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Martha Berry: Preserving the art of Cherokee beading

Martha Berry
Martha Berry
Martha Berry
Martha Berry

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Writer: JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS   //    Photographer: HERB NYGREN JR.

Outside of Tyler, narrow country roads bridge the hurried pace of urban society with quiet country settings – places where the whisper of wind in the pines prevails and calls of coyotes punctuate the darkness.

Martha Berry, a renowned Cherokee beadwork artist, finds comfort and inspiration in this natural environment. She believes solitude allows her imagination and spirit to more easily connect with the past.


Being one with nature is central to her mission: to create dignified, historically accurate Cherokee beadwork honoring her heritage and to educate others so this largely forgotten art is not lost.

“This (beadwork) is something I truly enjoy doing, but it’s also something I feel I must do,” says Martha. “There was this huge gap in Cherokee history. I knew I had to learn how to do it to tell their stories.”

In her country home, an unassuming bottle containing soil from her native Oklahoma represents the motivation behind her work. Some might say the soil represents dreams shattered generations ago when the United States government ejected Native Americans from their ancestral tribal lands.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced thousands of Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles and other southeast tribes to relocate to Oklahoma to make room for white settlers. The journey is known as Trail of Tears.

Historians estimate more than 15,000 Cherokees attempted the 1,000-mile journey. In the harsh winter conditions, some 4,000 perished of disease, starvation and exposure during the trek.

The soil Martha keeps is a constant reminder of her ancestors stripped of property, dignity and identity in what many simply refer to as The Removal.

“It’s a connection, it goes back to those women I wanted to know,” she says, cupping the bottle in her hands. “This is dirt that would have been under their fingernails. This is where they walked and talked. This was where dreams were broken, babies were born and grandparents died. To me, it’s a spirit, not dirt.”


Martha, the daughter of Cherokee and Anglo parents, was 5 when her mother and grandmother introduced her to sewing. At 9, she was making clothes and by 20 she was crafting elaborate outfits for a traveling ice show.

In spite of her heritage, she didn’t know until adulthood much about their Indian traditions and what it means to be Cherokee.

“It was not trendy back then to be Native American,” she says. “My father was a banker, my mother volunteered a lot. No one really talked about it back then … a lot of knowledge was lost forever.”

Martha married and had two daughters, Christina and Karen, with husband, Dave Berry, an award-winning journalist and photographer. In her 30s, she felt compelled to learn more about her roots.

“I was curious, I wanted to know our story,” she says. “It was hard to get my father to talk.”

She learned that her father’s grandparents settled in the western part of the Cherokee Nation after the Civil War. They slowly began to acquire 1,000 acres, only to lose it when Oklahoma became a state in 1907.

“Like all Cherokee families, the federal government took away all we had, twice,” Martha says.

Three family members subsequently were awarded small allocations of land, but it represented only a fraction of the original parcel. The soil that connects Martha to her heritage was removed from a relative’s yard.

“Out of 1,000 acres, this is all I have,” she says, gazing at the contents. “This is it.”

Martha studied old photographs of Cherokees to identify details of their lives. The proud faces that stared back deeply moved her. She spotted examples of hauntingly beautiful beaded accessories. Curious about their origin and purpose, she learned more.

“The bags, they were used for diplomatic gift exchanges, such as from chief to chief,” she says, citing instances in which goods were presented to U.S. presidents and dignitaries.

Between 1840 and 1922, the beaded finery seemed to disappear and some traditional designs suddenly changed. But why?

“The beadwork stopped by the Trail of Tears,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘If this beadwork is so important, why did they abandon it?’ There are probably many reasons why.”

Some caught up in The Removal may only have had minutes to pack before being torn from their homes. Many elders – the people who created most of the bead art – died along the route. Those who survived probably focused more on housing and stabilizing the families than creating beaded work of art, she says.

“One of my ancestors died after reaching Oklahoma. There was unbelievable poverty … people were weak and exhausted. They were given land, but they had to hack it out of the wilderness.”

Shelter and food were sparse. Few tools were available to help improve their situations.

“Here was a side of me I never knew existed,” Martha says, shaking her head. “I wanted to connect with these people. I kept wondering, ‘What can I do? How can I ever find the bond that I seem to need to have?’ I decided to learn how to bead.”


Martha’s cultural preservation efforts garner national attention. She lectures at places such as Stanford and Harvard universities. The Cherokee Nation presented Martha its Cherokee National Living Treasure Award honoring her exceptional contributions to preservation its traditions.

