Stitches in Time: The Rebirth of Southeastern Woodlands Beadwork

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Bandolier bag by Martha Berry (Cherokee)

Martha Berry (Cherokee Nation), “The Fourth Estate Bandolier Bag,” 2009, Czech glass beads, pony beads, wool stroud, calico lining, yarn tassels, 17 x 11 in. Photo: Dave Berry.

By America Meredith

I DON’T THINK Cherokees had much of a beading tradition,” I blurted out to my sister at the 2005 opening of the Oklahoma History Center’s Native American gallery. The museum curator overheard and asked if he could show me something. That something was a 1840s Cherokee beadwork sampler of a vine with stylized flowers and strange blue growths, outlined in white. It was psychedelic. That was my first taste of Southeastern Woodlands beadwork, and I was hooked.

Martha Berry (Cherokee Nation), a leading advocate for the revival of Southeastern Woodlands beadwork, beaded a bandolier bag called, Hidden in Plain Sight. It’s an apt term, since, after that day in 2005, I encountered Southeastern Woodlands beadwork in books, museum collections, and photographs and have often wondered why I never knew about this artwork before?

Southeastern Woodlands beadwork is characterized by curvilinear designs and the strategic use of negative space. Beaded moccasins are usually deerhide and cloth. Beaded sashes, belts, bandolier bags, jackets, purses, leggings, and garters are primarily sewn on blue or red wool stroud, backed by calico.

White is the predominant color for the beads; imported glass beads replaced precontact pearl and shell beads. Many designs are simply red, blue, and black, but others have wild palettes of pinks, greens, golds, pastels—all arranged for maximum visual impact. The fluid designs are abstract, floral, zoomorphic, and very rarely anthropomorphic. They have been compared to one-celled organisms viewed through a microscope.

The “Golden Era” of Southeastern Woodlands beadwork was the late 18th century until the Removal Era in the 1830s. Alabama, Koasati, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Natchez, Seminole, and Yuchi people were forcibly removed from their southeastern homelands to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Some tribes stayed in the southeast, and today Southeastern Woodlands tribes are headquartered in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. Mississippi Choctaw have beaded baldric sashes continuously to the present. Florida Seminoles beaded bandolier bags until the 1920s.

Cherokee beaded pouch

Cherokee beaded pouch, ca. 1840s, Dwight Mission, Indian Territory, collection of Oklahoma History Center

While women had beaded purses and moccasins, overwhelmingly, women created beadwork for the men in their lives to wear. “Humans are just like peacocks,” observes Choctaw bead artist Jerry Ingram. “All the males want to show off.”

Seminole traditionalist Pedro Zepeda agrees: “One thing about Seminoles, we tend to dress up more than other tribes.”

Several Cherokee traditionalists in Oklahoma refused to believe that we had our own traditional beadwork styles. Martha Berry, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, collectively convinced the tribe by curating the art show, Beadwork Storytellers: A Visual Language at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, Oklahoma, in 2008.

“The biggest problem in reviving southeastern beadwork is there is so little in Oklahoma,” says Berry. The key was bringing the beadwork to the tribes. She brought in 18th-century southeastern beadwork from Scotland that had not been in the Americas in over two centuries. She brought in the work of other southeastern beadworkers, such as Jerry Ingram and Brian Zepeda.

Seeing was believing. While still only a few dozen people bead Southeastern Woodlands-style beadwork, the numbers are far larger than they were 15 years ago, and the knowledge of the beadwork among the tribes has jumped exponentially. I interviewed four beadwork artists instrumental in this remarkable revival to get their stories.

Jerry Ingram

Jerry Ingram, Choctaw artist

Jerry Ingram, Choctaw beadworker, painter, and regalia maker

“When I was a kid, I was interested in beadwork,” says Jerry Ingram, “and the only place I saw any was the department store in Idabel.” An enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Ingram was born in Battiest, a small town in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma.

“When I was little, I’d draw on grocery bags, or backs of calendars.” He attended high school in Chilocco Indian Agricultural School. “Just before I left I found out Josephine Wapp had an Indian Club that taught beadwork.” In end the Ingram just taught himself how to bead.

“I just wanted to do it, so I looked at things in the museum and figured out how they were made. I read all kinds of books,” says Ingram. Between him and his wife Sally, “We have a library filled with art books.”

Studying graphic arts at Ocmulgee, Ingram focused on painting and first only beaded and quilled items to have realistic props from which to paint. Eventually, the beadwork and quillwork took over Ingram’s art practice.

