Stephan Cheney developed his love for trees as a wildland firefighter. Even as he cut down burnt trees, he knew they still had a lot of life left in them.
“If you scratch beneath the surface, you can see that the beauty is still there. The wood is salvageable and still has spirit,” says the 28-year-old entrepreneur, a Lakota of the Kul Wicasa Oyate in Lower Brule, South Dakota, who has turned his instincts for finding wooden gems into a furniture-making business, High Rez Wood Company.
“I remember the first piece of furniture I created was from a white oak tree that had been on fire. There was a branch that was still solid and usable, and I thought, ‘Man, I want to try to make something out of this!’” and his first creation, a coffee table, was born in a laundry room that he refers to as “my humble, little wood shop.”
Like an untamed wildfire, word spread within his circle of family and friends that Cheney had this gift for making furniture from scrap pieces of wood, even though he had never been trained in that art. “I am self-educated and it all starts with the belief, ‘Yeah, I think I can do that!’” Before long, he was making benches, tables and cutting boards on request, purely for the enjoyment of it—and out of necessity. “I made my first dining table because my relatives were sitting on the ground when they came over to visit me and my wife.”
At first, he never charged for his work. It was a labor of love and spirit. “Whenever I am working with any piece, I am doing it in a prayerful way and offer up tobacco. As indigenous people, we have a relationship with trees, so I am thanking the wood for the gift it is giving and whatever it might become next.” He says that whatever he creates, he prays it will bring positivity, good energy and the spirit of the tree into the home where it will end up.
The first piece he ever sold, a cedar end table, found a home with his wife’s professor. “I was selling it for $150, and she snatched it up right away and paid me more than I was asking,” recalls Cheney, who admits that he undervalues his work, “like most artists.” That first customer got more than a piece of furniture. She literally got a conversation piece. “Every piece of wood has a story to tell, and I told her the story of the end table–where I found the wood, how I worked on it and why it was important to me. It is now one of the centerpieces in her home.”
So, where does Cheney find the wood to make his signature furniture? Living in Humboldt County in Northern California, he is surrounded by trees. “I collect a lot of pieces of wood randomly along the way,” says the discerning scavenger. He also has friends and relatives scouting for him. His neighbor once gave him old, weathered wood from a goat shed. “These redwood pieces were covered in goat poop, but I cleaned them up and they are still some of the most beautiful pieces I have ever found.”
Cheney has worked with many different types of wood, including birch, madrone, redwood (from his own back yard), maple, cedar, Douglas fir, pine, oak, eucalyptus, Chechen, cherry and walnut. “I love the California walnut because of the smell!” he says, adding that he is not limited to what he works with. “Just knowing where it comes from is a priority,” as it establishes a connection, a relationship to it. If Cheney doesn’t know the origin of the wood, he won’t use it.
His favorite wood? It’s a toss-up. “Each piece of wood has its own quality that makes it great. I love cedar because of its purifying properties and value to my people,” he nails down a choice. “But I also like madrone. Some woodworkers don’t like to work with madrone because it warps. But I appreciate its temper. It just requires some understanding.”
The piece that Cheney is most proud of is a table he donated to a fundraiser for the Thriving Women’s Initiative sponsored by the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples that had a special focus on missing and murdered indigenous women. “For the first time, I incorporated cedar and tobacco into it and prayed that this table would be both a blessing for someone’s home and also impact the work being done to help stop violence against women.” This one-of-a-kind piece auctioned for $500.
The Lakota Native’s dream is to one day have his own wood shop and create furniture in a much larger capacity “than what I am able to do right now in my little laundry room.” For now, he is content “bringing new life to wood” when he is not working full-time for Seventh Generation Fund as the special assistant to the president.
This self-taught furniture artist continues to grow his product inventory. To date, he has created dining tables, coffee tables, benches, cutting boards, serving trays, spoons, paddles and eel hooks, a traditional fishing tool in Humboldt County.
Cheney says it can take anywhere from two days to two weeks to complete a project, depending on the complexity and size of the piece. “I can offer an expected time of completion, and it might come out sooner or it might take a little longer.”
Interested buyers can see more of his work on his Instagram page.