We’re interviewing makers from all 50 states. Today we’re featuring Stephan Cheney a Lakota woodworker of the Kul Wicasa Oyate in South Dakota. He currently lives in the Wiyot Territory in California.
How did you get started woodworking? Who were your mentors?
My initial introduction into woodworking came by way of a relatively short but active career in Wildland Firefighting. I spent 6 years working in fire. That introduction allowed me to view firsthand the beauty and story of trees. The very first pieces of wood that I worked on were cedar trees I had cut down on the plains in South Dakota. I honestly had no clue what I was doing, but I took my time and figured it out! From that point I read books, watched how-to videos, and took every opportunity to learn!
My mentor is an amazing woodworker named Matthew Issac. Matt came over to look at the cedar pieces I had created and loved them. He told me to come by his shop some time to check out his space. I of course did and my world was opened up to all the beauty and possibility that exists with woodworking. He would loan me tools here and there to accomplish projects I had undertaken, and ultimately pointed me in the direction I am in now. A true friend, brother, and mentor who loves working with wood as much as I do. Matt is always there when I am troubleshooting a problem or have a question. Occasionally he calls me over from time to time to help install his beautiful cabinetry! These days he’s very encouraging and supportive of the work I am doing with High Rez Wood Company, telling me often “one of these days I am going to be working for you.” Now I am getting calls and opportunities for work that I would definitely need his expertise to finish up, so hopefully soon we can co-create some amazing works of art together.
What do you think is your best or favorite work? What kind of work do you do the most?
My best works are those that challenge me to do build something new. I love the excitement of trying to figure out which way of the sometimes hundreds of ways to build something am I going to build it! Alongside of this, my favorite works are those that allow me the opportunity to incorporate culturally centered design into the work. I recently just completed a work that epitomizes this. A large round table, 8 foot in diameter that features hidden wireless charging, and a custom fabricated base resembling a tree. That table will be on its way to Washington DC this weekend! I also had the honor of building a courtroom table for the Redding Rancheria in Northern California. The Tribe wanted to create a space that honored their traditional values, uplifting their efforts to re-Indigenize their space. This challenged me to think of a design that would honor that first and foremost and then the challenge of bringing it all together in the construction of the piece. I created a circular table consisting of three sections and found every way possible both in design and construction to make them stand alone as individual pieces as well as cohesively come together. This type of work is what I do most. I find ways to reclaim the space for the people I am building for. New home owners, newly graduated, new business owners, new ideas, etc. I get the honor of helping those dreams come true and for that reason alone I love it.
What advice would you give to someone that wants to start woodworking or pursue it as a profession?
My biggest advice would be to be courageous in everything you do as well as kind to yourself in that process. Ask for help and surround yourself with those people that want to see you succeed. There are many out there. Join woodworking groups and ask the questions you need to advance your dreams. It’s with that support that you will sustain yourself while you make that transition into a full-time gig. The other advice is to create time and structure it just like you would with any other job. Take this part seriously! Whatever the situation or environment be consistent with your work and how you show up for it. One additional note to this would be to take pictures of your work and your process. These will serve as a working portfolio of your work and also serve as a storybook of your progress! It’s good to see where you have been to know where you want to go.
What’s your best hands-on tip or woodworking technique?
I am learning every day and would consider myself fairly new to the entire craft that we are working in. My best tip is under that old measure twice cut once motto. Take that idea to the internet, woodworking threads, youtube videos, etc and understand what it is that you want to do. Understand the process and refine the method to suit your needs or project. Create mockups both physical and digital to understand what you are going to do before you do it and take your time!
Is there anyone you’d like to shout-out or recommend we follow? Who inspires you? (Doesn’t have to be woodworking related, either.)
I would love to shout out all the amazing Native American Artists and creators out there. People that are doing amazing work in many different mediums. The people all inspire me in different ways. Their art and work is expressed effortlessly into the world! Go check them out!
You can find these amazing people on Instagram!
@Indiangiver – Cheyenne Randall – Digital | Mixed Media | Print | Design | Installations
@Ernestoyerena – Ernesto Yerena Montejano – Artist
@wahpepahskitchen – Crystal Wahpepah – Indigenous Chef in Oakland California
@nativein_la – Jordan Daniel – Lakota Runner, Activist, and Organizer
@janaunplgd – Jana Schmieding – Lakota Comedian Actress, and Beader. In a new show now streaming Rutherford Falls on the platform Peacock
@kiramurillo – Kira Murillo – Shosone-Bannock and Pima Tattoo Artist
@stevenpauljudd – Steven Paul Judd – Kiowa and Choctaw – All around amazing artist!
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