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‘All women are strong’

Dana Tiger’s art continues a family legacy

Dana Tiger paints in her Muskogee studio

Kimberly Burk

The watercolor resting on Dana Tiger’s easel in her Muskogee studio wasn’t nearly finished, but it already had a title.

The painting would be called “Seven Women Riding in Stressful Times,” and the models for the Native American horsewomen were the seven granddaughters of Lucinda Tiger, who died June 28 at the age of 96.

Dana, her sister Lisa, and their five cousins had come together to surround their grandmother’s hospital bed in her final hours. The night before the funeral, they convened at a church near Eufaula, per tradition, to stay awake with the body.

“Lisa is crazy. I’m crazy. We laughed all night,” Tiger said.

Tiger, 56, lost yet another significant woman in her life when she said goodbye to her mother just the year before. But she finds inspiration everywhere for her art, which she describes as “paintings of strong women.”

“I think all women are strong,” she said. “Just by being a woman, you have that strength.”

Her mother, Peggy, showed her what a strong woman could do after her father, Jerome Tiger, died at age 26 in an accidental shooting. Dana was five.

Jerome Tiger painted professionally for only five years but left behind a large body of work. His 24-year-old widow provided for their three children by turning his legacy into a business.

“She took Dad’s work and made the world know about it,” Dana Tiger said.

Peggy’s business partner was Jerome’s brother, Johnny Tiger Jr., who was also an artist and a mentor to his nieces and nephew.

“We practically were forced to do art as children,” Dana Tiger said. “We couldn’t go play until we did art work for the shows. Art was the family business, and my mom was a great businesswoman.”

Peggy Tiger contracted with JC Penney to produce T-shirts bearing silkscreened images of Johnny Tiger’s art.

“We turned out thousands,” Dana Tiger said. “That was lucrative.”

Dana studied political science at Oklahoma State University and didn’t get serious about art until she sold out her first show at a festival in Tulsa at the age of 24.

“With that show I was able to buy my own home and buy my own car,” she said. “I set myself up to never get married.”

But her new home was a cabin in the country. “I started getting a little lonesome,” she said.

So she uttered a prayer, asking for a man “who was handsome, who had read a few books, and who wouldn’t dominate my life.”

It wasn’t long before Donnie Blair came along. He met all her criteria, and was Cherokee to boot. Tiger is Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, and Cherokee.

Blair does the matting and framing at the Tiger Gallery, and he took on important domestic duties while their son Lisan and daughter Christie were growing up. “Donnie did all the cooking,” Tiger said.

Christie’s painting of her young son was featured on the March cover of Native Oklahoma. Lisan is a sculptor. The family gallery also showcases the work of basket weaver Britteny Cuevas and apparel artist Michael Deo.

Dana Tiger’s art “is an excellent example of a Muskogee Creek woman’s perspective,” said Tom Farris, manager of Exhibit C Native Gallery and Gifts in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown district.

“Most Southeastern tribes were matrilineal,” Farris said. “It makes sense to get the strong female point of view.”

Several of Tiger’s paintings are currently on display in an exhibit called “Perspectives” that continues through Oct. 31 at Exhibit C.

Kevin Workman, who lives in Broken Arrow and was working recently in Muskogee, made an unscheduled stop when he spotted the Tiger name on the front of the gallery. He said he has been a fan of the family’s art since he first saw Jerome Tiger’s work many years ago.

“I think what first grabbed me was the colors and the lines, and how everything was put together,” Workman said. “It was very pleasing to the eye, and gave me a little bit of an escape.”

In 1999, Dana Tiger began having symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease. She takes medication every three hours that enables her to walk. As a result, her art has evolved to accommodate her physical challenges. “My work has changed from more realistic to more abstract,” she said.

But Tiger said the disease has not progressed as quickly as she expected it to, and she credits traditional healers coupled with modern medicine.

“I’ve seen our Indian doctors,” she said. “They know the songs and the healing plants handed down from a long time ago.”

Tiger has donated art to fund breast cancer and AIDS research, and she volunteers at the Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Muskogee. Her family foundation, the Legacy Cultural Learning Community, teaches Native culture to children. Tiger was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001.

“I’ve had the craziest, happiest, most wonderful life,” Tiger said. “Keeping alive the traditions and art of my people is the most important thing to me.”