Release Date: June 24, 2020
by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office
PAULS VALLEY, Okla. – J. Eric Smith, a Chickasaw author, ancient weapons expert, historian and traditionalist, is toiling on the largest private commission of his illustrious career.
“Of course, I can’t say anything about it now,” he said with a sigh. He is excited about it and excited about the future, too, as he easily practices responsible distancing while working in his shop adjacent to his home.
Smith, who crafted all the bows and arrows used in the Oscar-winning film “The Revenant,” in addition to weapons in the hit television series “See,” is also taking part in the Chickasaw Nation sponsored virtual art market at ArtesianArtsFestival.com.
One of his pieces on the website is an elaborately beaded, multi-medium Southern Plains cradleboard for infants. It is now sold. Smith’s other work can be seen by going to the website and searching his name.
As with many of Smith’s creations, the sold item is a museum-quality piece. It is described as “award-winning Southern Plains cradleboard done on genuine brain tan buckskin, buffalo rawhide, antique seed beads, hand hewn sticks from Osage orange wood (Bois d’arc), trade wool, brass sequins, thimbles and beads, padre beads attached fetish and baby moccasins. 2019 winner best of cultural division Southeastern Art Show and Market (SEASAM).”
“It is my way of honoring all mothers who care, love and tend to the needs of future generations,” Smith explained.
Smith recently finished a pair of beaded moccasins for St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a Tahlequah, Oklahoma, resident drafted in the fifth round in 2015 while playing baseball for Northeastern State University.
“He wanted something comfortable to wear in the locker room and around the stadium. He is pleased with them and placed them on his Facebook page,” Smith said. “A lot of my items are in private collections worldwide. Bringing joy to the consumer while staying true to traditions and our collective American Indian heritage is honestly what I live to do.”
The Field Museum of Natural History, a world-class facility in Chicago, purchased arrows from Smith to enhance a display featuring an earthen lodge to educate patrons on the Pawnee tribe. As is his habit, Smith consulted with the Pawnee, visited with elders and tribal leaders and was granted permission to perform the commission.
“I like to speak to elders, and I want the complete blessing of tribal leaders before taking on projects outside of my tribe,” he said. “We are American Indians, but differences in heritage and traditions must be honored and respected. You don’t replicate something from another tribe without first getting permission and advice about what you are replicating,” he added.
Soon, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, will display beaded quillwork crafted by Smith. He won awards with the piece back in 2018, and the museum purchased it for its permanent collection. It is located on the University of Oklahoma campus.
“There are many small museums throughout the country that have requested items because they don’t have original items. The items I make are the closest thing to originals they can obtain,” he said. Most items consist of a bow, quiver and arrows crafted to show what warriors and hunters carried from differing tribal nations.
“I am researching the work and crafting items just as they would have been done 150 years ago,” Smith said.
Smith said Fort Wallace Museum in Kansas commissioned a bow and quiver; an order he happily filled. “It’s real small. I am honored to contribute and honored I was asked to contribute to the museum,” he said. “Historically, Fort Wallace was an intrusion by Plains tribes. More than 300 soldiers were stationed there.”
Constructed in 1865, the fort closed in the 1880s. Many skirmishes between soldiers, Cheyenne and Sioux warriors are noted in its history. The fort’s principle mission was to protect settlers moving west into the Colorado gold fields.
He vividly recalls the first museum to commission his work.
“It was early in my career, and it was a museum in Tel Aviv, Israel. I found it puzzling,” Smith said with a quizzical tone in his voice. “Tel Aviv, Israel, seemed to be an out of the way place for American Indian items, but I gladly completed the commission and sent the items to them.”
It has been so long ago, Smith kind of berates himself for not recalling the name of the institution. “At the time, it seemed like, ‘Wow! This is the most important project ever,’” he said with a laugh.
His book, “The Warrior’s Tools: Plains Indian Bows, Arrows & Quivers” continues to sell well and earn critical acclaim as a guide and textbook concerning manufacturing bows, arrows and quivers. Smith devoted more than a year to its writing and includes many practical guides he uses on projects. It is available at Chickasaw Press, Amazon and in several stores operated by the Chickasaw Nation.
Much has happened in Smith’s long career. Probably most important was “The Revenant.” The 2015 movie earned Leonardo DiCaprio a “Best Actor” Oscar, as well as Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Director. Apple TV came knocking at Smith’s door a year ago to fashion weapons for its hit futuristic TV series “See.” Now, another contract is secure, and the work has begun, but Smith must remain mum on details. “I want to talk about it. I wish I could talk about it. I can’t, though. All I can say is it will be the largest commission of my life.”