Cherokee Renaissance

Beaded Bandolier Bag By Martha Berry

Title: Cherokee Renaissance - Beaded Bandolier Bag by Martha Berry

Size: Approx. 36" H x 16" W x 2" D

Materials: Glass seed beads on wool broadcloth, cotton, silk, wool yarn. To the extent possible, all materials are authentic to the early 19th century.

Notes: Completed December 1, 2015, requiring 318 hours to create.

The bandolier bag, Cherokee Renaissance, tells the story of the stubborn persistence of Cherokee culture, in spite of 500 years of saturation by another culture. Even more amazing, in this year of 2015, Cherokees are enjoying a rich Renaissance of both our culture and our pride.

The materials, all period authentic to the early part of the 19th century, begin to tell the story. I work in this time period because it was the Golden Era of Cherokee beadwork. By 1840, we had stopped producing this beautiful art form because of the Indian Removal, also known as the Trail of Tears. The materials in this piece include scarlet wool broadcloth, black silk ribbon binding, and white pony bead single-bead edging.

In Cherokee culture, red represents East, the Dawn land, plus birth and war. Black is the color of West, the Darkening land, death. White represents South, warmth, peace and prosperity. These colors are significant because we were removed from our homes in the East to Indian Territory in the West. The Removal was a time of great suffering, death, poverty, despair. Still, we survived and eventually thrived. We survived through peace. Often criticized by other tribes for not fighting wars over Removal, instead we fought in the courts. Sadly, we were still removed, we struggled, and eventually made peace with our new home. In so doing, we moved forward, perfecting the balance between full assimilation and fiercely protecting our ancient ways. It was through peace that we thrived.

Another feature on the storytelling materials in this piece is the lining. I found 100% cotton fabric printed with images of United Stated flags through the decades. This represents our culture and U.S. culture sharing the space within our hearts and ways. The lining fabric is one of my favorite features of this piece.

Since the lining is all about U.S. flags, I wanted to connect with the Cherokee flag, too. In the beadwork we see beads of red, white and blue. Additionally, the orange, green, and black are drawn from the Cherokee flag. On the pouch, we see seven-point stars. These, too, came from the Cherokee flag. The number seven is very important in our culture and mythology.

Finally, the iconography. Inside the seven-point stars are equilateral crosses. Variations of this icon appear over and over on pottery, shell carvings and metal objects found in the great mounds in the southeastern U.S. The people who built and populated these mounds were the Mississippian people, ancestors of the Cherokee and other southeastern tribes. The image at the center of the bandolier bag flap is another variation of this equilateral cross.

My favorite image from this bandolier bag is the strap icon. This is Uktena, a favorite Cherokee character of mine. Uktena (pronounced OOK-ten-uh) was a creature of dual purpose. He dwelled in the deep pools that formed in streams and rivers where the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains narrowed. If you weren’t careful, or foolishly swam in the deep water, Uktena might take you. Since the trails up the mountains to the Cherokee villages passed beside the narrow places, the Uktena might also take your enemy as he traveled to attack you. This is a delightful depiction of the importance of balance to all things Cherokee, a great metaphor.

Uktena represented all three layers of being. His antlers represent mammals in this World, his wings represent birds of the Upper World, his scales and snake-like body represent the Lower World. His speech is represented by curving lines coming from his mouth. On his head is a great crystal. It is said that to kill a troublesome Uktena, one must strike the crystal on his head hard enough to kill him. It is a task with a difficulty level much like slaying a dragon in English mythology.

So, in spite of Removal, death, poverty, and centuries of pressure to assimilate in a place permeated by another culture, we survived and thrived. Our culture has been passed down generation to generation, even during many decades when it had to be shared in secret.

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, some Cherokees began to dredge up these old traditions and old skills. The movement started with hand coiled pottery and was led by a dear friend of my family’s, Anna Sixkiller Mitchell. One by one, art form by art form, we are taking our creative culture back. Meanwhile, the stomp dances that had to be hidden for decades are proudly becoming a fixture in northeastern Oklahoma. Although our language still struggles, our Cherokee language immersion schools are thriving.

Now, half a century later, the Cherokee people are experiencing a true renaissance. I cannot imagine there has ever been a more wonderful time to be Cherokee, to watch our tribe thrive.

Yes, I am a proud Cherokee.