NMAI Artist Leadership Program, and My Life

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." There are not many ways to describe this season in life. One of the worst summers of my life, and it ended with my dad’s passing. Then I got a phone call.

In May, 2012, I had applied for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s Artist Leadership Program. Amid the disasters of the summer, I still checked the mailbox every day in August, catching myself going out there on Sundays too. Waiting, waiting for a letter that would either accept me or a say a polite try again.

When I couldn’t stand the suspense anymore, I emailed the director, Keevin Lewis, on August 25. He emailed back with the news he’d been trying to contact my referral, Assistant Chief Gary Batton (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) with a few questions.

I went through the roof, but tried to keep a lid on my excitement. My application was receiving serious consideration, but not granted yet. A few emails later and I had a call time set up for Keevin to reach Gary.

That was Saturday, August 25.

Sunday, August 26

We weren’t expecting it. It shocked. It hurt. It left me empty.

I wrote a poem. We made funeral arrangements. I got another email.

The phone call had gone well, and could Keevin call me today?

No, not today. Tomorrow.

He called. I’d been chosen for the Artist Leadership Program. I cried, extreme happiness and extreme sadness fighting for dominance in my heart. The battle still rages today.

A few of my recent Facebook statuses:

…Life hurts. God heals. In the in between time, we take it day by day and live in His grace and love…

…I'd rather feel pain than feel nothing. Pain lets you know you're still alive. A time of worship can bring everything out, including pain. Not something we want, but something we need…

…Blowing kisses to the sky…

On the happy end, we’re preparing for a two week research trip in Washington, D.C. as part of the Artist program. I’ll conduct research on our Choctaw ancestry at half a dozen facilities, present lunchtime talks to the NMAI staff, and perform two storytelling concerts at the ImagiNations Center at NMAI. How thankful I am to be doing it all with my mama!

An all-expense paid trip to D.C., plus. Yeah, I’m started to feel some excitement. It’s sinking in. Just in time, too. We leave in a few weeks.

Part Two of the program means putting on an Advanced Writing Workshop for the Choctaw Nation in March. Not a bad credit in my writing portfolio.

Split Focus

A day hasn’t passed that I don’t see scenes from August 26. The event shoved me off the cliff for a shattering landing. God put out deep padding to catch us.

This is the best of times, this is the worst of times. But it's all God's time.

Have you lived through the best and the worst at the same time? I’d like to hear your story.

Facebook Works—Five Tribes Story Conference


The Graceful Entrance

My mom and I arrived in Muskogee too late for checking into the hotel before the reception started, so we drove straight to the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. Please note: I was in my comfy four hour driving clothes and hadn’t put on make-up yet. Or plucked that one pesky chin hair.

As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, who else had just arrived? Tim Tingle, international Choctaw author and storyteller, and event co-coordinator. He waves and comes over to the car. I hold the tweezers inconspicuously. He insists we make him feel better for being casual and waits by the car to walk inside with us. So much for slapping on some make-up.


But how did this man, who we’ve not seen since last year, recognize and call us by name? Facebook, of course. We connected with him and several others after meeting at the conference last year. Not a lot of conversation between us on there, but he’s been keeping up with my writing/storytelling and my mom’s filmmaking.

Once inside, Tim (he insists we just call him Tim) starts engaging in other conversations. I slip back out to fix up a bit. My mom and I then ascended the stairs to the reception area with the elegant white table clothes covering a dozen tables with chairs. I was in denim shorts and too frazzled to take any pictures.

We drop our keys-n-such on one of the half occupied tables as we head to dip up plates of refreshments. Upon returning to the table, before I could set my plate down, the lady across from me asked, “Aren’t you Elisabeth?”

Uh, okay. “Yes, well, Sarah Elisabeth.”

She shook her finger knowingly. “I thought it was you. We met last year, I’m Francine.”

I instantly recognized the name. “Francine Bray? With the Choctaw pony conservation thing?”

Facebook at work again.

