TAHLEQUAH, Okla. —A bronze bust honoring the first female Cherokee National Treasure celebrated for reviving Southeastern style pottery is now on display at the Cherokee Nation’s W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex.
The bust of the late Anna Belle Sixkiller Mitchell was sculpted by Cherokee artist Jane Osti.
The tribe and Northeastern State University commissioned the bronze sculpture in the 1980s. After its unveiling in 1990, the statue was kept at NSU’s Bacone House. It’s now on display inside the tribal complex entryway.
“The essence of bringing the bronze statue to the Cherokee Nation to share with Cherokee citizens in honor of the 25th anniversary of its completion warms my heart,” said Cherokee Nation Tribal Council member Victoria Vazquez Mitchell, who is the daughter of Anna Sixkiller Mitchell. “Having this statue so prominently displayed publicly shines a light on the achievements of my mother, who was a pioneer in her field, and restored what could have been a lost tradition.”
Anna Belle Sixkiller Mitchell grew up in Jay. She was a self-taught artist who began in 1969 after her husband requested she make a replica of Sequoyah’s pipe. That single project and an encounter with the University of Arkansas’ archaeology museum archives led Mitchell to decades of studying, researching and reviving Southeastern style pottery.
Southeastern style pottery is the traditional art of the Woodland Indians, including Cherokees, who originated from Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama. Artifacts include animal effigies, ceremonial objects and wood-fired vessels stamped with unique designs such as water symbols.
“She didn’t know how to fire pots so dad built her a three-sided fireplace, and she would fire pottery in metal tubs using wood, letting the coals burn down and fire all four sides, which was as close to traditional as possible,” Victoria Vazquez Mitchell said. “She would dig the white yellow clay from the pond or creek bank in Craig County, and what she learned from more than 35 years of trial and error did revive it.”
From start to finish, it would take several weeks to process the clay, dry it, grind it, mix it with water, and design and fire it.
Anna Belle Sixkiller Mitchell not only revived Southeastern pottery tradition but passed it on, as young artists asked to work with her and since she was a JOM program director in Vinita schools teaching young students.
In 1988 she was designated a Cherokee National Treasure. In 2008, Cherokee Nation Education Services presented her with the Educator of Arts and Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mitchell passed away in 2012. Her art is also displayed at the Vinita Health Center, at Cherokee Casino West Siloam Springs, and in permanent collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Cherokee Heritage Center and Fred Jones Museum at University of Oklahoma.
Osti was an NSU student working on her fine arts degree when she met Mitchell to interview her for a class assignment. She later became her teacher and mentor. The statue was Osti’s first major piece of work, which she took on for free. The tribe and NSU paid to have it bronzed.
“My great admiration and friendship with her is how the sculpture came about. I admired her work and how she revived Cherokee pottery,” Osti said. “She was my mentor for all the years I knew her. Anna Belle was the first person to teach me the Native American way of making pottery.”
In 2005, Osti followed in Mitchell’s footsteps by becoming only the second person to be recognized as a Cherokee National Treasure for pottery.
Victoria Mitchell Vazquez also received the Cherokee National Treasure award for traditional pottery in 2012, following in her mother’s footsteps.
She and Osti established a Cherokee National Treasures’ mentoring program that is funded with Cherokee Nation Tribal Council dollars. So far, four artisans now teach their skills to other Cherokees in the Tahlequah and Locust Grove area.
The statue will be displayed by the tribe for at least the next year. The Cherokee Nation displays Cherokee art in each of its buildings, casinos and health centers to educate citizens about Cherokee history, culture and heritage through visual art.
When the tribe builds a new facility, tribal legislation requires all Cherokee Nation construction renovation projects that are more than half a million dollars in cost to set aside 1 percent of the construction cost for the procurement of culturally appropriate art.