SULPHUR — A young Taloa Underwood would not have envisioned the place she now stands in the fashion and textile world. Designer, weaver, business woman, culture bearer – they were as far away as the moon.
In reality, her path to success was a stone’s throw away, in the presence of those closest to her growing up in Sulphur on her great-grandfather’s original Chickasaw allotment land.
Relatives, friends and mentors saw what she could not. They knew her better than she knew herself, Underwood would say. They nurtured the success now in full bloom.
They are more than happy to vaunt Underwood’s successes to make up for her humble nature. What materializes from their words is a picture of a young Chickasaw willing to get her hands dirty with any art form while soaking up the wisdom of those around her.
“When Taloa was a child, she took dance lessons and would learn the steps so quickly. I was always amazed. Even now, she is still learning and trying different kinds of art and picking up things so quickly,” Joanna Underwood Blackburn, Taloa’s paternal aunt, remembered.
Underwood Blackburn is herself a famed Chickasaw artist specializing in sculpture and pottery. The two have been close all of Underwood’s life.
“She’s been helping me since she was a little girl. She’d usually help me pack and unpack and get my booth set up. Now she’s setting up for her own artwork and inspiring me,” Underwood Blackburn said.
Underwood credits her aunt with initiating her appreciation of art.
“Joanna was a big part of why I loved art. She would take me to art shows like Red Earth. I got to meet all of the customers and other artists,” Underwood said. “It was nice to get perspectives on art from different people, a lot of painters and sculptors. I thought, ‘Wow, this is all really cool. Would I like to be a painter, to sculpt, would I like to do drawings?’”
Underwood also credits her mother, Tina Underwood, and grandparents, Juanita and Gene Underwood, with helping shape who she is today. They offered unconditional support.
Their impact came in many forms. Hands-on learning could be seen in moments like spending time together molding clay. They offered encouragement in times of doubt. They urged her to enroll in various programs the Chickasaw Nation offered, like the Chickasaw Arts Academy. Whenever possible, they prompted Underwood to compete in art shows.
Despite her natural skill with art, Underwood did not intend to make a living with it. She wanted to help others. Nursing, veterinary services and social services were paths she contemplated. She focused on these selfless professions when attending Sulphur High School and East Central University in Ada.
Things changed when her aunt introduced Underwood to renowned Chickasaw weaver and fashion designer Margaret Roach Wheeler.
Mentors and professors
“Hey, my friend Margaret is a textile weaver. She’d like to teach somebody how to weave. I was wondering if you’d be interested?” the aunt asked her niece four years ago.
Underwood was indeed interested.
A few days later, she sat at a table loom in the ARTesian Gallery & Studios working on her first scrub cloths and soap bags.
“Margaret saw I did a good job as a first time weaver, especially with the fiber I was working with. It was sticky and I was having a little bit of trouble, but I could work out the problems without needing help and it surprised her. So she asked if I wanted to try something on a bigger loom. I was so excited,” Underwood remembered.
Next, it was on to the floor loom, learning how to work a warp and tie up the loom.
“It was a whole new world to me. I had no idea this art medium existed,” Underwood said. “This wonderful person was teaching me everything she knew. I just fell in love with it. She was so excited to teach me. She even had me create my own patterns.”
Underwood continued to learn from and work with Wheeler while studying at ECU.
A professor of Native American studies at ECU, Thomas Cowger, was the next major influence on Underwood’s trajectory. After one class and a few prompts in the hallway, he convinced Underwood to take on Native American studies as a major.
“He loves tribal nations, learning about them, spreading awareness, helping the tribes,” Underwood said. “We weren’t just learning about our own tribes. We were studying tribes across the nation.”
Though there is still much to be uncovered in the area of study, Underwood began digging into historical Southeastern designs and symbols. Her studies at college and mentorship under Wheeler came together to reinforce Underwood’s work as a weaver.
“Margaret is wonderful because she has done her own research. She has binders full of stuff she’s found. I can go to her, and she’ll have some idea of what a symbol might mean,” Underwood said. “What I really wanted to do was be able to research our culture and designs, anything I could help educate the public with.”
Soon, Underwood would complete her Bachelor of Arts degree – just in time to play a pivotal role in the development of an entire business.
It all comes together
Today, Underwood has her hands full researching, crafting historical designs, formatting and sending them to looms, and filling orders to be shipped over the globe. She is one of the three Chickasaw women who brought Mahota Textiles from concept to reality.
It started in the mind of Wheeler and came to fruition by the hands of Underwood.
“I had a bright idea. We cannot do circles on the hand looms. Everything is in blocks. I have always wanted to do the Mississippian designs, but it is very difficult on a hand loom,” Wheeler said.
Circles and curves are common with Mississippian and Southeastern motifs and symbols, whether it be depictions of otherworldly eyes, representations of the sun or visualizations of various animals like spiders and crawfish.
This presented a challenge for Wheeler, who runs a weaving co-op specializing in hand woven textiles called Mahota Studios out of the ARTesian Gallery & Studios in Sulphur – the same place Underwood soaked up Wheeler’s weaving knowledge.
Though it can produce fashionable showpieces and practical wares, the art of hand weaving with a loom is not ideal for creating circles. Wheeler needed to push through this boundary.
