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(Many Paths)
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Rutherford Recreating Cherokee Feathered Capes
by Will Chavez - Senior Reporter, Cherokee Phoenix
credits: photos by Will Chavez - Cherokee Phoenix

TAHLEQUAH, OK– Lisa Rutherford's studio space in the Cherokee Arts Center is a testament to her artistic interests. Her pottery in the room mixes with her textile and beadwork. Also in the room are loose goose feathers that are to be part of capes she's creating because she's one of a handful of Cherokee artists who can make feathered capes and the only one currently doing so.

Rutherford said pottery is her primary art form, learning from Cherokee National Treasure Jane Osti of Tahlequah. However, she also studied Southeastern-style beadwork with Cherokee National Treasure Martha Berry of Tyler, Texas. And somewhere along the way, some Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians friends sparked her interest in 18th-century Cherokee clothing, helping her create outfits from that period.

She now demonstrates making traditional Cherokee arts at shows and other events dressed in 18th-century Cherokee clothing. But while researching Cherokee clothing and how tribal pottery was stamped with textiles she became interested in feather capes that were once worn by Cherokee people.

"The Eastern Band had feather capes, and I wanted one too to go with my 18th-century clothing," she said. "(Hernando) de Soto described these capes as early as 1540. He described different feather mantles and capes. Different explorers talked about the Cherokees wearing them as late as the 1700s. They were described as being on a net base with the brightest colored feathers from flamingos, parrots, turkeys, geese, ducks – the brighter colors were the preferred colors."

So far Rutherford has only used goose and turkey feathers for her capes but wants to try other feathers such as pheasant. She places lighter-colored feathers among darker feathers on her capes to create accents.

Rutherford teamed up with Cherokee National Treasure Tonia Weavel of Tahlequah to learn how to make capes and mantles. Based on her research, Rutherford believes a mantle is longer and requires more feathers while a cape is shorter and mainly covers one's shoulders.

"We (she and Weavel) got together and decided if our ancestors could figure this out we can make one. So we borrowed a cape a museum professional had made in Pennsylvania and we studied the thread pattern. It was really hard. It took us six days to learn how to weave that. I finally wove one. I was able to make my first feather cape," Rutherford said.

Along with weaving the netting, finding good feathers is challenging, Rutherford said. And they can be expensive. A pound of dyed, sanitized goose feathers costs $80. After culling a pound of feathers, she said she might throw half of them away because they do not meet her standards.

"It just takes a lot of time. You have to individually bend the quill on each feather and bend over a wire to make a nice round eye to sew through, and then you lash them down," she said. "There are probably 750 to 800 feathers in a (over the shoulder) cape, so it takes a significant amount of time."

One of her hip-length mantles has approximately 2,200 feathers.

She said the capes and mantles are warm and likely had practical use for Cherokee people to help keep them warm in cold weather. In her research she has found only Cherokee men wore the mantles.

For a medium-length black cape on display in her studio she has won three second-place awards, a first-place award and three best of division awards at art shows.

Rutherford said she she wants to branch out into painting, but only after filling her cape orders.

"You have to do what sells when you're a full-time artist even though you'd like to do something more fun. You have to budget your time and balance your priorities."

Since learning the craft in 2011, Rutherford has made 10 capes and has customer orders for five others.
She said Oklahoma Cherokees are not interested in wearing capes with their traditional clothing because wearing 18th-century style clothing has not caught as it has with the Eastern Cherokees.

"They've been very popular," Rutherford said. "I've sold several to Eastern Band contestants for Miss Cherokee. I've sold some for exhibits."

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