The Trail of Tears Art Show has returned to the Cherokee Heritage Center and is bigger than ever.

The CHC had a record number of entries this year, from members of 19 different tribes.

"Every year, I think it couldn't get any better than this, but there's some stuff in here that just absolutely captivates me," said Dr. Charles Gourd, executive director of the CHC. "It's unbelievable."

Native American artists are invited each year to submit entries. The Cherokees were forced to relocate from their ancestral homelands to Oklahoma as part of President Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy. The Cherokees weren't the only ones to suffer from removal, though, so the art show is intertribal.

"While the Trail of Tears was a very tragic event in our history, it's not our defining moment," said Gourd. "But nearly every other Indian tribe and people in the country have been removed from somewhere. So have made it a concerted effort to get the work into the artist community that this is their opportunity to participate in an intertribal show."

It's called the "Trail of Tears Art Show," but that's not the theme. In fact, there isn't one.

"Artists by their nature are very creative people," he said. "An idea will captivate them and they become immersed in it, so what all else is going on doesn't really matter."

Most Tahlequah residents understand the culture and lifestyle of modern-day Native Americans.

But some folks still think of teepees and headdresses. The show helps change public perceptions.

"I don't want the American public to have a perception that all Indians are locked into the 18th century," said Gourd. "I don't want our people to give the impression that we expect [Native artists] to stick with 18th century stuff."

Native art, he said, occurs when the artist is Native, whatever the medium.

"The first year we did this, a girl did a painting of an Islamic woman with her veil, and it was stunning," said Deborah Fritts, of the Cherokee Art Market. "It was one of those pieces you would walk by and you'd just be drawn to how she drew the eyes. I heard people go, 'Well, that's not Native.' Well, the artist is Native, so it is therefore Native American art."

The exhibit has become the longest-running American Indian art show in Oklahoma. Artists compete for more than $15,000 in the following categories: painting, sculpture, pottery, basketry, graphics, jewelry, and miniatures. Many entrants are new to the lineup, including a Denise Emerson, who is Navajo and Skokomish. Callie Chunestudy, CHC curator, found one of her pieces, "Generations 2," particularly striking.

"It's a digital piece, and at first glance, it seems really simple, but I think with the composition and colors, a lot of time and thought went into this," said Chunestudy. "Although it's a completely flat piece, somehow the plexiglass adds a dimensions to it that's really neat."

Some of the artists are new, while others are seasoned entrants. Troy Jackson, a multi-year winner, took home the Grand Prize for "Faith in the Creator."

"I've only known Troy for the past seven years, but just watching his work in those seven years, it only gets better," said Chunestudy.

This was Jackson's sixth time to earn Best of Show. There was a conversation among CHC administration and the judges about giving the award to someone new, but in the end, Jackson's work could not be bested.

"The reason he wins is because there's nothing better in the show," said Chunestudy. "We had a long discussion, like well do we want to give him grand prize again? But then when you look at that piece and you look at everything else in the room, if his piece is the best in the room, then it's Best of Show."

Top winners include Toneh Chuleewah, Bettty Scraper Garner Elder Award; Roy Boney Jr., Bill Rabbit Legacy Award; and Daniel M. HorseChief, Trail of Tears Award. Other winners are listed by category.

• Pottery: Jackson, "Bird Effigy Pot," first; Gary Henson, "Todaka, War Chief and Corn Woman Head Pots," second; Jane Osti, "Spirit of Nature in Clay," third; Crystal Hanna, "Blackened Bowl," honorable mention.

• Basketry: Vivian Garner Cottrell, "United First Nations," first; Lisa Forrest, "Gathering Basket," second; Renee Hoover, "Cherokee Cradle," third; and Hoover, honorable mention.

• Miniatures: Norma Howard, "Saturday Morning," first; Merlin LittleThunder, "The Witch Tries to Forge Allies With Winterman," second; Dylan Cavin, "Nocturnal Pilgrim," third; and J. Byron Test, "Mom's Medicine Bag," honorable mention.

• Jewelry: Chuleewah, "Indian River Bracelet," first; Karen Berry, "Long-Shot," second; Chuleewah, "Morning Star," third; and Andrea Tidwell, "Kamama Mama," honorable mention.

• Graphics: Melinda Schwakhofer, "Road to Oklahoma," first; Emerson, "Generations 2," second; and Bryan Waytula, "Victory on the River Raisin," third.

• Painting: Johnnie Diacon, "Super Indians: Origins," first; Norma Howard, "Little Brother of War," second; Kenny Henson, "Last Book Back," third; and Kindra Swafford, Jon Williams, Cavin, Keli Gonzales, and Boney Jr., honorable mention.

• Sculpture: Tama Roberts, "Rise Up and Fly," first Dan L. Corley, "Out of the Fire," second; and Stanley Charging, "The Start," third.

• Emerging artists: Henson, first; Emerson, second; Schwakhofer, third; and Kai Onsae, honorable mention.

• Grades 6-8, two-dimensional: Aiden Bearpaw, first; Abria Carroll, second; and Anita Ashley Mitchell, third.

• Grades 6-8, three-dimensional: Emma Sherron, first; Jordan Crittenden, second; and Auni Drake, third.

• Grades 9-10, two-dimensional: Caitlyn McWhorter, first; Kate Wattenbarger, second; and Brooke Brown, third.

• Grades 9-10, three-dimensional: Kelsey Morgan, first; Tanner Williams, second; and Lexus Jones, third.

• Grades 11-12, two-dimensional: Macey Conner, first; Brinkley Howard, second; and Robin Tubby, third.

• Grades 11-12, three-dimensional: Chandler Jackson, first; Lindsey Petitt, second; LeRoy Bighand, third.

• Youth Best of Show: Emma Sherron for woven wall hanging.

Check it out

The Trail of Tears Art Show will be displayed at the Cherokee Heritage Center throughout April. For more information, call the CHC at 918-456-6007.