Born and raised in northeastern Oklahoma, Martha Berry is a renown Cherokee beadwork artist. Taught to use a needle and thread by her beloved grandmother, she made a career as a seamstress for a touring ice show at the age of 20. Years later, she turned her skill to the traditional beadwork of her Cherokee ancestors, leading the revival of this iconic Southeastern tribal art form. In 2013, she was designated a Cherokee National Living Treasure, and today she’s here to share her story with you.
Growing up, were there any particular events or moments that taught you the importance of your native ancestry?
I have always been proud of my Cherokee heritage. I got that from my dad, through osmosis I guess. However, I was born in 1948, at a time when it was not trendy to be Native American. My dad was always proud of his Cherokee heritage and looked up to his mom greatly, but it was not a time when you could discuss your Native heritage. We had moved to the urban environment of Tulsa, and Cherokee experiences were few.
I always had a hard time understanding why Dad and I could be proud of who we were, but had to be quiet about it. This created curiosity in me that I never really had the time or opportunity to explore until decades later. When my daughters were entering high school, I began to have more time and started exploring Cherokee history. To my surprise, I found that my direct ancestors were tribal leaders—their names are in all the history books. I had no idea.
The more I studied my history, the more I wanted to connect with my Cherokee grandmothers. All of my female Cherokee ancestors had passed before I was born, so I thought perhaps I could do something that they did to build that connection. As I began experimenting with beadwork, I discovered that Cherokee beadwork was very different from what most people understand as being Native American. Our old beadwork had vanished, but I didn’t understand why. It was that mystery, and the determination to learn to do work like my Cherokee ancestors had made, that got me started.
How does your passion for the Cherokee community play into your pieces?
It thrills me beyond words that the tribe has accepted the knowledge of our own beadwork. When I see Cherokees wearing or carrying traditional Cherokee pieces, it fills me with joy. This is a Renaissance time for all old Cherokee art and traditions. Our culture was oppressed for many decades and being part of the restoration is a very great honor.
Can you describe the style of Southern Woodland Native American art? What are some common themes/motifs, and what aesthetically speaking sets their artwork apart from tribes in other regions in the United States?
While Southeastern Woodlands tribal beadwork is very similar from Southeast tribe to Southeast tribe, it is all very different from beadwork in the rest of the Americas. The pieces that we make, the materials that we use, the stories that we bead are all very Southeast oriented.
Our tribes began incorporating European materials into our culture in the mid-1700s. We merged ancient Cherokee traditions with then state-of-the-art materials. Using wool cloth, silk ribbon, cotton thread, and beautiful glass beads, we told our ancient stories.
Our beadwork motifs were either floral or geometric. The flora represented were plants that grew in the Southeast, important to us for medicine and recalling our traditional stories. The geometric motifs were the same ones that our mound builders’ ancestors had used on pottery, stone and shell carvings. Iconography found in the great mounds of the southeastern US evolved onto early 19th-century southeastern tribal beadwork.
What are some of the native stories you seek to tell through your beadwork?
I relate old Cherokee stories—the origin of fire, the love story of the origin of strawberries; I use characters like the turtle and fox and rabbit and Uktena, etc. I also tell modern Cherokee stories, like the history of our Cherokee syllabary, the history of our Phoenix newspaper, my family’s own history, etc. And, occasionally, I make modern political statements.
Tell me a bit about the history and significance of Southeastern beadwork, and why you felt it was so important to revive this beautiful art form.
Our ancestors used beadwork as diplomatic protocol gifts to European, colonial and finally US government officials and to missionaries. They wore or carried beautiful beadwork for the most important occasions and events in our history. The beadwork we created between the mid-1700s and the Indian Removal in the 1830s, was a visual metaphor for the time in which we created it.
Then, it just stopped being produced. When I wrote the prominent US museums for photographs of Cherokee beadwork, and of Cherokees wearing beadwork, the response was very informative. All the photos of Cherokee beadwork were of beadwork created prior to 1840, and all of it was in the classic Cherokee and Southeastern style. All of the photos of Cherokees wearing beadwork were taken after 1922. In every one of those photos, the Cherokee were wearing beadwork like that created by the Plains tribes. There were no photos of post-1922 Cherokee people wearing or carrying traditional Cherokee beadwork. It had simply vanished.
After several years of study and investigation, I came to understand why. Our beadwork was a victim of our history in the nineteenth century. When we were removed from our ancestral homes, we entered a new world in the west. We had nothing, we were given land that had to be cleared before we could even plant it. There was no place in our lives for the hours required to make exquisite beadwork, no money to buy supplies to create it, no trading partners in this new land, on and on.
