Native Village
Youth and Education news
January 2010 Volume 4

Berry leads revival of Southeastern-style beadwork
Written by WILL CHAVEZ
Condensed by Native Village

Oklahoma:  After nearly being lost to the ages, Southeastern-style beadwork is experiencing a revival. Cherokee artist Martha Berry has been leading that revival for about 10 years.

Berry credits her father for making her proud to be Cherokee.

“I very much wish my dad was still here with us," she said.  "I’d like to think he’d be very proud today that I have brought this message of traditional beadwork that had been so forgotten and very nearly lost, back home.”

Southeastern and Cherokee beadwork began in the 1600s. Trade and intermarriage with white settlers brought the thread, steel needles, silk ribbons, scissors and glass beads used in beadwork. Most Southeastern tribes, including the Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw, Yuchi, Choctaw and Seminole, sewed the beads onto clothing, moccasins, sashes and more.

Beadwork designs were modeled after pottery and other designs created before white invasion.  “It (beadwork) is a visual metaphor for the time in which it was created. What they did was take ancient designs and merged them with, what was then, state-of-the-art materials,” Berry explained.

Southeastern tribes might use beadwork crafts for diplomatic gift exchanges with white governments and other tribes. “You took the finest piece of art or craft that represents your people and tells the story of your people. You gave your very best,” Berry said.

Much of the Southeastern bead artwork that remains today is in museums and private collections.  Sadly, the meaning of some early beadwork images from the 18th and 19th centuries has been lost.

“We only know that they were very important because they were used over and over again. They were trying to preserve something and trying to pass it on,” Berry said.

 In the 1830s, the United States forced the Cherokee to leave their Georgia and Tennessee homelands for Oklahoma.  The artists no longer had time for their crafts.

“They had nothing. They had to build farms, they had to put roofs over their heads, they had to feed their children and they had to put in a crop. They didn’t have time to put in 225 hours making a bandolier bag,” Berry said.

By the 20th century, only plains tribes were visibly doing beadwork, which is “very different” than the Southeastern-style. Plains beadwork could be seen at powwows and in early TV westerns. Berry started copying those designs until research led her to the traditional designs of her Cherokee ancestors.  The few remaining Southeastern beaders helped her learn the designs.

Two years ago, Berry was asked to head the Cherokee Beadwork Revival Project. She organized a class at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah. Twelve people showed up to learn from her.

In teaching beading, Berry has students bead small items like purses or sashes first.

“A bandolier bag takes about 225 hours to complete, and to get a new beader to stick with that is hard,” she said. “I’ve always said to revive this art form we’ve got to do three things; we’ve got to grow beaders, we have to grow collectors and we have to grow brokers in the form of museums and galleries.”

Southeastern-style beaded moccasins Plains-style beaded moccasins


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