Chickasaw bowyer lives off the grid despite notoriety
MEERS, Okla. – Meers' claim to fame – aside from an 'if-you-blinked-you-missed-it' gold rush in 1901 – is a mammoth hamburger made from the lean beef of Texas Longhorns.
On the outskirts of this tiny unincorporated western Oklahoma community lives Elihu Johnson, his wife, April and six young daughters. On a 30-acre patch of ground, Johnson makes a living performing odd jobs and selling Native American art, specifically wildlife pencil drawings in addition to elaborate bows, arrows, fur quivers, knives and deer-hide sheaths.
He stalks white-tailed deer and elk on 800 acres of unforgiving, harsh mountain terrain. Panoramic sunsets blaze a sky along the Wichita Mountains, a rocky, inhospitable escarpment divorced of comforts yet teeming with wildlife.
Johnson felled a 10-point buck deer with a muzzleloader in October and his quest for elk begins in December. Successful kills assuage the family's primary need as winter slowly grinds southward. Their life is a tad above subsistence thanks to his artistic lilt of capturing a likeness of creatures and crafting traditional Chickasaw weaponry.
For two years now, doors of opportunity have opened wide.
He was bestowed with the title of "Fellow" at Southwest Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA) – one of America's top Native art shows held annually in Santa Fe, New Mexico. With the title came a $5,000 grant and the opportunity to showcase talent to wealthy collectors and aficionados of Native art.
He is Chickasaw and Kiowa; a man of few words; quiet and reserved; traits he inherited from his Chickasaw grandfather, he says.
"I keep a foot in both worlds," Johnson explains. "I have found a place with the Chickasaw and the Kiowa; a place in the modern world and in the primitive world."
Appreciating Johnson's ability to forge weapons into works of art is to embrace the unconventional. Some of his Chickasaw long bows have holes in them – remnants of borers such as beetles, termites, ants or even where a branch once swayed in the breeze.
"I was told a bow with a hole in it, or a bow that isn't completely straight, is structurally compromised," Johnson said. "I've used all these bows and they performed wonderfully.
"As long as the two ends form a straight plane, the bow will be true and strong," the Chickasaw craftsman maintains.
"For the first 30 years of my life," he said, "I identified as Kiowa," a nomadic tribe that roamed freely from Montana into Colorado and Kansas, hunting bison along the vast prairies of the High Plains. They acquired horses in the 16thcentury and Kiowas are considered among the best hunters and warriors atop a steed.
He registered as a Chickasaw citizen recalling his grandfather's story about the tribe; how it was feared and respected by friend and foe and how contact with Europeans occurred centuries before settlers moved west, forcing the Kiowa into Indian Territory.
"My heritage awakens emotions within me. When I touch that wood, I go back in time. I'm a hunter and a warrior. I protect and provide for my family. If it wasn't for (Chickasaws), we'd all be speaking Spanish or French right now. That spirit lives through me when I make bows. I am constantly thinking about my ancestors and what (a quality bow) meant to them. It's spiritual and multifaceted. It connects me to my past," he said.
Typically, a Johnson bow commands hundreds of dollars; more if the work was particularly tedious, difficult or ornate.
He struggles with "prices."
"If I didn't have to feed my family, I'd give them away. I believe my clients and festival participants know they are buying an item that is one-of-a-kind. No two are exactly alike. They are priceless to me," Johnson said. "I love all aspects of it until it comes to affixing a price tag."
In November, the onslaught of winter was held at bay by El Nino, but Johnson expects bitter cold in months ahead. He grew a gray-flecked beard. The deer he harvested isn't enough.
"A deer isn't going to feed my family through winter," he said. "I need an elk. The deer yielded 75 to 100 pounds of venison but that will only feed my crew for a couple of months. An elk will see us through to spring."
He has begun chopping wood to fuel a wood-burning stove and fireplace in his crowded cobblestone domicile. While the family enjoys electricity and running water, Johnson would be just as comfortable in a small cabin with coal lanterns illuminating its interior. Nor is he alone in begrudging these small comforts. Johnson says the love of his life shares his affinity for the simple, hardy life.
"If it was up to my wife, we'd live in a tepee," Johnson said.