Renowned Choctaw geologist and beadworker teaches at Whitman

By Nika Bartoo-Smith (Underscore News)
Feb. 5, 2024 10 p.m.
Roger Amerman points into the distance while teaching outside of the Long Tent on Whitman College’s Ankeny Field in April 2022.

Roger Amerman points into the distance while teaching outside of the Long Tent on Whitman College’s Ankeny Field in April 2022.

Courtesy of Whitman College

This story originally appeared on Underscore News.

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This semester, Whitman College has a visiting professor on staff teaching a unique class on ethnogeology. Professor Roger Amerman is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who grew up primarily in the Pacific Northwest and attended Whitman himself. Recently Amerman was contracted as the lead beadwork consultant for Marvel’s new show “Echo.” Now, a geologist and an artist, Amerman will share his knowledge with the next generation of young minds interested in geology — and how Indigenous knowledge is a key piece of the puzzle.

A love of beadwork is born

Beading for a major television series came to fruition for Amerman through a lifetime of beading and decades of honing his craft. Amerman’s passion for fancy dancing took hold in middle school in the early 1970s. This led him to become the beader he is now.

“The reason I got up in the morning was to dance at the powwows,” Amerman said.

Living in Portland at the time, his aunt made his regalia and sent it through the mail from Phoenix. As he got older and his regalia needed updating, Amerman realized it made sense for him to learn to bead on his own. By the time he moved to Umatilla, Oregon, in high school, he was doing all the beading and feather work for his regalia himself.

Though he did not grow up in Choctaw Nation, he eagerly wanted to connect to his own heritage. For him, one of the biggest ways to do that was to learn more about the colors and symbols important to the Choctaw Nation.

Decades later, Amerman’s passion for beadwork has taken him far. In 2000, Amerman won “Best of Show Artist” at the former Northwest Indian Art Market in Portland for his beadwork. In June 2011 and then again in June 2014 Amerman served as a featured traditional Choctaw artist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. In March 2015, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma commissioned him to make a ceremonial bandolier sash for the chief of the Choctaw Nation to wear.

‘Echo’s’ Sun and Fire medallion

Most recently, his beadwork took him to an even wider national audience by being featured on “Echo,” the latest Marvel series on Disney+ and Hulu. In the show, Alaqua Cox, Menominee and Mohican Nation, plays Maya Lopez, a Choctaw antihero. Producers worked closely with the Choctaw Nation in creating a TV show with accurate representation.

“‘Echo’ is very Choctaw centric,” Amerman said. “They wanted to incorporate our language, all the spectrum of our cultural elements, including our designs.”

This includes the central feature of the belt worn by Lopez, a Sun and Fire medallion, beaded by Amerman. Amerman started with a sun pattern, a design found in lots of old pieces of Choctaw pottery. From there, he adapted the medallion, creating something unique for “Echo” with pieces of Choctaw stories interwoven.

“It stands for fire that is sacred to my people,” Amerman said. “That radiance of our sacred fires that nurtured us through millennia, that radiant heat that’s related to the radiance that comes off the sun, and that’s how we’re connected to the cosmos.”

Marvel studios did a good job of making sure to portray an accurate representation of Choctaw Nation, instead of relying on stereotypes or pan-Indigenous generalizations, according to Dr. Ian Thompson, historic preservation officer and citizen of Choctaw Nation.

Beyond the beadwork designs, bits of Choctaw language are sprinkled throughout the show and some episodes are even fully dubbed in Choctaw. Thompson recently helped work on a website highlighting pieces of Choctaw culture in the Marvel series.

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From a Choctaw writer working on the show to Amerman’s beadwork and dozens of other Choctaw members involved with the production of “Echo,” the series is particularly impactful for the tribe. During a pre-screening red carpet event hosted at Choctaw Nation back in November, Thompson remembers the sparkle of pride in people’s eyes watching the first few episodes.

One thing that stands out to him is Amerman’s beadwork.

“He did a fantastic job,” Thompson said. “It’s pretty neat when you see her in the outfit in the series and that’s Roger’s work right there.”

Roger Amerman’s design of the Sun and Fire medallion was incorporated into the belt for Echo, a new Marvel character.

Roger Amerman’s design of the Sun and Fire medallion was incorporated into the belt for Echo, a new Marvel character.

Courtesy of Whitman College

Both Amerman and Thompson hope that the series is particularly important for Indigenous youth all across Turtle Island, in seeing representation of Native people on screen, and in mainstream pop culture.

“Echo” is an antihero providing long overdue representation in the Marvel world for Indigenous people. Amerman hopes the series sparks meaningful conversation.

“My hope is that when they see that design, more questions come up, especially for our Native youth,” Amerman said. “I want them to inquire, I want them to ponder and ask their elders about the design used in ‘Echo.’”

Teaching ethnogeology

Questions about working on the show “Echo” will likely follow Amerman into the classroom, as he teaches a class on ethnogeology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, this term.

Amerman returns to the college, where he went to school graduating in the class of 1981, as the O’Donnell Visiting Educator in Global Studies for Spring 2024. In years past, visiting educators have always been from another country, according to Amerman. This time around, another professor nominated Amerman, in recognition of the sovereignty of Choctaw and other Native nations.

“I think it’s really cool that [Whitman] is starting to have this mindset of recognizing tribal nations as sovereign nations and including that in the work they do at the college,” said Jeanine Gordon, special assistant to the president for Native American outreach at Whitman College.

Gordon, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Nez Perce, Chippewa and Cree, started her current role in April 2023, with the creation of the position. Her job is to ensure that the college follows through on the responsibilities outlined in the memorandum of agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, adopted in 2022.

In forming the Whitman College Native American Outreach Department, the college has worked to build a strong relationship with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and hopes to continue building partnerships with other Pacific Northwest Native nations, according to Gordon.

In his unique semester-long ethnogeology course, Amerman will weave Western science and Indigenous knowledge. The course will focus on history and ethnogeology, the study of how geological features are understood by Indigenous people.

There’s a version Western science uses to explain how the geology of areas like the Cascades in the Columbia River plateau were formed tectonically, Amerman explained.

“But our own people have a way to explain through our oral traditions,” Amerman said. “The thing about our legend time stories is that they have an anchor in something that really happened in the Pacific Northwest.”

Amerman hopes that students will walk away from his class with a great understanding of the region and the importance of looking to Indigenous knowledge when learning about the geology and significance of a landscape.

“Ethnogeolgy is much more holistic,” Amerman said. “You can’t talk about the soil and geology without talking about the plants and the humans.”

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