Furs, Feathers, and Fabrics [interview with author, Paula Sanders]

nickcharles · May 30, 2006 6:43 am


Paula Sanders is a prolific artist and writer. Her artwork, articles, reviews, tutorials, and commentaries have graced the pages of many prestigious computer graphic web sites. She is also a senior member of the Renderosity writing team. Now she can add published non-fiction author to her resume, with her full-length book on CD, Fur, Feathers, and Fabrics, which was co-written with her husband Don.

Fur, Feathers, and Fabrics was originally intended as an exploration of Indian dress and quickly morphed into a comprehensive study of the lifestyles of Southeastern Native Americans:

"An analysis of the social, economic, and political factors that helped determine the dress and adornment of the Indians indigenous to the Southeastern part of the United States from pre-European contact until the beginning of the twentieth century"

As I read their book, it was evident that the long hours of researching and writing were a labor of love for both Paula and her husband (who is of Cherokee heritage). Fur, Feathers, and Fabrics is well written and beautifully illustrated, and a must read for anyone interested in North American history.

Fur, Feathers, and Fabrics was a huge project. The research must have seemed never-ending. How many years did it take you from the book's first conception to the final publication?

It took us about 8 years. I worked at it during the week, and on Don's vacations we traveled to various libraries and institutions to meet with faculty, librarians, and other experts.

I find it fascinating that you were able to explore rare collections of Native American art and history, which museums granted you access to their archives?

We were very lucky to have been able to access collections that are no longer available. We were able to spend days photographing different types of dress of the Southeastern Indians in the archives of the Museum of Natural History in New York City, the former Heye Collection, which is now part of the Smithsonian. Also at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. we were granted access to various collections.

In addition, we were able to spend a lot of time at the archeological archives of the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There we photographed artifacts such as jewelry and implements from Spiro mounds and various mounds from the Mississippian Ceremonial Complex.


I can understand, due to Don's Cherokee heritage, the interest in researching and writing a book on Southeastern Native Americans, but, why the topic of Indian dress and adornment? Instead, let's say, writing specifically about Cherokee lifestyle?

I have been interested in Euro/American culture since I was a child. I started collecting fashion magazines such as Godeys and Petersons many years ago. I had been sculpting miniature people and creating exact replicas of clothes for them for many years doing extensive research. I also was an anthropology major in college. I wanted to create a miniature-sculptured portrait of Don's grandmother who was Cherokee; however, we could not find any definitive statements or pictures about dress for any one period.

What we found seemed out of context with my knowledge of dress. We went to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC to see if they had any more information. They did not and suggested we write a book on Southeastern Native American Dress and apply for a grant. Don applied for a Native American Community Scholar Grant and that is how this project was born.


Did you write specific chapters as you were researching the book, or did you wait until all the research was completed until you began the actual writing?

We wrote specific chapters as we went along and, then, modified them when the book was completed or if new information was found.

In all the hours of research what was the one discovery that you found most fascinating?

There were a few discoveries. I cannot isolate any one. Some had to do with only research and that is when we found manuscripts in one archive that had been stated as lost in another. As to the book, the way all the primary sources, be they letters or old books, fell into a pattern. The book basically wrote itself.


Why did you decide to publish the book in CD format, instead of going the traditional route of hardback publication?

We looked into finding a publisher but found that the book was too long. If we cut it we felt that we would be defeating its purpose. We did not want a book of "sound bites." Often there will be a passage in Spanish or French followed by its correct translation. We found that much third party current material had been translated incorrectly in terms of dress and its meaning in the decade and century in which it existed. That is why we felt keeping information in its contextual framework was very important.


Of the book's many passages, the following is my favorite. This one paragraph says so much of our culture, past and current:

"Many years ago, when my husband asked his Cherokee grandmother about her heritage, she told him it was not important to his future. We have discovered this was not an isolated incident. Only in the past decade or so has it become fashionable to be a Native American who remembers the past."

How has the book been received in the Native American community?

The quote above says it all. We found even in the 18th century, letters written stating that the Southeastern Indians due to much displacement, wars and contact with Euro/Americans had forgotten much of their culture. Unfortunately, after the advent of the Euro/Americans most of their effort had to be directed toward basic subsistence and existence.

In Oklahoma, where we live, being "Native American" became very popular. With this came the necessity to have a cultural base. We have through primary source information basically disproved some of the cultural traits attributed to the current Native Americans once indigenous to the Southeast. Again, unfortunately, the Pan-Indian movement and Hollywood have contributed to a lot of myths. Our book is not well accepted.


Who is your target audience?

This book is basically a reference book. Also, we were very fortunate that libraries and other institutions opened up their picture collections to us with "permissions to publish." So this book contains a very large inventory of pictures and sketches from the 19th century.

What advice would you give writers who wish to research their heritage? Any tips on obtaining documents, or finding and interviewing experts in the field?

If you are part of what are called "the Five Civilized Tribes" - Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, or Seminole or are from a tribe absorbed by these, the best place to start is at the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City. You should know whether your ancestor(s) were on the census rolls and need to know some of your ancestral roots.

Where is your book published? How can our readers obtain a copy?

It is on a CD and in some Museum Gift Shops. It also can be purchased directly from us. Send an e-mail to me at paulajane@cox.net. Also, we have put excerpts from the book on my web site at Perpetual Visions.

What did you and your husband get out of this experience?

In brief, a tremendous amount of fun! It was like Christmas every time we found something new and different. We met wonderful people when we traveled. Also, it was exciting, although, disheartening when I translated French, Spanish, and some Latin passages and found much misinterpretation through incorrect translation. What was interesting, however, was that some of it was purposely wrong due to its political context.

We found that Native American dress was influenced by the immediate political, socio-economic, and Euro/American presence in the Southeast and, then, in the Oklahoma area. Also, on another note, this project introduced me to computer graphics because I wanted to learn how to edit and to create my own illustrations and maps on the computer, and not freehand. Thus my love of computer graphics started about 14 years ago.

As always, we invite you to:
Permission was granted to publish all supporting images within this article. Additionally, all supporting images featured within this article are copyright and cannot be reprinted, copied, or saved without written permission. For full citation information contact Paula Sanders: paulajane@cox.net.

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Article Comments

regaltwo ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 30 May 2006

Great work Paula! Looks like a wonderful reference. As a history/archaeology student at ECU, I spent several years studying the Tuscarora here on the coast of North Carolina, particularly the contact period Tuscarora. I also spent a somewhat sad year out at the Cherokee reservation here in NC. I say sad because it was rather sad to see them trying to reconstruct their culture from the few scraps they had left.

nickcharles ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 03 June 2006

An awesome journey you and Don embarked on here, Paula! Amazing how you were able to gain access to so much. It really is sad how all the myths came about, but it must feel really good to know that your hard work in researching this, is available to others who want to know the facts. Outstanding interview, Dee-Marie!

ysvry ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 04 June 2006

intresting story, my friend has a costume doll collection and also all sorts of books on clothes , ill email her this page , she might buy one cd from u.