and arrange music, lighting, everything,” Margaret says. “You can offer your two cents, but it’s up to them.

“I was happy with the production, except the music, which was New Orleans jazz. I like jazz, but not with ‘The Three Butterflies.’”

Her expression reflected that disappointment, but that’s not how she wanted to leave it, so she smiled and said, “Still, the audience loved it. I have a copy of it on DVD.”

In life, her butterflies had been bright, sensitive and opinionated, all in all, tough customers for artists. But Margaret, as her own toughest critic, believes the butterflies would have been pleased.

Lowak Shoppala'

In 2006, Margaret attended the Chickasaw Nation Listening Conference in Oklahoma City. She took her portfolio, hoping to see if the tribe’s division of arts and humanities had any projects in the hopper that could use her talents. She met the division’s administrator, Lona Barrick, who knew her name and reputation, but not her work. Barrick looked through the portfolio and couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. She introduced Margaret to Chickasaw musician and classical composer Jerod Tate, who was in the conceptual stage of musically dramatizing portions of Chickasaw history and culture for a multi-media theater performance.

Tate was writing the musical score, and as artistic director, wanted to base a theater production on a poem called “Fire and Light,” written by Chickasaw author and poet Linda Hogan. Who better to he work than Hogan herself? She agreed and became the scriptwriter. During development, the title was changed to the Chickasaw for fire and light, Lowak Shoppala’. After Tate and Wheeler met, she was invited by him and Barrick to be Lowak’s costume and set designer. Thus, the creative collaboration was set.

The first time Margaret and Jerod talked substantively, he told her in general what scenes he wanted included. This meant she would need to design clothing from the Mississippian Period (roughly 900 to 1700) to the turn of the 20th century. It would be a daunting and thrilling challenge. “This was at an Italian restaurant in Ada, and when I went back to my hotel room I started sketching and by morning I had some firm ideas on paper. Some were based on ideas I’d had in storage for years.”

She collected ideas and information from picture books, such as the incredible Hero, Hawk and Open Hand. But she had experienced the emotional wallop of seeing and touching (through thin cotton gloves) a variety of prehistoric and historic artifacts on two previous research trips to the Smithsonian’s curatorial facilities in Suitland, Maryland and the British Museum in London.

She had hoped to find textiles from the Mississippian Period (roughly 900 to 1600) and from 18th century tribes, especially the Chickasaws. But textiles are not durable goods, and she found only a few decomposed pieces in the collection, from the Spiro Mounds in eastern Oklahoma. While no one is arguing that the Spiro people were ancestral Chickasaw, their autocratic society was similar to those mound builders whose locations were near the historic Chickasaws in northeast Mississippi. So, the Spiro textiles were valuable to her.

Margaret photographed the patterns on those textiles, conch shell drawings, and designs on pottery, and she found pieces of flax and plant fibers. From the photos, notes and sketches from her previous research and her fertile imagination, Margaret created the ancient look of Lowak. The sequential appearance of the seven clan leaders was Scene Four, which I believe was the heart of Margaret’s creative contribution to Lowak. Each leader was introduced into an individual spotlight as Jerod Tate conducted his score while his pre-recorded voiceover provided Hogan’s poetic take on each clan. Margaret’s creativity, her ability to adapt from the ancient to stunning contemporary looks of woven material, feathers and other natural materials was and is her essence.

She discussed that contribution later, in summary fashion: “One piece of cloth from Spiro had a pattern of a circle within a circle that I used on a kilt I made for the Squirrel clan leader. The Miko’s clothing featured a doubleheaded woodpecker, common in Mississippian designs. Alligator’s breech cloth and headdress were similar to conch shell drawings I saw among the Smithsonian collection.

“Panther Woman’s dress was adapted from a 16th-century painting I saw and held at the British Museum. Bird’s feathered cape, according to documentation, should have been swan’s feathers, but when I couldn’t find any, I used white goose feathers. The costumes of Raccoon and Skunk arose largely from my imagination, although I’ve seen similar capes made from rabbit fur.”

I think many in the audience that Nov., 2009, must have felt occasionally conflicted during the times in the production when all of the three collaborators’ work was on display simultaneously because of the difficulty of trying to process the beauty, creativity and symbolism of some of these costumes while listening to Tate’s beautiful, sometimes haunting, music and Hogan’s elegiac poetry. They were complementary, but periodically, one’s focus would shift. Even so, I think there could be no better showcase for her work. It also could be true that the idea for inducting Margaret into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in August 2010, either was born or gained momentum that night.

At the end of the performance, during which there was an extended standing ovation, the actors, singers and dancers took turns taking a bow. Tate took his turn, and then bounded into the wings to fetch Lowak’s unseen creators, Margaret Wheeler and Linda Hogan, onto center stage. The applause spiked. Margaret’s purple woven jacket was a perfect complement to her shoulder-length silver hair and beaming smile. Joining hands, the entire cast bowed deeply in unison a final time.

Curtain

Last Updated: 12/6/2016