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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Expertise in Kiowa Crafts Brings 52-year-old Recognition


by Brandy McDonnell News Oklahoma


Vanessa Paukeigope JenningsVanessa Paukeigope Jennings doesn't think of herself as an artist.

Instead, she views herself as a Kiowa woman living in the aged traditions and ways passed down from her grandmother.

The 52-year-old wears her hair in braids and dresses primarily in leggings, moccasins and broadcloth dresses she makes herself. She also makes cradleboards, beadwork, saddles, headdresses, headstalls for horses and men's leggings, shirts and moccasins.

"I don't like the title 'artist.' I look at myself and see myself as just a traditional woman," Jennings said. "It wasn't that long ago, in my grandmother's generation, the generations before her, they all did everything."

Jennings' vast knowledge and skill in traditional Kiowa crafts earned her the title of Honored One for Red Earth 2004. She will be recognized during the festival at the noon Grand Entry on Friday, said Dee Ann Alexander, executive director of Red Earth Inc.

"She's done work with Red Earth in the past, she's well respected in the community ... and she's a favorite artist among some of the board members. And she's an all-around good person," Alexander said.

The Honored One is the highest award the festival bestows on an artist. The Red Earth board of directors presents the award to an American Indian artist with a distinguished record of promoting and contributing to American Indian art, Alexander said.

In 1989, The National Endowment for the Arts named Jennings a National Heritage Fellow, which earned her the title of Living National Treasure from the president and Congress. Besides the 1992 President's Award at Red Earth, she has earned awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market and Great Plains Indian Rendezvous.

Jennings' immersion in her culture, commitment to her roots and extensive knowledge of traditional crafts cause her to stand out, Alexander said.

A few years ago, Alexander attended a workshop where Jennings demonstrated the ancient and arduous technique of brain tanning, or using an animal's brains to tan its hide so it is soft and supple.

"She knows how to do all that old stuff that no one knows how to do anymore," Alexander said.

Kiowa CradleboardJennings, who is of Kiowa, Apache and Pima descent, said she inherited the Kiowa songs, crafts, manners and language from her maternal grandparents, Stephen and Jeanette Mopope. In Kiowa tradition stemming back to the tribe's "free days," her grandparents raised her while her parents played an active role in her youth.

"We didn't learn how to be Indian out of books or take classes. We didn't separate it out. It was just who we were," she said.

Growing up in Lawton, Jennings said, she endured teasing for wearing leggings and braids in a time when people were supposed to conceal their American Indian heritage. Even some of her relatives and friends pressed her to not look and act so Indian.

She took heart from her grandfather, one of the Kiowa Five artists who studied with Oscar Jacobson. She considers her grandfather a true artist and credits him with any sense of artistry she possesses.

"He said if he stopped painting, he might as well stop breathing," she said.

She has the same attitude when it comes to making cradleboards, doing beadwork or creating any of the other traditional crafts her grandmother taught her. It's just who she is.

"You walk through life and you pass monsters and angels and thieves and liars. But then you meet people who are the most extraordinary beings, and they can shape your life. I'm a direct result of my grandmother's teachings," Jennings said.

Jennings, who lives in Red Stone, a rural Kiowa community east of Fort Cobb, said she worked to share her grandparent's teaching with her own three children. Since her parents died in the 1950s, Jennings raised her children herself. But she is raising one of her grandsons, Cade Morgan, the 5-year-old son of her daughter, Summer Morgan, and striving to pass the teachings to him, too.

While she knows sharing her culture is the only way to ensure it isn't forgotten, Jennings said she sometimes struggles in her efforts. She sometimes encounters people who don't care or have negative stereotypes about American Indians.

Every time she gets discouraged, Jennings said, she will get a commission for a cradleboard, an award at an art show or some other validation that her work is worthwhile. She said she cried in happiness when she found out she had been named Red Earth's Honored One.

"It's just a simple, steady journey. Keep putting one foot in front of the other," she said. "God will always reward you."

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