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Press Release

Release Date: January 06, 2021

by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office



  • Alyssa Underwood

  • “Getting Ready” is a charcoal drawing celebrating her heritage as a Chickasaw. It shows a woman strapping on shell-shakers to keep rhythm to songs at a traditional Chickasaw stomp dance.

Alyssa Underwood garnered three Judges’ Award ribbons in the 2020 virtual Southeastern Art Show and Market (SEASAM) youth competition.

She accomplished the feat in differing mediums – photography, charcoal and oil.

Winning awards is nothing new to Underwood, a 17-year-old senior at the prestigious Classen High School of Advanced Studies in Oklahoma City.

At the 2019 Red Earth Youth Art Show, she finished first in photography, second in painting and drawing, and third in cultural items. As a freshman, she earned a first-place award in Division II painting and drawing at Red Earth, acknowledged as one of the leading First American arts festivals in the United States.

This was Underwood’s first competitive foray into SEASAM and she knocked it out of the park.

“I like to experiment and try out as many mediums as possible,” the teenager said.

Her sister, Aidan, is featured in two of the SEASAM winning pieces – one photograph and the other an oil painting on ledger paper.

The photograph, titled “Princess,” was originally a digital image in color. But Underwood felt the photo of Aidan holding a doll needed to be more dramatic. “I didn’t want it to be full of bright colors. I thought it needed drama but not bring on emotions of sadness,” she said.

She converted it to black and white, darkened it and made the photo an attention-grabber. “I like the way it turned out,” Underwood said. “The absence of color really brings out the scene. People can experience many different emotions viewing it.”

Underwood’s father, John, is Chickasaw and Seminole. He is employed by the Chickasaw Nation as recruitment and retention coordinator for the department of community development. Her mother, Ginny, is Kiowa and Comanche.

The ledger portrait of Aidan incorporates Underwood’s First American heritage of Kiowa and Comanche. First Americans in war paint are depicted charging on horseback with shields at the ready. Teepees in the background make it seem as if Aidan is watching the action from a Comanche encampment. The painting is titled “Ancestors.”

“I am proud to say I have many tribes in my heritage,” Underwood said. “Each is different from the other. Each unique in heritage and history.”

The third winner is a charcoal rendering of a Chickasaw female lacing up shell shakers to keep the rhythm for singers during stomp dances. It is titled “Getting Ready.”

Underwood attended stomp dance classes in Oklahoma City to learn the dances, their meaning, their importance and to keep the centuries-old tradition alive. Men sing and women wear shell shakers to keep rhythm. The weight of shakers strapped to the legs of women dancers can weigh up to 25 pounds each.

“It’s very tiring,” Underwood observed. “The women work so hard they must rest after a couple of songs. I made the charcoal drawing from a photograph I took. I enjoyed the process of drawing it so the eyes go straight to the shell shakers. All the elements of preparation are included in the drawing, but it was done in a way to call attention to the shakers.”

Art is her love, and she wishes to continue it after graduating from Classen ASA. The coronavirus pandemic has kept her home learning virtually. “It is a very difficult and different environment than attending classes,” she said. When graduation arrives in May 2021, Underwood is not certain there will be a ceremony but is certain that she will attend college next autumn.

Swarthmore College, one of her top choices, is a long way from Oklahoma. It is southwest of Philadelphia and was established in 1868.

Underwood’s brother, Avery, is also an artist and attends Swarthmore. Underwood plans to apply there in the spring, as well as other art schools beyond Oklahoma.

“I am looking for a school with a strong art program, near a major city with an Indigenous population on campus,” she said.

“I know college is my opportunity to learn and to explore art even more. I’m ready to push the boundaries of my abilities.”