She decided to try a contemporary option: computerized looms.
As a separate endeavor from Mahota Studios, Wheeler and Underwood set down the path, which resulted in the business called Mahota Textiles. A Chickasaw businesswoman named Bethany McCord would join them.
“One day Margaret came to me and said she did it, she met with Governor Anoatubby and shared her proposal,” Underwood recalled. “She was so excited and I was so excited for her. She said, ‘You know, we’ll need a designer for the business. And she just smiled at me. I said ‘Margaret, I’d love to be a part of this.’”
To find her in the early days, one would have to navigate to the back of a studio with towers of colorful textiles and only a narrow walkway. On an old iMac G3 computer, just as colorful as the fabrics surrounding her, Underwood taught herself graphic design and how to incorporate technology into the weaving process.
Underwood had to learn how to create computer graphics and design textiles. Within a few months, she was designing blankets, upholstery, fabric design for merchandise and attending markets – while also learning how to build a business.
Underwood’s hard work and dedication took Wheeler by surprise.
“She’s doing everything and she’s 25 years old. Her designs are just gorgeous. I walk in and think I need to ask her to do something, but it’s already done. I’ve never seen her not working when she’s here. Taloa has been the one here with me the majority of the time, the one I really rely on for almost everything. Taloa is just genius, straight across,” Wheeler said.
After running a gauntlet of challenges to become an LLC, Mahota Textiles released its first designs in 2018 called the “Heritage Collection.” Designs included the Chickasaw Map, Sun Symbols and the Forked Eye.
Hitting the ground running, Underwood and her business companions traveled to trade shows and fashion events across the country. They met with retail owners and buyers at New York Now, a trade show. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, they participated in a fashion show called Edge, kicking off the Santa Fe Indian Market. Underwood picked out models, dressed them and selected their poses.
“It was great because some of the people living in Santa Fe are surrounded by Southwestern designs. They came up and asked us what our Southeastern designs meant. They saw our designs were different, so they wanted to ask questions, and we were so happy to help them,” Underwood said.
Since then, Mahota Textiles’ base of operations has moved into a remodeled shop with a showroom, conference area, offices and work space. On a computer a little more updated compared to the bubble Mac, Underwood personally crafted the next line of designs for Mahota Textiles. Her new designs are slated for release in late Spring 2020. Her aunt, Underwood Blackburn, will be a guest designer in the following collection.
“I’ve done a lot of research on these designs. I’m excited for them to come out so the public can see them and learn more about our Southeastern history,” Underwood said.
“If you had ever asked me if I’d be in the fashion, textile and decor world, I would have said, ‘No, never.’ But because of Margaret, it’s something I love. I’ve learned a lot,” Underwood said. “Now it’s a passion of mine to help spread awareness of our culture – the Chickasaw Nation, how we survive and thrive into the future. I want to raise awareness of our Southeastern designs.”
About Mahota Textiles
What started as an expert weaver’s efforts to reproduce better, more accurate cultural symbols has unfolded into the first textile company envisioned and owned by a North American tribe, the Chickasaw Nation.
Mahota Textiles is an Oklahoma-based weaving company with an emphasis on Southeastern American Indian designs.
Wheeler explained that “Hota” means “pulls apart the threads” or “to separate by hand.” It is a Chickasaw name likely referring to the process of making the corn-based dish called pashofa. Wheeler also takes it as a legacy mark, an ancestral sign of what would become her life’s passion.
The threads of Wheeler’s maternal heritage are depicted in Mahota Textiles’ company logo. With an aesthetic similar to early hand carved American Indian glyphs, or perhaps the age rings of a tree, the logo traces five generations of indigenous women: Mahota, Nancy Mahota, Juel, Rubey and Margaret.
“We are makers of art, of story, the threads that connect the inspiration of our ancestors to all of us in a modern world,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler’s labor of passion is shared with a small team of hardworking women. At Wheeler’s side are the flourishing young weaver Taloa Underwood and the business-savvy Bethany McCord.
They are weaving together generations of tradition with modern processes. In creating artful textiles, Mahota aims to elevate beauty and treasured culture inspired by Southeastern heritage. Their creations tell cultural stories with expressive imagery and soft, warm woven material.
They work with the finest natural fibers of cotton, wool and linen. No chemicals are ever used in the weaving and finishing of their products. The inherent earthly qualities of these fibers naturally create elegant textiles for everyday use.
You can find Mahota Textiles’ products in various museum shops and stores throughout the United States. An online retail store is also available at MahotaTextiles.com.
Since its launch in October 2018, Mahota Textiles has made waves in the textile and art world. The First American Art Magazine named the founding of Mahota Textiles to its Top 10 Native Art Events of 2018.
Mahota Textiles can be found in Sulphur, Oklahoma’s historic downtown, 309 Muskogee Ave. Their showroom and offices are conveniently located near other southeast Oklahoma attractions such as the ARTesian Gallery & Studios, Chickasaw Cultural Center, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Chickasaw Visitor Center and newly designed Oka’ Chokma’si Sculpture Park.
For more information, contact 580-436-2603 or visit MahotaTextiles.com.