Ingram visited museum collections such as the University of Pennsylvania Museum, where William Wierzbowski, keeper of collections, purchased two of his contemporary southeastern bandolier bags for the permanent collection. Ingram has taught beadwork at the Institute of American Indian Art, and many of his art pieces have appeared in films, beginning with Powwow Highway. Most recently Ingram created the horsehair headgear designed by Patricia Michaels for her Project Runway finale.

Despite these successes in the intertribal arena, Ingram says, “I know I’m Choctaw, so I still make southeastern clothes.” He shows regularly in Oklahoma. “Martha Berry helped me out. She got me in to the Cherokee Heritage Show. I sent an entire outfit. I finally met her in person at the Cherokee Art Market.”

Martha Berry

Martha Berry (Cherokee Nation)

Martha Berry (Cherokee Nation). Photo: Dave Berry.

Her grandmother taught her how to sew, so Martha Berry felt beading would be a way to honor her Cherokee ancestors. Finding no books on Cherokee beadwork, she began collecting photographs of southeastern people wearing beadwork—most of which was Plains-style beadwork. The first southeastern beadwork she encountered was the red stroud bandolier bag at the Denver Art Museum. “It blew me away,” says Berry. “I thought, ‘What is that?!’” Since that discovery, Berry has been a woman on a mission.

“Everything I do is to educate people and get the beadwork in front of their faces. When I do a class, I do an hour of history and flood them images.” People became interested in Southeastern Woodlands beadwork just when the Internet made the research easier. Her daughter Christina created a website for Berry 15 years ago, allowing her to share information freely with anyone interested in southeastern beadwork.

Berry regularly teaches classes at the Cherokee Heritage Center and the Oklahoma History Center. Berry advocates beading in a historical way of two-needle appliqué, using an embroidery hoop to stretch the hide or wool. Since the hoops can be turned any angle, the stitches come out even.

Her method is to draw designs on graphic paper, trace them onto muslin, and then baste the design through the muslin to the wool stroud. “That way I don’t have to use marking pens.” She chooses her colors then begins beading. “A lot of design is on the fly—I adjust the design while I bead.”

With so many orders, Berry doesn’t always have work available to enter shows, but she tries to enter Cherokee art shows. She creates her own designs incorporating ancestral motifs. In her bag, The Fourth Estate (page 46), she uses precontact sun circles, Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary, and computer icons to express the history of written communication.

In 2005, Martha Berry had a booth at the Heard Museum Guild Art Market. Joe Baker, Delaware beadworker, was delighted to see her bandolier bags. Besides Baker, “almost to a person, they had never seen it or heard of it.” She spent the entire market educating people about beadwork.

Lisa Rutherford

Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee Nation)

Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee Nation) in Cherokee, North Carolina

Primarily a potter, Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee Nation), first took one of Martha Berry’s beading classes in the early 2000s. “Ever since, I took every class she taught. She’s actually threatened my life before if I ever stopped beadwork.”

“My grandma was a painter. She taught me how to draw when I was five. She let me use oil paints when I was way too young to be using them,” Rutherford explains. “I was always in trouble in school. I’d finish reading before everyone and sketch, and get in trouble for not paying attention.”

“I’m such a history nerd. I want to know the how’s and why’s and everything,” Rutherford laughs. She specializes in traditional-style Cherokee beaded purses but is interested in all historical southeastern fashion. Her personal regalia is inspired by 18th-century Cherokee clothing. “It’s so comfortable. I can wear a wood skirt and leggings all day. I can wear linen no matter how hot it is.”

Though she lives in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Rutherford regularly travels and exhibits in Cherokee, North Carolina. She collaborates with Eastern Band Cherokee artists such as Andy Grant, Ernest “Beaver” Grant, and Robert “Hoss” Tramper. In North Carolina bead artists tend to be more experimental since beadwork is taught from a young age in local schools.

“People always ask what size beads I use. I use any beads I can get my hands on,” she says. “I might outline a design with larger beads and fill it with smaller beads.”

“I do original designs. I don’t want to copy the old designs exactly.” An example is her bag Old School. Sitting in the Owen School’s building, Rutherford looked up at the antique tin ceiling tiles. “The designs looks like a bird, so I used it.”

