The Fife Family blazed a trail in Native American fashion and art. Their influential work and legacy are the subject of a new exhibition at Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Art.
Jimmie C. Fife (Mvskoke), I See the Future, 2010, watercolor on paper, 16 x 14.25 in. Image courtesy of the artist.
“I first noticed and fell in love with the Fifes’ work at fine art markets and exhibitions,” says curator Laura Marshall Clark (Mvskoke). “The Fifes are adept at both preserving our ancient culture and bringing our Muscogee heritage into a modern context. While serving as a 2019 scholarly fellow at the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA), I learned of their connections to the school and began developing an exhibition about this family of Mvskoke women.” The result is the exhibition Matrilineal: Legacies of our Mothers, which features 30 artworks by women of the Fife family on view at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native American Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe.
The three Fife sisters central to the show—Phyllis, Sandy, and Jimmie Carole—credit their parents for encouraging them. A fourth sister, Robin, has been added to the show and is contributing a bandolier bag. Members of the Raccoon Clan, they grew up 80 miles south of Tulsa on 80 acres of allotment land. Their brother Bill, a former principal chief, still lives on the land.
Above: Cetto Mekko Rattlesnake, 2020, by Sandy Fife Wilson (Mvskoke); carved black Mother of Pearl Freshwater pearls; 3.5 x 4 in.
Their mother, Carmen Griffin Fife, graduated valedictorian from the Chilocco Indian School, studied at the Santa Fe Indian School with Allan Houser, then the University of Oklahoma, and taught art at the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. A coat Carmen made as a student at the Santa Fe Indian School will be included in the exhibition. Her daughters describe how their mother carded the wool, used onion dyes to create patterns, and wove the coat, making hand-carved wooden buttons to fasten it. Their father, James, drew and brought home art supplies. “Our father built each of his daughters a beading loom,” Sandy says. “My mother taught me to finger weave when I was about 10.”
The parents’ artistic legacy lives on, but “Phyllis started it all,” Sandy says.
“My original goal with fashion design was to earn just enough money to build a painting and printmaking studio," Phyllis says. "After I started showing apparel in fashion shows and fine art venues, my focus took a turn. Each of my four sisters and I had learned sewing skills early on, being raised in a family with eight siblings. We made outfits for ourvselves and for each other. When I began showing the pieces, I designed using our ancestral motifs with contemporary techniques. My sisters began offering suggestions for my next designs. I told them, ‘You make it!’ and the collection began."
The Fife Collection launched in August 1978, with the sisters doing all the design, cutting, and sewing in a former bus depot in Henryetta, Oklahoma. Their sister Sharon Fife Mouss was operations manager.
Historically women carried the tribal culture through the things they created that were both beautiful and functional: pottery, basketry, textiles, sashes, shoulder bags, and decorative embellishments. "At the time we started designing, we knew several women who were making traditional or ceremonial clothing, but ours were custom contemporary designs suited more for street wear," Phyllis says. “Our customers came from all over. We bought fine fabrics but also natural blend cloth that was more typical of everyday Native clothing. Our designs reflect Mvskoke arts and aesthetics. Inspiration came from Mvskoke clothing styles that were familiar to us, but also motifs we researched from artifacts of our homeland in the Southeast. Color inspirations came from Seminole patchwork, a cotton fabric textile innovation that was developed by the Seminole. We signed some of our originals with stitching near the design. On some we placed the folded label in an outer seam exposing the Fife Collection logo designed by Sandy depicting our Raccoon Clan."
Above: Jimmie C. Fife (Mvskoke), Sacred Fire, quilt.
The Fife Collection has enduring exquisiteness. “We chose simple shapes for our dresses and let the appliques bring the beauty,” Jimmie Carole says. That exquisite simplicity and the sisters’ example continue to inspire. Muscogee designer and artist Leslie A. Deer, who created her own L A Deer Apparel line, was a teenager when she met the Fifes. “I thought I would have to be in New York or Paris to do fashion,” Deer says. “Then I saw women from my tribe, designers who created a successful fashion business, and I thought, I can do this. They blazed the trail.”
The Fife’s current generation includes two of Phyllis’ daughters: Shelley Patrick, who graduated from IAIA and is a featured muralist for the exhibition; and Dr. Stacy Pratt, a singer-songwriter and author, known for her Native American scholarship in art history and Indigenous cultures in numerous publications, who contributed a scholarly essay to the exhibition catalog about Mvskoke matrilineal culture, the Fife women and their prolific artistic practice. The exhibition also includes Jimmie Carole’s daughter, Maya Stewart, who designs footwear and handbags for high-fashion brands. Her personal aesthetic fuses traditional Southeastern designs with a combination of luxury and unique materials to create modern and futuristic pieces.
