COMMENTARY: Social Media is the New Trade Route; Cherokee Artists in the 21st Century

by Nov 13, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Reporter


Indigenous nations have been connected through trade routes for centuries before and after colonization. We traded food, beadwork, clothes, raw materials, anything useful or beautiful or both. Our trade routes were so prominent that we learned each other’s languages, and crossovers occurred within our languages. We were intrinsically connected through trade. Our cultures found dynamic developments through trade. After colonization, we found ways to maintain our socioeconomic systems through trade. Cherokee basketry in particular was a lasting form of Cherokee cultural preservation in the market economy of colonial America, which author Sarah Hill covers expertly in her book “Weaving New Worlds: Southeastern Cherokee Women and Their Basketry”.

Consequently, as history progressed and America’s capitalist society took form, those trade routes fell away. Many of our trade routes delineated the American highway system we use today.

There are still remnants of the intricate network of Indigenous trade routes. The Powwow Trail simulated Indigenous trade routes, but the expansive nature of ancient trade was still missing. However, there is a new trade route that I believe mirrors those ancient trails in a unique and beautifully bizarre way: beadwork on social media. Social media has connected our Indigenous crafters, and particularly our beaders, in a way only paralleled by ancient Indigenous trade routes. X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, have a pretty substantial corner of their network carved out by Indigenous beaders and crafters.

In a world where social media has done so much wrong, there is a glimmer of social media usage that is doing something right. Beadworkers on social media share with each other, learn from each other and support themselves, their families, and their communities, all the while continuing their culture. Indigenous culture is not stagnant. Cultures are dynamic. They are meant to stand the test of time and develop along with the development of communities and nations. The interesting ways in which these artists are developing traditional art in the modern era is not only fascinating but a phenomenal act of resistance to colonialism. The connection between Indigenous artists from say Cherokee, N.C., to Anchorage, Alaska, is incredible, and completely reminiscent of our ancestors’ trade routes. Our languages, our socialization, and our connectedness is being forged again through social media. That is incredible to me and something to celebrate.

And the impact doesn’t stop online. Indigenous artists are seeing their work featured on red carpets and at the Met Gala. Model Quannah Chasinghorse (Oglala Lakota and Han Gwich’in) stole the show at the 2022 Met Gala with stunning accessories from Lenise Omeasoo (Blackfeet and Cree). More recently, Jen Loren (Cherokee Nation), executive producer of the Emmy award winning docuseries “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People,” wore jewelry from Alica Wildcatt (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), Greybeard Metalsmithing at the Hollywood premiere of “Killers of the Flower Moon”. She also carried a basket made by Louise Goings (EBCI). The impact of this new trade network is global, star-studded and the only thing to come close to the interwoven paths of ancient Cherokee people.