Brian Zepeda

Bandolier bag by Brian Zepeda (Florida Seminole)

Brian Zepeda (Seminole Tribe of Florida), Bandolier Bag, seed beads, cut Pony beads, wool stroud, yarn tassels, calico lining. Photo courtesy of Martha Berry.

Both Brian Zepeda and his brother Pedro Zepeda, enrolled members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and members of the Panther Clan, practice and teach a wide range of traditional Seminole art forms, from carving functional dugout canoes to building chickees—traditional shelters with thatch roofs and no walls. They both have worked for their tribal museum, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, and educate the public about Seminole culture and history.

Brian Zepeda focuses on beadwork. When I asked how he came to know such a wide range of artistic practices, he said, “We grew up in a village.” The family lived traditionally. Tahama Osceola, his grandmother taught him to sew at a young age, but he learned beadwork on his own.

Zepeda always knew about Southeastern Woodlands beadwork, since it was continuously made at least until the 1920s in Florida. Until, as Zepeda says, “the automobile came, and they made actual roads in Florida.”

“When I told my uncle I was interested in beading, he told me, ‘There are rules to making beadwork.’ For instance, you don’t eat while you’re working on a piece.”

“Looking at the older beadwork, they didn’t all make them the same way,”

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum has the largest collection of Southeastern Woodlands beadwork in the world, except possibly the Smithsonian; however, Zepeda has been able to study his tribe’s beadwork as far away as Berlin, Germany.

“People might make a bag or a sash, but the only other consistent beader of the southeast style here is Carol Cypress. Carol and I are always showing each other our beadwork.” Zepeda also stays in touch with Eastern Band Cherokee beaders, such as Bo Taylor.

The first bandolier bag Zepeda made, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum bought. The subsequent bags were in such demand that finally, he had to turn down offers so he would have a bag of his own to wear.

“I’ve made a bag in 30 days, but when I’m using those 24° beads, I’ve taken two years to finish a bag. I usually have two to five different projects going on at a time,” says Zepeda. “I make beadwork for myself, my kids, my brother Pedro, elders, museums, and collectors.”

Symbolism and Tribal Distinctions

“The Cherokee, Creek, and the other southeastern tribes use more of the negative space in the design; they let the wool show through, while the Delaware tend to bead all over,” says Rutherford. “Some of the motifs are the same. Every once in a while I’ll see Plains beadwork that looks southeastern and vice versa. I think they traded back then just as much as we do today.”

The number of tabs on the straps can help identify the tribe. Shawnee, Delaware, and Seminole might have three tabs on each side, while Cherokee only have two or four.

“The easiest ones to pick out are Choctaw,” says Brian Zepeda. “They use red and white beads, with white spirals. Cherokees used a lot of plant insignia. Creeks and Seminole use animal designs.”

Many of the designs represent clans. Pedro Zepeda explains, “Some of the symbols are not a direct correlation to the clans, but X-symbol would be used when there’s X-clan, and Z-symbol represents Z-clan.”

Among Seminoles, Brian Zepeda points out, “In Oklahoma, they still have the Raccoon Clan. Panther, Wind, and Bird are the most common here. They still have Alligator in Oklahoma too.”

Corn is a common symbol in the beading, as are medicine plants. Some flowers include precontact sun-circle designs.

Choctaw baldric sash

Choctaw beaded baldric sash, ca. 1830s, collection of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Leggings, Belts, and Jackets

“The snake patterns at the bottom of their legging show respect for snakes,” Jerry Ingram explains. “Where I grew up, there were a lot water moccasins.” Living alongside poisonous snakes requires mutual respect.

“People liked to get coats from the soldiers as spoils of war,” says Ingram. Hunting jackets of fabric or buckskin are becoming increasingly popular, and artists recreate beaded and fringed jackets based on 19th-century examples.

Belts include cloth belts with beaded designs and long ties with tassels and fingerwoven belts with beads worked into the weaving. The latter are more common today among Osage and Quapaw artists.

Purses

Lisa Rutherford purse

Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee Nation), “Hidden Fire,” woman’s beaded purse.

Southeastern tribes avidly collected Iroquois purses in the 19th century; however, three examples of purses specifically made by Cherokee women in the 19th century spawned a revival of women’s beaded handbags. Now Martha Berry teaches purses at her beginning workshops. “It’s made all the difference in the world,” she says, “because students are much more likely to finish a purse than they are to finish a bandolier bag or sash. Purses are a smaller project, take less time, can be used every day, and can be framed as art.”

