(Everyone Is Important)

The Cherokee Beadwork Revival Project – 2007

In October 2006, Robin Flint Ballenger sat down for a chat in my booth at the very first Cherokee Art Market, in Tulsa. Robin is CEO of Flintco, the largest American Indian contractor in the world. She is a prominent citizen of Tulsa and very active in the arts community there.

Robin is also a Cherokee, and she is the single largest patron of the revival of traditional Cherokee beadwork. Our beadwork was an exquisite blend of pre-contact Mississippian motifs and objects, and post-contact materials. It was unique and it was beautiful, and it flourished until the middle of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, by the close of the twentieth century, only a handful of Cherokees were able to recognize their own great-great-great-great grandmother’s beadwork if you laid it out in front of them.

Fortunately, there is a burgeoning revival of our beadwork happening now. Robin is very enthusiastic about this revival and suggested that I ask my next class to make a sampler. She thought that a table runner would be a perfect vehicle for this piece, which was to be representative of the current state of Cherokee beadwork. She wanted the work of novice beaders as well as more experienced beaders. She wanted them to be given the opportunity to take the materials and be as creative as possible within the relatively strict confines of authentic Cherokee sash style.

The class took place at the Cherokee Heritage Center, Tahlequah, OK, on February 9 and 10, 2007. As luck, or providence, would have it, there were exactly as many students as there were sections in the sampler. The beaders were all excited to be asked to be a part of history and to take part in the sampler project. To sweeten the pot, Robin had agreed to pay each beader for their section, to allow the piece to be exhibited in museums from time to time, and to donate it to a museum when she has finished with it. Although the students were excited about the payment, they were more excited to know that their beadwork and signatures would be displayed and be donated to a museum. In short, they want to go down in history.

We settled on a piece that is similar to a traditional Cherokee beaded sash, only much larger. The piece measures approximately 111” x 10” x 3/8”. It is made of authentic nineteenth century materials including scarlet wool saved-edge stroud, cotton calico lining and 100 percent silk ribbon edging. We chose all pearl colored European glass seed beads because that was part of the strict Cherokee beaded sash tradition.

Martha Berry - Cherokee Beadwork Revival Project 2007

The eleven sections were beaded by twelve people (one section was shared by a mother/daughter team). There was an age range of sixty years, with the youngest beader aged 14. All, save one brave soul, were women. There were two pairs of mothers and daughters. Some live in cities, some live in tiny Cherokee communities. One student had driven more than five hours to take the course in Tahlequah. Three of the students were taking their third class with me, two were taking their second, and the rest had no experience with Cherokee beading techniques or nineteenth century materials.

About a week following the class, I shipped each student a piece of wool stroud with the basic design drawn on it, a piece of cotton lining to be signed in permanent ink, one hank of beads, and instructions with illustrations of the techniques we had covered in class. Remarkably, each section is quite unique, and all of the work is good. Even the novice beaders went all out to produce a beautiful piece of work, and many even included a rather difficult technique (two-bead line stitch) that is unique to Southeastern beaded sashes. About a month later, all of the sections had been completed and returned to me. I was responsible for layout and assembly of all the sections, and photographing the finished piece.

Our lone male beader, Wade Blevins, helped Robin and me come up with an appropriate title for the piece. We decided on:

(Everyone Is Important), pronounced NeeGAHD UhlSGAYduh. We chose that title because that was Robin’s vision for the piece.

I find it difficult to express my pride in these budding beaders. It brings the sort of warmth that reminds me of watching my daughters at their dance recitals. On one hand, I am amazed at the students’ beautiful work. On the other hand, I long ago became accustomed to watching Cherokee people accomplish amazing things. These beaders have done just that.

All of us would like to thank Robin Ballenger for her vision and her generosity. Although she does not bead, she is a pivotal part of the twenty-first century revival of traditional Cherokee beadwork.

The beaders and their communities are:

  • Joan Johnson, Dewey, OK
  • Karen and Tara Rabon (mother/daughter), Stilwell, OK
  • Shari L. Kamp, Jay, OK
  • Joanne Norman Keith, Woodward, OK
  • Jamie L. Wooley, Tulsa, OK
  • Charlene Drowning Bear, Park Hill, OK
  • Tonya S. Giger, Tahlequah, OK
  • P. Wade Blevins, Jay, OK
  • Elizabeth Ann Blackwell, Pryor, OK (mother of Kathy J. Robinson)
  • Kathy J. Robinson, Big Cabin, OK (daughter of Elizabeth Ann Blackwell)
  • Lisa Rutherford, Tahlequah, OK
  • Class coordinator for the Cherokee Heritage Center: Tonia Weavel, Education Director
  • Instructor, Project Designer and Coordinator: Martha Berry, Tyler, TX