Sewing a Legacy
At 23 years old, Jake Tiger, a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, never imagined that learning how to thread a needle, sew a seam and attach intricate beading—honoring the unique culture of his nation that once called the Tennessee Valley region home—would lead to his creations being featured in several museums, a magazine and on national television.
According to Tiger (pictured below in one of his handmade, Seminole outfits), it all started with his grandfather, Dwayne Miller, sharing his love for revitalizing textiles from the 19th century with Tiger when he was only three years old. Referred to as the pre-removal period, it was the time of expansion of European settlements into the Trans-Appalachian west before the Indian Removal Act of 1830 would force all eastern tribes to move to new homelands west of the Mississippi River in the Indian Territory.
“My grandfather worked mostly with early 19th-century Seminole textiles and was very influential in the work to revitalize them,” said Tiger. “Being under his shadow, I was brought up from a very early age to appreciate our culture in this way. The defining moment for me, and it’s kind of sad, came when he passed in 2017. It was then that I knew I had to pick up and carry on his work.”
Tiger’s first creation began when he was 18 years old. Inspiration came, and often still comes, from studying his nation’s history and references of the first contact with European settlers through journals of European military officers that feature sketches and descriptions of what members of the Seminole Nation were wearing. He also considers collections of Native American clothing in museums that have survived the test of time and even paintings representing various time periods.
“I’m a visual learner, so I used all of this to give me an idea of the clothing and items that our ancestors wore and had at the time,” Tiger said. “I started with very small pieces, like pucker toe moccasins and plain shirts. The plain shirts have a calico print on them, but my work was very basic at first until it worked its way up to where it is now.”
Today, Tiger’s work now includes entire 19th century outfits that have been featured on national television, in museums and on the front page of Oklahoma Magazine. As a Cultural Specialist, Tiger also works in the Historical Preservation Office for the Seminole Nation and helps in their outreach efforts to educate others about the Seminole’s unique culture and history. He is proud to say that his creations have become a huge part of this.
“These were all significant moments for my culture and nation,” Tiger said. “Something you would hardly ever see is a Seminole man or woman in traditional clothing featured on the front page of a magazine or represented in a historical tv show. It was a real honor, and a lot of appreciation has been received as a result.”
Soon, a full-bodied mannequin will permanently feature Tiger’s work in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He is also working on a contract with the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma that will permanently feature two, full Seminole outfits. Usually, museums commission several artists to create items for such displays, but Tiger will be creating every piece.
No ordinary supplies
In all of his projects, Tiger is careful to be as accurate and precise as possible. This includes following closely in his grandfather’s footsteps and only using supplies that are representative of the time periods he wishes to recognize.
“The thing that I’m proudest of about my work is that I try to be as accurate as possible,” he said. “So, I don’t use sewing machines or even mass-produced fabrics and supplies. There are only a few places that I can go that have historically accurate materials, like wool, linen and calico fabrics. There’s a place that I go that even separates their fabrics by time periods, and others that I can go and trade for the items that I need. Overall, it’s my goal to really instill the craftsmanship that’s required into each of the pieces that I make.”
Several of Tiger’s favorite pieces include a Seminole coat, a beaded belt and beaded leggings with hundreds of decorative beads that he hand-sewed individually.
“It’s certainly not easy or cheap to do it this way, using these materials and finding the few people who can provide them. But I feel it would be a disservice to my culture and ancestors to buy surplus items at a discounted price – doing something easy and cheap so I could get something out as fast as I could. It’s better that I do it right the first time by taking my time and taking pride in the customs behind my work.”
Back to the beginning
Though Tiger never knew that time spent with his grandfather would turn into a legacy 20 years later, he says that fame and success related to his work are not his goals.
“I don’t do this for publicity or even bragging rights. It’s solely to inspire other people, especially the younger generations and people my age. I truly want to bring back being appreciative of one’s culture, working with your hands and being outdoors. If no one picks up these traditions from the former generations, like my grandfather’s, they will be forgotten and fade away.”
Acknowledging Native American Heritage Awareness Month in November, Tiger believes that it’s crucial to recognize the individuality of every Native American nation and tribe.
“While we see a lot of indigenous people represented during this month, we want them to know that not all tribes or nations lived in teepees. We all have our unique identities. I’m happy that the Seminole Nation’s culture will now be permanently represented. I can’t think of a better way to honor my grandfather’s name and I hope to pass his knowledge down to those younger than me.”
The Seminole Nation – along with more than 20 federally recognized Native American tribes and nations that once called the seven-state region their home – partner with TVA in federal trust relationships and government-to-government consultations to ensure the protection, preservation and accurate representation of their culture and history.