Reclaiming Cultural Ownership


In the Cherokee language, activism, “sdaya-digaluwisdanelv-gohusdi-vyelisv,” means, “working hard to achieve a goal.” When I think of activism done in, “the Cherokee way,” I think of artist, Shan Goshorn, who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). Her art, was always centered around social justice and bringing awareness to the faces of injustice that continue to plague her people. We lost Shan on December 1, 2018, to a rare form of cancer.

Shan’s story began in 1975, when, as a teenager, she began working her summers at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Cooperative. She became especially intrigued by, “double weave” basketry. It starts on the interior bottom and is woven up the sides to the desired height. The splints are turned and woven back down the exterior and finished on the bottom, with no obvious indication of beginning or end, much like the cosmology of the Cherokee: everything eventually comes to full circle.

Shan became an avid, “cultural activist” who expressed her viewpoints through art.” Initially, her medium of choice was multi-media. She created several bodies of work that addressed human rights issues unique to Indian people, such stereotypes. One of her early creations, Honest Injun, featured a series of hand-painted black and white photographs of commercial products that use Indian names or images to hawk their wares.” Her intention was to educate and create dialogue, but her early audiences sought to retreat, or react in hostility. Remembering the gentle nature of basket-making, Shan decided to use it as her new medium, and she poured her heart into crafting old messages into a new venue. “I’ve always done work that’s made very strong statements,” Goshorn told the Tulsa World in 2013. “And, in the past, sometimes the art itself has been pretty confrontational and in-your-face,” she said, “but while the baskets are presenting the same kind of statements, they seem to draw people in rather than pushing them away.”

With the same fevered passion she put into, Honest Injun, Shan wove her message to the powerful NFL (National Football League). The piece was titled, “No Honor.” It spoke directly to the controversy around the name of the Washington professional football team, “Redskins.” A history lesson: the name, “Redskin” was created as a bounty placed on Native bodies and scalps. money was that is, people were paid money for bringing dead Indians to the trading post (read: attempted genocide). This single-weave Cherokee style basket combines a Redskin pennant with paper splints first printed with the following two definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary, to illustrate why this name is offensive and inappropriate: Redskin (rĕd skĭn)′ n. Offensive slang. Used as a disparaging term for a Native American Nigger (nĭg ər) n. Offensive slang. The basket also The title is printed all in caps, in reference to a 2013 quote by Redskin team owner, Dan Snyder, when asked if he would consider changing the name if the team loses an ongoing federal trademark lawsuit. His response: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.” Fans say they are honoring Native Americans. This is no honor.

I had never heard of Shan Goshorn until I became the director of a Cherokee cultural leadership program called, “Duyudvi,” The Right Path. I was searching for Cherokee people who could discuss our history its traumatic events through artistic expressions. Shan’s name was given to me. She happily came to talk to my class of young Cherokee adults, who were amazed at her courage to show the world how badly our people had been betrayed, mostly at the hands of our own United States governments. Shan has many baskets depicting the trauma, but she also created ones of joyful renaissance, strength, and hope for the future. We fell in love with her. It broke our hearts to lose her, but we will not forget her and her amazing messages.

Goshorn’s work is currently on display in the exhibition “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as at Dickinson College’s Trout Gallery in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Shan’s awards include the 2015 United States Artists Fellowship, 2013 Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship; 2013 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship; 2013 SWAIA (Southwestern Association for Indian Arts) Discovery Fellowship, and 2014 Native Arts and Culture Artist Fellowship.

The day after her passing, SWAIA – Santa Fe Indian Market issued a statement that reflects the feelings of our Nation, “The Native art world has lost a giant.  Shan Goshorn was one of a kind, much like her art.” Weave your stories in the Heaven, Shan. Danadagohvgi. “We’ll see each other again.

Sources cited

Juanita Wilson, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI)

Originally published January 9, 2019

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