Release Date: October 01, 2020
by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office
Margaret Roach Wheeler
SULPHUR, Okla. – Ten years ago, Chickasaw weaver and fashion designer Margaret Roach Wheeler was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. Now, while closing a chapter in her life, she is being named the 2020 Dynamic Woman of the Year by Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby.
“Margaret is a multitalented individual who has devoted her career to creating beautiful art and promoting Chickasaw culture,” said Governor Anoatubby. “She is an artist, teacher, mentor and businesswoman whose work will have a positive impact for generations.”
“I do what I love, and to be rewarded for that is just the greatest thing. I wouldn’t change anything,” Wheeler said.
“I was so humbled by the Hall of Fame,” Wheeler said. "It just made me realize I wanted to earn it. I wanted to be there, create things, perform, help Chickasaws.”
And so she did, with a dedication and work ethic she said was instilled by her parents.
She has mentored new generations of weavers, shaped the artistic learning opportunities offered from within the Chickasaw Nation, founded a first-of-its-kind weaving business, brought influential artists into the heart of the tribe and shepherded in community members to learn Chickasaw culture.
The roles of educator, mentor, cultural advocate and businesswoman are perhaps not the ones for which Wheeler are most known, but they are very much how she spent her time with the Chickasaw Nation since moving to Sulphur and putting down roots.
Lona Barrick, executive officer of cultural tourism for the Chickasaw Nation, was one of the first within the tribe to notice Wheeler and offer an intriguing invitation. It was an offer to collaborate with Chickasaw composer Jerod Tate and Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan.
The project was called Lowak Shoppala’, a collaborative multimedia stage production. It showcased Chickasaw clothing through history, and Wheeler – then a successful world-trotting artist in her own right – designed the costuming. It was the first big project which brought Wheeler back to the area her family had once called home.
“One of the biggest compliments I’ve received for my weaving and designs was from LaDonna Brown who said I brought history alive with the clan costumes in Lowak Shoppala’,” Wheeler said. “A thousand years of Chickasaw clothing, designing it, creating it – it was just eye opening to me. I loved every minute of that. It was a big turning point for me and really my first connection with the tribe.”
Soon, Wheeler was asked to become one of the Chickasaw Nation’s Artists in Residence.
“It has just been a wonderful homecoming for me, to be able to come here and find my culture through the artist in residence. I found my culture and family in the Chickasaw Nation,” she said.
It wasn’t long before she got involved with the Chickasaw Nation Arts Academy teaching fashion design. Earlier in life, she worked as a high school teacher, so it was a welcomed and familiar role.
“I was already established, and I could share with them stories about following their dreams. Because really, becoming a fashion designer and artist was a dream of mine. The weaving is just a means to an end,” she said.
During her stint teaching at the academy, Wheeler worked to start a program, which would send two young Chickasaw fashion designers a year to New York City to meet other artists from around the world and pick up some tricks of the trade.
“Oh my gosh, to watch their eyes. You could just see them growing in their knowledge and being accepted into the world. Our Chickasaw students excelled and realized they were excelling with boys and girls from all over,” she said.
Always thinking big and believing you can accomplish anything you set your mind to were among the lessons she hoped to teach her students.
This also applied to the group of weavers who joined Mahota Studios, which Wheeler developed out of the ARTesian Gallery & Studios in Sulphur. In part, her goal with Mahota Studios was cultural outreach. Wheeler worked with new weavers and watched them grow in their capabilities, some to the point of making a living with their creations.
One of Wheeler’s weaving protégés, Taloa Underwood, went on to help her launch Mahota Textiles, a business owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation. Wheeler said she sees Mahota Textiles as a way to give back to the tribe, which has supported her on her journey.
Wheeler served as the artist in residence at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York. She exhibited works at the Museum of Art and Design and the Institute of American Indian Arts, among others. She won numerous awards including the President’s Award at the Red Earth Festival and textile awards at the 2009 Southeastern Art Show and Market. Some of her other awards and honors include the Oklahoma Governor’s Award for the Arts and serving as Creative Arts Ambassador for the State of Oklahoma. She is the owner of Mahota Handwovens, where she designs contemporary fashions and traditional First American regalia.
“It’s all because of what the tribe has given me the opportunity to do,” she said. “These are opportunities you don’t usually get, and it’s through the Chickasaws I’ve had these opportunities. That’s why I’m so excited about talking about it, letting people know how wonderful we are and how wonderful it is to have backing. If you have an idea and it gets backed, you can help other people.
“I think one of the things our tribe has done is find people who can be role models, go out and bring people in. Because I was brought in and it has been a wonderful experience,” Wheeler said.
This year, Wheeler stepped down as a Chickasaw Nation Artist in Residence.
“I thought, you know, I’ll be 78 next year, it’s time for me to retire. I’ll still be here weaving and teaching if anyone needs me. But I won’t be working for the tribe, per se. This is all coming right at this time, with this award and everything. It’s an accumulation of probably the last 14 years, my pride in being Chickasaw,” she said.
Now, being named the 2020 Chickasaw Nation Dynamic Woman of the Year, Wheeler feels like she has done the work to be honored. This honor serves as a capstone. She said both the Chickasaw Hall of Fame and Dynamic Woman of the Year touched her deeply and changed her life.
“It’s all because they asked me to come and work on Lowak in the very beginning. One little incident in your life can completely change it. I’m a fortunate artist and I’m a fortunate woman.
“We are a matriarchal tribe. Our tribe has honored that through all these years. Since 2006, making it a stated award with the Dynamic Woman has been really powerful. That continuation of seeing women as equals and decision makers is something I really appreciate. How wonderful to be with a tribe that feels that way about you. Women have always been honored by the Chickasaw Nation,” Wheeler said.
About the Dynamic Woman of the Year
Established in 2006, the Chickasaw Nation Dynamic Woman of the Year Award honors Chickasaw women who have made significant contributions to the tribe, serve as role models to other Chickasaw women and have made a difference in the lives of Chickasaws and other citizens, enriching their communities and society at large.
Chickasaw women have historically been an integral part of the warrior society, serving as guards and coming to the aid of warriors in battle. Chickasaw women know how to handle adversity, difficulties and trials with courage and determination. They are able to reach from within and accomplish things which seem beyond ordinary capabilities, as has been their tradition for many generations.
As leaders in education, health care, arts, cultural advocacy, the legal profession, politics, social services and community development, Chickasaw women continue to forge new roads that serve as a force of empowerment for girls, women and men of all ages.
Previous awardees include Dr. Judylee Oliva, Lisa Johnson-Billy, Dr. Tina Marie Cooper, Dr. Teresa M. Shavney, Mildred “Millie” Blackmon, Steffani Cochran, Ellen Brooker, Dr. Shannon Speed, Dr. Karen Goodnight, Mary Ruth Barnes, Shelby Rowe, Brenda Kingery, Dr. Amanda Cobb-Greetham and Merry Monroe.