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  • Lani Hansen

Shade, Proctor named 2018 Tradition Keepers

Updated: Nov 1, 2018



TAHLEQUAH - Every year since 2005, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians has tipped its hat to exceptional tribal members passing on their traditional cultural knowledge with the John Hair Cultural Center and Museum’s Tradition Keeper award. This year Clara Proctor and Richard Shade took home the honor.

Proctor works to preserve the language

United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians member and 2018 Tradition Keeper Clara Proctor received a plaque in her honor from Chief Joe Bunch during the 68th Annual Keetoowah Celebration on Oct. 6 in Tahlequah. TRISTA VAUGHN/GCN

Clara Proctor said she accepted the award with a great sense of responsibility. 

“I think it’s a big responsibility to really live up to the honor,” she said. “Everyone should do their part and especially if you’re picked for this group, I think you should put extra effort in.”

Proctor, who can also read and write Cherokee, said the language has “fallen aside” in everyday life.

“We learned Cherokee because we were born into it. It’s a part of us. That’s different nowadays, I don’t think kids really hear it at home," she said. "It’s fallen aside. It’s our fault, some of it. We have to share that because we didn’t talk it, we didn’t speak it everyday.”

Proctor said her 92-year-old Aunt Liz is the speaker she converses with most and worries what knowledge about the language will be lost after she passes on.

“Sometimes I think, ‘who am I going to talk to after she’s gone?’ She’s our person to go to if we have questions,” she said. “There’s a lot of Cherokee words that we don’t know because they don’t use the words anymore, because you don’t hear the language as much anymore.”

It is an issue that Proctor does not face alone.

“When I speak about this to other fluent speakers, I think everyone pretty much agrees that when our generation is gone, we wonder if there will be anyone left to speak it other than how they learn through books,” she said. “I have cousins who are fluent, but it’s gotten to where they don’t automatically speak in Cherokee because a lot of it has to do with their kids and their grand kids. In order to communicate with them, they speak English.”

When not attending work or helping lead Sunday School classes in Cherokee at Steeley Baptist Church, Proctor is continuously thinking of ways to preserve her native tongue. 

“We just need to saturate everything with Keetoowah Cherokee,” she said. “I really think we should leave more videos and audio and it’s something that we try to do in our spare time.” 

Proctor has also previously taught 10-week language courses at both her church and the Delaware County Library in Jay.

“We’d run a 10-week course open to whoever, free. They get exposure to basics, mostly vocabulary, a few phrases, but it’s a long ways from being a fluent speaker,” she said. “We need something more computerized I think. If we had some of the young kids who are so techy nowadays and get them to help us to develop some kind of software or programs we could use online, that would be good.”

Through her teaching, Proctor has found the hardest concept for learners to grasp is the dialect.

“I think the dialect differences are difficult, the pronunciation of words and how they’re used grammatically,” she said. “I think we need to leave more recordings of the language because the pronunciation is so important. You have to get it right to be really understood by fluent speakers.”

Proctor conveyed that sentence structure between Cherokee and English is also a challenge for some attempting to learn the language.

“It’s like changing gears because the language in English, it’s in a reversed order to ours a lot of times,” she said. 

Though the path to regaining fluent speakers is difficult, for Proctor, knowing and speaking the Cherokee language is essential to being a true UKB member.

“I really think it’s a part of us, it defines who we are as Keetoowah people,” she said. “That’s your language, culture, knowing your history, all the ways growing up that you’re taught. Language is a part of it. That’s the way they communicated. There’s a big piece missing when you don’t have your language. We just don’t have a lot of stuff left without it.”

Shade shoots for more

Richard Shade said he was surprised to win the award and had “no idea” he was nominated, but thanked Georgia Maudlin for thinking of his accomplishments.

Shade, who has been in the bow-making business for nearly 35 years, is self-taught.

“The way I started making bows, I’ve always wanted to make a bow and nobody ever taught me,” he said. “My mom’s side of the family knew, but I just picked it up after looking at a completed one and thought, ‘I could do that.’”

Shade makes straight bows, as well as bows with handles and notches for comfort and ease of use. 

He first begins his process by searching out an ideal piece of wood and while black locust, hickory and mulberry can all be used in bow-making, his preference is bois d’arc wood.

“Bois d’arc is a hard wood, it’s a real hard wood. It’s stout, but it takes a good bend. It’s almost kind of elastic. Bend, but not break,” said Shade. “It’s kind of hard to find a good, straight piece. Bois d’arc is a crooked wood, a twisted up piece of wood. There’s some out there that are straight, but you have to look for it. It’s special when you come across one.”

Once the wood is selected, Shade will follow the growth rings of the piece to carve out and wedge the bow while being mindful of its natural build.

“Trees have growth rings and the back of the bow has to be one of the growth rings. You have to follow the growth ring and if you cut through it on the back, then that’s a spot where it can break. If you pull a stick too much, it will pop. That’s why my bows have humps and bumps. I’m following the natural lines of the wood.”

Shade sets it out to season once the wedging and carving process is complete.

“You have to season it for at least a year,” he said. “You have to put it in a barn so it can air dry out. That’s letting the sap in the wood and everything dry out and getting all the extra moisture out. The longer the better. Some guys will have it it for seven years before they even start making it a bow, but I don’t wait that long.” 

After the wood is seasoned to Shade’s satisfaction, he puts the final touches on it by shaping it out, smoothing it over and stringing it up. 

United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians member Richard Shade has been making bows for nearly 35 years. He is self-taught and begins by finding a straight piece of bois d’arc wood from which he can wedge and carve out his bow. After, he seasons it for an entire year before smoothing and finishing it off. PHOTOS BRITTNEY BENNETT/GCN

The length of time to complete one bow can vary depending on his mood surrounding the creative process.

“It’s according to how I feel. I may take it before its shaped out and put it up for six months sometimes if I don’t feel like it,” said Shade. “When I first started, I used to start one and work until I finished it because I wanted to see how it would shoot. I used to work until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning just because I was curious.”

These days bow-making is more slow paced.

“From start to finish, it would take three or four days if you worked on it like a job eight hours a day. It would probably take me three or four days since I’m a little slower, but anymore it’s just like a hobby and it’s kind of relaxing. It’s on my time,” said Shade.

In addition to bows, he also makes his own bois d’arc arrows.

“It’s a rough piece of wood so that’s shaping with a knife and I like to use a grinder when I can, but it takes a while,” said Shade.

After finishing up the arrows and putting the final touch of carving his Cherokee name into the bow, Shade said his work is ready for a variety of uses including cornstalk shoots and hunting.

“I’ve made quite a few of them. I take orders. That’s mostly how I sell. It takes so long to make them though, it’ll take me a little while to do it,” he said. 

While Shade takes orders for bows, he said he is just as eager to teach and pass along his knowledge to others, especially now that he is a Tradition Keeper. 

“I’ve taught a few classes on bow-making when I have time. I still work full-time,” he said. “We’ve done classes in Lost City and Tahlequah. If I have classes again though, there has to be a limit because you actually have to watch people and help them along. I take pride in it.”

Proctor and Shade were awarded plaques in recognition of their contributions to the Keetoowah Cherokee culture during the 68th Annual Keetoowah Celebration that took place Oct. 6. 

Tradition Keepers are outstanding individuals dedicated to continuing the Keetoowah Cherokee culture through practicing a variety of ancient skills and traditions. They must be unselfish with their craft and willing to share their knowledge with other members and the public.



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