“When I travel home to Oklahoma, I love looking through my mother’s library of traditional Mvskoke and Southeastern designs and they inspire and spark my creativity,” Stewart says. “You have to remember they began way back in the 1970s and sold all over the world and were featured in top fashion magazines. They played an important role as an early female cohort of Indigenous designers; however, in today’s exhibitions and books, surprisingly they are rarely mentioned. … They preserved and used Native designs to create wearable art. Using a combination of the best fabrics and classic, meaningful designs, they meticulously created clothing that would not go out of style but, instead, would be treasured. Even though they closed their business more than 40 years ago, many of their customers still wear their designs to this day.”
Jimmie Carole Fife Stewart
Inducted as a Master Artist in 1997 by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum, Jimmie Carole’s work is included in the museum’s permanent collection, and her painting New Barber can be seen in Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum. Not slowing down, she was awarded Second Place in March 2021 by Heard Museum for her textile piece Sacred Fire. Among her works in the Matrilineal exhibition is her Muscogee beaded pouch made with wool, cotton, rayon ribbon, and glass beads employing the shapes and designs of her ancestry.
“We were always taught to value family and our cultural traditions above all else. … Our mother taught us we should paint our culture,” says Jimmie Carole. “Our mother collected art, mostly by the Kiowa Five who she knew, and she advised me to study the history of my people. In my work I tell the story of the people of the Creek and hope to inspire others.”
Designer Maya Stewart (Chickasaw/Mvskoke/Choctaw) continues the legacy in her own sculptured, textile wrap.
Phyllis attended boarding school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She went on to study with expressionist Howard Warshaw at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In between her fashion design work and painting, she received her doctorate at the University of Arkansas and taught at Northeastern State University, directing its Center for Tribal Studies. She was inducted in 2013 into the Mvskoke Hall of Fame.
“When we opened the Fife Collection showroom, our plan of operation was to limit our collection rather than to mass-produce," Phyllis says. "We had a loyal clientele from across the country and from local communities. Lloyd Kiva New, a successful Native fashion and textile designer and cofounder of IAIA, visited our shop and our homes offering support and opportunities for promoting our work. He was the first to use the term haute couture to describe our designs, referring to high-end handmade custom fashion. Doris Antun, the fashion editor of Mademoiselle, had a personal interest in Native cultures in Oklahoma and gave us our first runway opportunity. Over the years she became a close friend and frequent advisor.”
But even more than the famous Lloyd Kiva New and Mademoiselle, Phyllis credits her mom: “My mother, Carmen, taught us that education is important, and all of us followed her example. I feel blessed that each of my three daughters — Stacy, Yahnah, and Shelley — knew and interacted individually with my mother. She taught us patience and cooperation and how to use creativity in our whole lives, not just in art. My basic skills, pre-art school, were learned from her. My mother and father gave me a natural awareness of Mvskoke tribal culture. I carry my mother’s clan, and my daughters carry my clan. We cherish the legacies of those who taught us and have gone on.”
Red & White Dress, Fife Collection, Ltd. Photo credit: Larry Price.
Sandy Fife Wilson
Sandy graduated from IAIA, where she studied painting and design with Neil Parsons, traditional techniques with Josephine Wapp, and printmaking withe Seymour Tubis. When IAIA designer Wapp retired, Sandy became the school’s textile instructor and taught a course based on traditional and contemporary trends. Several years later she returned to Oklahoma and taught arts and crafts at Chilocco Indian School until it closed in 1980. She continues to teach workshops, her years of creating split-cane basketry, weaving, and painting making her a fount of knowledge on Muscogee Nation’s art and culture. Named Master Artist in 2017 by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum, Sandy amazed her family by recently taking up shell carving and 3D finger-weaving. Her shell-carving piece was awarded Best in 3D art at the 2021 Southeastern Art Show and Market.
“My mother set the example. Late in life she was teaching arts and crafts in adult education classes. More people are learning, but not a lot. If we don’t help people learn these skills, these arts will be lost in our culture.”
Cover Image: Jimmie C. Fife (Mvskoke), Take Me to Church, 2019, watercolor on paper, 22 x 25 in. Image courtesy of the artist.
From our August/September 2022 Issue
Matrilineal: Legacies of Our Mothers is on view July 29, 2022 – January 15, 2023 at IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). iaia.edu/mocna