LATTA — When Tyra Shackleford was 12, she wanted to make a belt that would match her dress.
Shackleford was a dancer with the Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe at the time, and the group was set to perform at an event in Kullihoma. A Seminole elder named Wisey Narcomey, who danced with the troupe and was well known for her finger weaving, taught Shackleford how to weave.
“I first learned how to make traditional belts and so for a long time, I just made belts for family,” Shackleford said in a Jan. 16 interview. “And then I got to where I was making belts for family and friends. And then I demonstrated at Kullihoma a few times.”
That experience set Shackleford on the path toward becoming a textile artist. Today, she is an award-winning Chickasaw artist who specializes in three ancient weaving techniques: finger weaving, twining and sprang.
She said the support of her husband, James, makes it easier to balance her home life, a full-time job and her artwork.
“I could not do it without him,” Shackleford said. “The other thing that I’ve been really honored to have the last couple of years is the support of my co-workers. I’m in a really good place, and the people that I work with really support my art, too. And I appreciate that.”
A self-taught artist
After graduating from college in 2009, Shackleford went to work for the Chickasaw Nation as a cultural instructor at the Chickasaw Nation Cultural Center in Sulphur. That job gave her a chance to delve into Chickasaw art and culture, and she fell in love with pre-European weaving methods.
“I started learning techniques,” she said. “A lot of it was self-taught at that time because there simply aren’t enough people and there aren’t people in this area to learn from.”
Shackleford’s quest for knowledge prompted her to learn how to process fibers and spin her own yarn. She read archeological texts so she could learn about the history of pre-European textiles. She also learned twining, a technique which interlaces strands to make a pattern, and sprang, an ancient method for making lace.
Shackleford said she likes the old methods, which are incorporated into every piece she makes, because they contradict old cliches about Native Americans.
“One thing is the stereotype that all Indians are kind of the same and they run around in buckskin dresses,” she said. “The fact that our people weren’t doing that and they were making cloth — that really piqued my interest.
“And then two, when you see these ancient artifacts, they’re beautiful pieces. Just imagining all the knowledge and hard work that had to go into creating those pieces, without modern technology at all, is just mind-boggling.”
Even though Shackleford has learned how to dye and spin her yarn, she also knows that she doesn’t enjoy producing yarn as much as she likes weaving. Instead, she buys commercially produced, pre-dyed yarn for her projects.
She said she still uses the ancient methods to produce items of clothing, including belts and handbags. But she also draws on those techniques to make art inspired by the history and culture of Southeastern Native Americans, including the Chickasaw Nation.
Shackleford credited her husband, James, with helping her take her talent to the next level.
“James has worked in the arts for years and years,” she said. “He has two degrees in theater. He’s been a part of several arts organizations.
“So he’s the one that saw me making all these traditional things and saw the potential for it to grow into an art form.”
Shackleford said she doesn’t have formal art training, so she was not familiar with art shows and markets. When James introduced her to the art world, she fell in love — so much so that she can’t imagine life without it.
For her first couple of art shows, Shackleford made traditional belts and experimented with two-dimensional pieces. Then she branched out into making handbags, which represented the biggest step outside her comfort zone at the time.
In 2017, she produced the item she considers her first piece of art — a larger-than-life shawl called “The Lady.” She made the dress for a traveling exhibition, and it was a major challenge for her.
“That was the most difficult piece for me to make, because the curator of that exhibition really pushed me outside of my comfort zone, which is exactly what they’re supposed to do,” Shackleford said. “But it was a painful process.”
She said she entered “The Lady” in the Artesian Arts Festival in Sulphur, where she won first place in the textiles category. She also entered the piece in the Eiteljorg Indian Market and Festival in Indianapolis, where it was purchased by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
Shackleford said she has won several awards for her artwork, including honors at the Santa Fe Indian Market. But she said in her opinion, “The Lady” is her finest accomplishment to date.
“To have a museum buy your piece — that’s going to live on forever,” she said.
‘That’s my mission’
Shackleford said going to shows and winning awards is nice. But more than the recognition, she enjoys educating people about the techniques that she uses.
“The thing that I really love is now when I go to shows, people are starting to recognize what it is,” she said. “They’re coming up and they’re like, ‘Is this sprang?’ And they’re all excited about it. And I’m like, ‘Yes, it is. How do you know about sprang?’
“So to me, that is more honoring and humbling than the awards.”
Shackleford said her greatest passion is preserving those techniques so they are not lost to history.
“Because they almost have been lost,” she said. “And so, anything that I can do to carry them on — to teach and share, or to inspire someone else to learn — that’s my mission. That’s what I want to do with my work.”