Modern Cherokees didn’t even know what the beadwork of our grandmothers looked like, let alone how to create it. I decided that I would figure out how to create it and I would make it, even if I was the only one who ever revived it.
You’re credited for discovering a unique stitch only used on Southeastern sashes. What is this unique stitch called, how did you find it, and what makes it so unique?
This is referred to either as the two-bead line stitch or the two-bead flat stitch. I had seen this stitch when I was given a grant to study the Cherokee and Southeastern beadwork at the Smithsonian in D.C. I was delighted to find it as it was not something that you could really see in photographs. However, I was puzzled as to how to do it, short of taking a historic artifact apart. That wasn’t going to happen. So, I started a hunt for a description of that technique.
I finally found it in a book that was first published in the 1920s and reissued a couple of times since. I was blown away by the sleek elegance of the technique. These old beaders laid down one horizontal bead beside one vertical bead… in ONE STITCH! I know that’s technical but, trust me, it is efficient and smart and elegant. For the zillionth time, I was very impressed by the wisdom, creativity and skill of my ancestors.
What role do you feel you have in your community as an artist?
I see myself as both a teacher and a student. Like all Native artists, I don’t get to just create something cool, that looks great, and makes me feel good. I have to, and I get to, study my culture and figure out how to express ideas via our old art forms. I need to honor to my ancestors. So, I am constantly studying and learning and growing as a Cherokee. This is a joy and honor.
As a Cherokee National Treasure, I have the opportunity of teaching my art form to other Cherokees, passing it on to future generations. I feel obliged to represent my people. When I travel the country to teach, lecture, or show my work, it is important that people leave with the realization that Cherokees are a modernized people with a deep-rooted past.
What’s the first piece of artwork you ever sold? What was the inspiration behind it, and how has your style developed since then?
Oh, my! Well, I sold the first bandolier bag I ever made to the Cherokee Heritage Center way back in 2000. I cringe when they exhibit it now—my work has come so very far. I have far to go, to be sure, but that old bag is made of incorrect materials (I always use period authentic materials), using rather lousy motifs, and isn’t particularly well beaded. The good thing is, it’s easy to see progress in my work when I look at the piece! Since I never had a teacher or a book, I had to find crumbs of knowledge over the years. Those crumbs have grown into a feast, and it is my job to share the feast with my people.
Your passion and talent for art blossomed at a young age, beginning with embroidery lessons given to you by your mother and grandma. Today, you are a successful beadwork artist. What’s one piece of advice you have for young, budding artists?
You don’t have to know everything today. You don’t have to complete everything today. What you have to do is point yourself in the direction you want to go, then just put one foot in front of the other… one foot in front of the other… one foot in front of the other…you will get there.
When starting a new piece, where do you look to for inspiration?
Since I did not have any way to learn this art form, all I could do was collect photographs of the historic artifacts. It took me a couple of years just to find the first ten or so photos. I never stopped collecting photos and now, over 25 years later, my photo binder is 4” thick and bulging with beautiful historic beadwork. So, when I want to design, that is where I go. Since my ancestors were influenced by those now-historic artifacts, that is what influences me, too.
What’s your next project?
In 2018, I will create at least one new bandolier bag. It will be a floral piece—an homage to bees, believe it or not. I have one cousin who still lives on my family’s Cherokee allotment land in Sageeyah, OK. She is elderly, and she is working with her son to raise bees on our Cherokee land, just as our grandmother did. The bandolier bag will be called Sageeyah Gold, commemorating the honey that those bees produce. It is delicious!
When you’re not busy in the studio, what do you like to do for fun?
I read a lot for research, but I read myself to sleep nightly with mysteries. I also like to drive and hike with my husband. He is an excellent photographer, so we explore all sorts of places to find great photo ops. Our favorite places are wide open, dry, with lots of sky. Our very favorite trip is to Big Bend National Park, in west Texas. We have been there many times and find something beautiful and new with every visit. We moved recently, so I will be getting involved in volunteer opportunities in our new community.
And, of course, I love to exhibit my art in shows. My youngest daughter does intricate Cherokee fingerweaving from the same time period as my beadwork. She also carves gourds into beautiful sculptures of characters from Cherokee lore. We share a booth at the Cherokee Art Market every year. Her work is wonderful and it is my pleasure and honor to show with her.
I take great pride that both of our daughters are taking up the torch and preserving and perpetuating Cherokee culture. Our eldest daughter operates the All Things Cherokee website, offering sources and information about Cherokee genealogy, history, art, literature, and travel.