Next to join our table is Greg Rodgers, who mentored under Tim Tingle for four years and is now quite an accomplished author and storyteller himself. Hadn’t seen him in a year either outside of, you guessed it, Facebook.

“Hey Lynda and Sarah. How are y’all doing? Saw the picture of your first storytelling. Congratulations!”

The next day, as he moderated the first panel discussion, Greg did special recognition of three or four authors, storytellers and professors in the audience. I was shocked when he included me.

It Works

Greg was after me all through the conference, trying to get me to the mic to tell a story. I wish I had had one prepared.

Facebook. It keeps your face in front of those you want to remember you. So choose a good profile pic.


For Him,

Sarah Elisabeth


Traditional Pottery Class

 I originally posted this on my other blog, Choctaw Spirit, but it was too cool of an experience not to post here. For Him,

Sarah Elisabeth


Antlers, Oklahoma

I sat at the tarp-covered table and Brian (instructor) emptied a small shovel full of mud in front of me. At least it looked like mud. In reality, this was called clay, direct from tribal lands in McCurtain County.

Ian Parker, Choctaw Tribal Archeologist, worked with his own clay while talking about the differences between mixing the clay with sand or shell. He also expounded on the material available to Choctaws on the Trail of Tears.

I did as instructed, crumbling the mud, uh, clay, into bitty pieces, extracting little stems and roots until it was “clean.”

Time to mix sand and ultra fine sand together before kneading it into the clay. I had to add water as it dried out. “A little water goes a long ways,” Brian reminded me.

As we worked, Brian talked about different techniques relating to this type of clay, and what was traditionally used by our ancestors.

In spite of the small amount I worked with, I felt intimidated by the clay. What did I know about shaping and molding it to perfection? The clay knew more about what it was supposed to do than I did.

When it really got out of my control, Brian handled it expertly. He flattened the bottom, straightened the sides, smoothed the interior. It began to look like the pencil cup I was going for—just bigger. Well, you’ll see what I mean.

I took it again, feeling bold. I was going to work the thing into submission. If there was to be any finger indentions on the finished product, they would be mine.

Most things I don’t pick up on the first several tries. But with my second ball of clay, I was ready to make something happen. Anything.

I started with the traditional bowl like shape:


It cracked. I tried to smooth it back together, but I had let the clay get too dry. This time, I knew what to do with its uncooperativeness. I smashed it back together, added water, and kneaded.

About that time I heard the comment of someone making a coffee mug. Me and Mama went with it.

Rolled into a ball once again, I started in the center. Again, lessons learned, I focused on keeping the opening small, going deep without allowing the clay to spread out. When my thumb would no longer reach, I changed to my fingers and stretched their limits. Then I dropped it on its bottom to flatten it. I knew the action would make the clay spread and widen, so I was grateful to have kept it so tight.

As I worked with the clay, I realized something. I began to relax. Weeks old tensions released into a sooth calmness. Using my hands to mold the clay made me smile. I really enjoyed it.

About that time, I found myself engaged in conversation with some of the other students around the table. We talked about other projects they had done and the next steps in the process, including the firing. According to the sweet lady next to me, they bring lawn chairs and food, prepared to hang out awhile and socialize while the fire burned before the clay creations are buried in the coals overnight. On average, the clay needs to dry a minimum of two weeks before firing.

Okay, God just keeps directing our paths. Last week, my mom and I talked about writing a novella length story (longer than a short story, shorter than a novel) about the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I. The flash fiction story I’d written on it earned a Faithwriters.com Editor’s Choice and was well received by readers.

Near the end of the class, two sisters prepared to leave. One took a picture of the newbies (me and my mom). We all introduced ourselves and she announced, “My grandfather was a Choctaw Code Talker. His name was Ben Caterby.”

We talked, and I asked for their phone numbers. Too amazing to be a coincidence.

Before we left, Ian and Brian loaded two plastics bags with clay and sand for us to play with at home. Our four creations nestled in bags and cardboard box lids, we said our thanks and goodbyes.

After they are fired, I’ll post pics of the finished products. At least I still have the banner of “I’m just a beginner” to hide behind.

What an experience.