“Without Martha Berry, Cherokee beadwork would continue to be in the collection drawers of national museums,” says Tonia Weavel, education director for the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, Okla. “Martha single-handedly revived Cherokee beadwork within the Cherokee community. Re-enactors and others were doing the Cherokee styled beadwork, but it was not familiar in the Cherokee communities.  As a matter of fact, there were several doubters who claimed Cherokees never did beadwork.

“Martha continued to research, document and teach the beautiful beadwork style.  She was very careful to begin her classes with a historical overview.  The first time I heard the overview I felt that with each stitch, I was making history. It was very compelling.”

Christina E. Burke, curator of Native American & Non-Western Art at Philbrook Museum of Art in Oklahoma, says no one pushes the limits of intricacy, accuracy and creativity like Martha.

Even more remarkable, she adds, is Martha’s willingness to share her knowledge with others.

“No one else has had the kind of influence on the artwork that Martha has,” Christina says. “She is the driving force behind the growing appreciation and creation of Cherokee beadwork in the 21st century.”


Martha searches old photos for inspiration and creates sketches. Symbols, such as woodpeckers and spiders carry special meanings. She combines the symbols in beading to tell stories and convey emotions.

At first, the intricate designs, with their twists and turns, seem to swirl independently. Only when meaning is applied to the symbols, are observers transported into a world that speaks of things in the past and to come.

During the design phase, Martha sometimes spends time listening to the wind and letting the story she wants to tell play out in her consciousness. She often hangs out on a small back patio that has chimes and bird feeders.

“I can spend hours out there,” she says, gazing out the kitchen window.

At the Berry home, a design on a bag tells the story of a spider that snatches a glowing ember from a tree on an island in a lake that is struck by lightning. The spider carries the ember on her back as she swims across the cold lake and then delivers it so the Cherokee people can build a fire. The little spider, hailed as a hero for her selfless act, is featured prominently on the flap.

“I think the longest I ever worked on a bag was 319 hours,” she says, explaining the symbols on the bag. “Some take at about 250 hours to complete.”

Period-specific supplies can be costly and difficult to find. Martha uses carefully selected, historically accurate materials, relying on providers that specialize in items created according to original methods and practices.

Felt-like wool broadcloth she uses to make bandolier bags, for example, is the same type many artisans use to create costumes for Revolutionary War reenactments.

The beads – each small enough to balance on the head of a straight pin – only are produced in Germany, Italy and France. It takes thousands of beads to create a project and each must be stitched into place.


Hollywood largely is to blame for creating misconceptions about Native Americans. Action-packed movies often featured painted, whooping plains Indians racing bareback as part of thrilling battles.

Martha was surprised to learn that Cherokees farmed and fished and led lives vastly different than the stereotypical warrior personas.

“Cherokees never wore feather headdresses,” she says. “They wore turbans. They never lived in teepees.”

There are few references about their beadwork skills. She was shocked to learn most people of Cherokee heritage didn’t realize their ancestors had been bead artists. Few had much interest in reviving the art.

“There were no classes, no books,” she says. “Their work was discounted; some things even said it was copied from the Europeans. I was frustrated, so I got my nerve up and wrote the museums to see if they had any photos of Cherokees wearing beadwork artifacts.”

Museums provided examples of early Cherokee artwork, beaded accessories, bandolier bags, moccasins and belts. Martha visited the Smithsonian and inspected some of the bead artifacts available.

It took years of painstaking research and practice to recreate historically accurate renditions of the artifacts. In 2000, Cherokee Heritage Museum in Tahlequah, Okla., agreed to let her do a one-woman show and seminar in hopes of reviving interest in beadwork.

“Nobody up there knew me,” she says. “I didn’t sell anything. I would talk and talk and teach.”

The efforts seemed to be going nowhere until examples of Cherokee beadwork were assembled from museums, including one as far as Scotland, and showcased in a special exhibit.

“People were amazed,” she says of the reactions. “Some wanted to learn how to do it too.”

Her subsequent shows and seminars were more successful. Today, Martha’s work is displayed in museums, educational institutions and private collections. She’s one of about 15 bead artists working to reclaim the lost art.

Martha credits her family and late mentor Anna Belle Sixkiller Mitchell, who revived an early Cherokee form of clay pottery, with helping her stay the course.

Her father, also a supporter, died in 2004 knowing a proud Cherokee legacy had been reborn.

“I guess I was stubborn,” she says, reflecting on the difficult days. “I just didn’t want to give up.”

About Danny Mogle

One comment

  1. Thanks for finally talking about > Martha Berry

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