Silver in Iroquois Communities: Steven L Chrisjohn

Larry P. Madden

larry p. madden | yl voice | april 2019

The Oneida Nation Arts Program (ONAP) is sponsoring silversmith Steven L. Chrisjohn, in the 20 Years from Now: Master and Apprentice Artists Series this spring.

Chrisjohn's interest in silverwork and jewelry had begun at 14 years old in a chance encounter. He and his father attended a Powwow and Gathering at Saugerties, New York. His family's vendor space was next to a silversmith from what was then known at the time as San Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico. He invited Chrisjohn to his booth and introduced him to the art of silver jewelry. Chrisjohn states, “As soon as I got home, I began to create."

After 20 years residing in Florida, his family packed up and moved to the wild west of New Mexico. Not having a high school diploma did not deter Chrisjohn from becoming a non-traditional student at the prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts (I.A.I.A.) of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The famed Indian Arts College evidently could sense his talent. While progressing to his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, he earned his high school diploma as well.

His work is self-described as “A body of work … inspired and derived from his Ceremonial experiences and tribal ancestry." Influenced by early woodland era culture, where art was more than beauty, he believes art is also sacred and alive with spirit. By bringing these thoughts forward, combined with his own love and spirit interwoven with personal beliefs, he is following the path set by his father.

Chrisjohn's father came from London, Ontario, Canada, and he spoke the five dialects of Iroquois and English as a second language. He would contribute to the Oneida Language Project in Oneida, Wis., as early as the 1970s. Chrisjohn states his father chose not to teach his language to his children due to beatings received in his boardingschoolexperience; however, what he did pass on was the gift of carving and sculpture. This includes traditional basket-making from black ash which was a money-making venture his family actively participated in before his passing in 1992.

Chrisjohn continues to pursue his love of sculpture, with dreams of sculpting a herd of elk and large creatures, some as tall as six feet. What an exciting moment in an artist's life when he or she can pursue their dreams instead of pursuing necessity.

Chrisjohn will be hosting a master silverwork workshop in theSilver in Iroquois Communitiesseries,from April 24 to 28, 2019, at the Oneida Arts Cottage.

With funding by the First Nations Development Institute (FNDI), the goal is to provide a series of workshops for local apprentices to be inspired by distinguished Native American artists in the fields of silverwork. By fostering local artists with skills, tools, tips and vision, the Master Artists will transfer a depth and breadth of traditional arts and culture that we hope to see bloom here within the next 20 years. We'll guide our local apprentice artists toward establishing an artist portfolio and a business plan in their chosen art forms. We also hope to see a strong network of Master Artists and apprenticeship artists learning and growing together and creating a strong base of Iroquois artists 20 years from now.For more information, visit

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