As one of the employees working for the first tribally owned textile company in the U.S., Bethany McCord feels she and the business, Mahota Textiles, have come full circle.
“To be able to create something and develop it and watch it grow into this special business that it is, it’s sort of like me giving back to my tribe, even though we’re supported by them. It’s sort of full circle,” said McCord, a Chickasaw Nation citizen and business and development manager for Mahota Textiles, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
McCord was working at the nearby Artesian Art Gallery when she was approached by Margaret Roach Wheeler, a Chickasaw and Choctaw textile artist, to help start up the company.
The team at Mahota went before leaders and fellow citizens of the Chickasaw Nation in a sort of “Shark Tank”-type competition to see if the product would have viability, and it was selected for funding from the tribe.
“Owning a business, developing a business, starting a business was … always a dream of mine,” McCord said. “So when she asked me to be a part of it, I was like,’ absolutely.’”
After a test run, the company launched in October 2018. They are now in more than 30 locations across 10 states, including at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, and the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.
“Since our launch in October 2018, our online and in-store sales have increased by 64%,” McCord said. “Our in-store purchases increased significantly this year, surpassing our online sales by 62%, which means our foot traffic is increasing each year.”
That foot traffic is crucial for a community like Sulphur, which has a population of around 5,000 residents. Located in the downtown business district, the store helps draw visitors to the area who might frequent other local stores and eateries as well.
As the first textile business owned by a tribe, it also gives credence to the Chickasaw Nation, which owns and operates several other business ventures, including a hotel and a line of gourmet chocolates, among other things.
Mahota Textiles offers three main products: a blanket, a pillow and a bag. Each comes in three distinct designs. Because they work with an American mill and sometimes have extra fabric, they do make other products, including cosmetic bags, placemats and other items.
“We wanted to kind of start off slow just to not get in over our heads,” she said, adding: “We just tried to use the excess fabric any way we can and so if there is a new product… if we can create with that, we will.”
They also work with other Chickasaw artists to create unique designs, an important initiative for the Mahota team.
“Anytime we can take Chickasaw artists and highlight their work, we love to do that,” she said.
The sun symbol is an important symbol to some tribal nations, and it factors into the pieces at Mahota, McCord said. One design also features the braided sweetgrass. Other cultural elements seen displayed in the pieces include the eagle, water and wind.
“Eagles are significant to Native Americans in general, just because of what they stand for,” she said. “So we embrace a lot of Native American culture. But we also tried to incorporate our traditional symbols.”
In the future, the team would like to develop more of a presence in interior design with the fabrics, she said, There are already plans to renovate a handful of suites at the Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center.
Part of the products’ appeal, McCord said, is that they also include an educational experience. Each piece comes with a card describing what elements are included in the product and how it was made. It also includes a poem written by a Chickasaw poet.
“Not only are we educating you about Native American culture, Native American history, but you get to learn the history of it, too,” McCord said. “And so it, I think, gives people more of an understanding, so there isn’t that cultural misappropriation.”
McCord added that the use of a Native American-made blanket by a non-Native resident is not considered cultural appropriation in her view but that she appreciates people who have that concern and have called to ask.
“We love sharing our culture. We want to share culture. We want to educate people,” she said. “Because that’s important for us: to carry on those traditions and stories. So that people are more aware.”