Since time immemorial, craftsmen across the world put their skills to use shaping wood into items that often outlive their creators. Coming from the forests of the Great Lakes region, skilled Potawatomi woodworkers passed their talent from generation to generation. Today, some of the fruits of their labor are on display at Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center.

CPN tribal member and employee Matthew Cheatwood carries on traditions learned from his own family as a finishing carpenter for the Nation.

Patrons of the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort, FireLake Golf Course and Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center have likely seen or touched his work without knowing it. The entrance to the Grand Event Center contains an ornate bench that Cheatwood and his two co-workers helped shape. He created the display cabinets at FireLake Golf Course’s pro shop in his studio located just west of the Grand. Visitors dining in the Grand Café excitedly gazing at the display of guitars and instruments signed by past musical acts do not know that Cheatwood’s co-workers, Neal Milette and Roger Crowe, crafted and varnished them in a workshop a few hundred feet away.

The Wilmette family descendant’s skills saved the Tribe money in its latest gaming venture. In 2018, the State of Oklahoma enacted legislation allowing ball and dice games at tribal gaming facilities. With more than 20 gaming operations across the state, there was a quick influx of orders for craps and roulette tables. The Grand Casino relied on Cheatwood’s expertise to build its tables in-house, and he provides readily available repair and support, if needed, at short notice.

“Having tables built in-house means we can have them customized,” said CPN Director of Casino Operations Todd Brand. “We can have them built for less than it would be to buy tables from a vendor. We can also maintain and repair tables without having to call an outside vendor.”

Those savings add up over the thousands of hours patrons use the tables.

“Matt can build a craps table for around $1,200 in materials,” Brand said. “To purchase the same quality of table from our vendor would cost between $10,000 and $12,000. A high-end craps table might cost around $30,000.”

Different things to different people

Tribal nations are unique entities with a variety of roles. In some instances, they serve as repositories of cultural and historical information. In others, they are sovereign governments, providing services and programs to the public.

Those roles tend to filter into the responsibilities of Tribal employees, and this is especially true for those like Cheatwood. When large projects require an “all hands on deck” mentality, he and his staff rise to the occasion, hanging drywall and framing out offices.

“On a day-to-day basis, I might build cabinets; I might build tables; I might get an old chair and just refinish it,” he said.

Passion and skill

He came to work at CPN like many others, visiting firelakejobs.com one day in search of opportunity. With seemingly never-ending construction and renovation projects, the Tribe required a finishing carpenter, and Cheatwood fit the bill. Though 29 when he became an employee in 2013, his skill level fit the needs of the Nation.

“I grew up in this industry,” he said. “My grandpa Joe taught me about it, and I was always around it as a kid because he was always adding on to the house or building something.”

Cheatwood credits his step-grandfather with cementing his passion for the craft.

“He was more of the trim carpenter … build you an armoire or anything like that,” he said.

Upon entering the workforce after high school, Cheatwood took a job with the State of Oklahoma using the skills learned from his family. He traveled to all 77 counties while serving as a finishing carpenter for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. DHS is the largest government agency in the state, providing an array of support programs to citizens in need. Cheatwood assisted on construction projects of all kinds for Oklahomans served by DHS, including those with developmental disabilities, the elderly and families in need of housing assistance.

“We would do trim carpentry, roofing, sheetrock, painting or anything to build a building. We were a part of it,” he said.

In search of less travel and more time at home, Cheatwood jumped at the opportunity to work as a finishing carpenter for CPN.

“Prague, Oklahoma, born and raised,” he responded when asked of his hometown.

Then and now

Sitting in his 2,000-square-feet workshop full of supplies, tools and equipment, Cheatwood laughs while describing his first days on the job at the Tribe. His first assignment was a podium for speakers at the Grand.

“When I first started, I had a little, old table saw … a 10-inch compound miter saw and a nail gun,” he said. “I had to borrow a hammer from the (auto pool) mechanic.”

As his time with the Nation progressed, Cheatwood’s assignment list grew. Eventually, he created tables for poker, blackjack and other games available at the casino. Working closely with John Gates in gaming operations, the two sketched out blueprints after receiving direction.

“Gaming operations would come over and show us a picture of what they wanted, and so I would build it,” he said. “I’d get some measurements on the width and height, and the rest was just, ‘Figure it out.’”

That flexibility continues to serve the needs required of a finishing carpenter at CPN, and Cheatwood says he is excited about his future work — whatever it may entail.

“I love it. I want to grow, get bigger and see where I can go with it.”