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Comanche trendsetter creates splendorous Native wedding designs

Jody Colbert, a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, is getting a lot of attention in the floral industry by bringing the splendor of Native American art, design and style to the altar.

Colbert is the owner and designer of Mother Earth Floral Designs, located in San Leandro, Calif. Colbert is a fourth

generation granddaughter of Quanah Parker, and her floral creations combine the traditional beadworking she learned as a child with her substantial skills as a bridal floral designer.

Colbert’s story is still unfolding, but her journey so far has been a long and winding path of trial and error during which she has triumphed through perseverance and keeping her priorities on family and a belief in the beauty and value of her culture.

Her father is Robert O. Colbert of the Chickasaw/Choctaw Nation, and her mother is Jo Helen Mowatt-Colbert of the Comanche Nation. A Vietnam vet with seven Purple Hearts, Robert and his wife relocated to the Bay Area where they started a family.

As a child, Jody and her siblings spent time in Oklahoma with their grandparents. Her grandmother, Joanne Parker-Sands, great-great-granddaughter of Quanah Parker, taught the girls to bead, and the family worked together to create craft items for pow wows and fairs.

While in high school, Colbert took an extra credit class in floral design, and enjoyed it so much she decided to pursue it as a career. She began working for floral shops in 1998. After three years of floral experience, however, she decided to switch to a more lucrative career, and went to work as a clerk for the Office of Immigration.

“I worked on 80 to 90 citizenship cases each week, and took part in many swearing-in ceremonies. But after three years I decided it wasn’t the job I had dreamed of.” During this time, Colbert married and had two sons, Francisco and Daniel, and entered college thinking about a career in law enforcement, however, she soon returned to the floral industry.

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“I realized I really missed the work. ... it was the right place for me. So I began looking through ads in top bridal magazines like ‘The Knot’ and finally called one of the best florists. I began working as the agency’s main designer.

“It was wonderful to be working in the industry again, but the work was exhausting. Although wedding flowers are a lucrative business – people often pay between $15,000 and $40,000 for their arrangements – it’s hard for designers to make a decent living. The owner often did five to six weddings per weekend, but I had to work six days a week just to keep my head above water, and that didn’t leave me any time to spend with my children.”

Colbert eventually quit the job in order to spend more time with her sons. “My kids are my life, so I quit. It was sad because I loved the job, but I figured I could never make it work.”

Then her sister told her about the Washoe Tribe’s TANF Program. It’s designed to help Indians with job preparation, employment opportunities and supportive services to increase self-sufficiency. They looked over Colbert’s ideas for Native floral designs and decided to invest in her by helping her start her own business.

In July 2008, she graduated from business school through the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, a Bay Area nonprofit that provides training, resources and ongoing support for high-potential, lower-income women to start and expand businesses. Since that time, the sky has become the limit.

Her creations incorporate the traditional beadwork she learned at her grandmother’s knee with her floral skills.

“From my experience in the industry, I knew I had something different to offer. You often see designs that reflect Chinese, East Indian, Mexican and a variety of other cultures, but never Native American designs,” she said.

At a booth at last year’s Stanford Powwow, she met officials from the Sealaska Corporation. After viewing samples of her work, they hired her to create 60 table centerpieces and 10 cocktail table pieces for their forthcoming conference. “They had searched all over the country for a florist who did Native American designs but found none. I was thrilled at the opportunity to create pieces for their event.”

Although it’s been a long journey, she feels happier and more satisfied with her life than ever before. “I love my work, and I love being able to spend as much time as I need with my family. There have been sacrifices, of course, but it has all been worth it. I didn’t do this alone, however. I just can’t say enough about the Washoe TANF Program and the support and encouragement they gave me. I also have my family to thank for their help and support. I am so honored that they had faith in me and my business. It’s all just been truly amazing.”