Muscogee Creek Artist Teaches Shell Carving

Nov 15th, 2008 | By | Category: 20-2: Native Green, Tribal College News


LEARNING FROM THEIR MVHAYV. Dan Townsend (second from left) works with students Thomasine Fife (Muscogee Creek) and Brenda Aston (Muscogee Creek). Photo by Rex Daugherty

Compiled from information provided by Rex Daugherty and Amber Simpson.

Dan Townsend (Muscogee Creek), an internationally known artist, brought the art of Native American shell carving to the College of the Muscogee Nation (CMN, Okmulgee, OK) over the summer. For one month, he shared insights into ancient designs and taught skills for creating such designs to Native American artisans, educators, tribal officials, and students from the area.

The works of the Tallahassee, FL, resident are part of art collections in countries all around the world.

A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation in Florida, Townsend grew up in the Everglades. An artistic grandmother inspired him as a child to carve tikis and totems out of palm trunks. As he grew older, he started scribing Native American designs on shells or “folapvs” (foe-la-pahs), for tribal elders. He says, “Shell carving turned out to be a full-time job, and now I live and breathe it every day. It’s all consuming.”

CMN brought in Townsend to help preserve the culture of the tribe by training others. Students used a wide variety of small motorized tools and magnifiers to carve designs based on the symbolism, iconography, and cosmology of the Muscogee Swift Creek people. Tools for the 2,000-year-old art form have evolved from animal teeth to drill bits. The designs are developed by the Muscogee people with a vision for seeing beauty and magic in nature.

“I recently visited some tribal members who were creating Native American art using ancient tools and methods,” says Townsend. “What struck me was the communal rhythm they had as they worked. This experience gave me a window into the past, and I saw how a people’s culture can be as powerful a factor as a new technology.”

Most of Townsend’s students in the summer class were of Muscogee Creek descent, and many are Native American artists in their own right. They referred to Townsend as “Mvhayv” (may-hi-yah) or teacher/mentor.

Sandy Fife Wilson (Muscogee Creek), area art teacher and fashion designer, says, “My students do pottery, print making and leatherwork, but shells are a new material I’ve never worked with. All cultures have different symbols for life and spirituality. Early cultures without a written language had to have these symbols to pass down stories and messages. I’m looking forward to sharing this art form with my students.”

Another student, Mike Berryhill (Muscogee Creek), a bow maker and potter, feels Townsend’s shell carving class is important, because it passes on an ancient tribal craft and custom to the next generation.

For more information, call (918)758-1480, e-mail or visit The College of the Muscogee Nation offers associate degrees in Gaming, Tribal Services, Native American Studies, and Police Science.

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