Horsethief Lake

The Cherokee lens, up close

Photographer Joe Cantrell's micro-images blend art and science to pierce time and geology and discover secrets of the shape of things

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of ArtsWatch’s contributing writers and photographers are themselves artists. Joe Cantrell, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation who spent 16 years as a photojournalist in Asia, has photographed subjects and celebrations for ArtsWatch ranging from the Waterfront Blues Festival to backstage stories about the opera to classical-music performances ranging from concert halls to musicians’ front porches, as well as chalk art festivals and the immigrant-culture celebrations of Beaverton Market. For several years he’s been working on two special projects of his own, photographing the interior structures of pictographs and exploring the microstructures of geological time in rocks and fossils. For both projects he calls on his Cherokee tradition of viewing the universe.


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL


Cherokee tradition embraces outside technology and methods when we think they will be useful. One of the best examples of that was Sequoyah’s remarkable feat of single-handedly developing his syllabary. Sequoyah was one of only a handful of geniuses in human history who have single-handedly invented a written language for their people. It was so effective and easy to learn that illiterate Cherokees could become literate in one week! Compare that to the amount of time and energy we spend to learn English, folks, and the sad state of the language in spite of it.

Growing up in Tahlequah, Cherokee County, Oklahoma, the name Sequoyah surrounded us from the Sequoyah Theater to the “Indian Training School,” as it was known then, to the grade school. He became a part of who we were and would be. Even in my mid 70s, he still is. So as my photography has evolved since they sent me to the Tahlequah High School darkroom, September of 1960, it was natural that Sequoyah’s influence would follow.

I am perplexed by the fact that to meet a popular concept of “real Indians,” the Cherokees back in the Smoky Mountains apparently must emulate Plains Indians, the ones who John Wayne and other show-biz white guys could kill with one pistol shot from a running horse. Last time I was at the Cherokee Holiday Parade down Main Street, Tahlequah, our Principal Chief and Tribal Council wore big eagle feather headdresses. I don’t recall ever seeing a Cherokee man wear a turban, our real traditional head covering, as Sequoyah did.

This image, photographed from a fossil at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks & Minerals, in Hillsboro, is from a piece of “the oldest precursors of life, 3.4 billion year old stromatolites,” Cantrell says. “These were prokaryotic, meaning single cells with no nucleus, and were the state of life for about 1.7 billion years in the Precambrian era. They gained nuclei, and with that the ability to adapt and mutate, about 1.7 billion years ago.”

Continues…