The purses are teardrop-shaped, made from either wool stroud or deerhide, and often have looped beaded fringe. They can have drawstrings or small flaps with more beadwork.

Moccasins

Moccasins by Martha Berry (Cherokee)

Martha Berry (Cherokee Nation), “Fire Carrer’s Footsteps,” glass seed beads on wood, saved-edge stroud, leather, silk satin ribbon, 4 x 8 x 9 in. Photo: Dave Berry

Eastern moccasins are pucker-toed, that is, they are made from a single piece of hide with a seam up the back and the front. The entire interior can be cloth, and cloth can be sewn on the flaps and vamps. Having the beadwork on a separate piece of cloth allows it to be reused when the soles of the moccasins get worn out.

“I just love working with buckskin,” says Jerry Ingram. “My daughter and I get high from the smell of smoked hides.”

Ingram experimented with dying hides in the traditional manner: “I brought black walnut from home. My mother had a black walnut in her front yard. I crushed the husks to powder, put it in warm water, and soaked the hide. Some people say you can add wild onion to preserve the color.” The walnut makes a deep purple or brown.

Baldric Sashes

Baldric sash by Jerry Ingram (Choctaw)

Jerry Ingram (Choctaw Nation), baldric sash, glass beads, wool, cotton. Photo: Neebinnaukzhik (Rama Chippewa).

While men from all southeastern tribes traditionally have worn beaded sashes over their shoulders, the baldric sashes in museum collections are overwhelmingly Choctaw. “Alabama and Koasati have similar designs to the Choctaw,” says Ingram. The designs are considered to be far more ancient than other beaded items. The white coils are also founded in ancient ceramics, and Ingram says they can represent “two snakes always uncoiling and recoiling.”

“During wartime,” Brian Zepeda says the sashes and bags “were communication without speaking. You could see who was Snake Clan, and if you were Panther Clan, you could find the Panther Clan people.”

Baldric sash stitch by Martha Berry

Specialized stitch found only in Southeastern baldric sashes, by Martha Berry (Cherokee Nation)

“The sashes are such a delightful mystery,” says Berry. “They are distinct even from other southeastern beadwork.” There’s a stitch only found on the baldric sashes. “It is very elegant and simple, once you learn how to do it. There is one horizontal bead and one vertical bead in each stitch.” Berry calls this the “two-bead line stitch” that she says “looks like footsteps.”

The patterns on the baldric sashes resemble overviews of certain stomp dances that coil around the dance leader. They also relate to stickball, and are traditionally been by players.

Bandolier Bags

Bandolier bags are the undisputed kings of Woodlands beadwork. They had small square pouches with triangular flaps and straps worn over one shoulder. “The first ones I ever saw, I noticed they were small, about 29 or 32 inches,” says Ingram. “I try to make them longer for people these days, since are people are bigger.”

“Only certain people can make certain parts of the bags,” explains Pedro Zepeda. “There’s certain things you have to have done or certain lineages you have to belong to wear the bags. People won’t say anything, but that traditional knowledge is still around.”

These bags have been described as shot pouches, but Martha Berry discovered that many of the early straps only had a couple stitches holding them to the bag. They were not designed to carry heavy weight and were far too ornate for such a mundane purpose. It is far more likely the bags carried pipes, flints, tobacco, and other medicine. Today, they typically carry keys and cell phones.

Jerry Ingram (Choctaw), bandolier bag

Jerry Ingram (Choctaw), Bandolier Bag, images could reference smoke, breath, and the Wind Clan. Photo: Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Rama Chippewa).

“Sometimes I put a button and loop on the strap,” says Ingram, “in case a person wants to change it over.” The straps typically have different designs running up each side, and calico underneath.

Jerry Ingram made a bag inspired by an historical Seminole bag. The story the bag illustrates goes: “Two guys were in the woods. A lady comes up and says, ‘You should learn to relax and enjoy life.’ She told them to meet her the next day. The next day she gave them dried leaves and seeds and told them to plant the seeds. ‘You’ll grow more leaves, let them dry, and then put it in a pipe and smoke them.’ The boys couldn’t tell if they dreaming, and the lady told them they knew it wasn’t a dream because they could see their breath. When you smoke, you can see your breath.”

Decoding the designs is a fascinating pursuit; however, some meanings may never be known, as Ingram points out. “A Creek lady at the IAIA Museum said often only a medicine man and the person wearing the bag knows what the designs mean. It’s like a prescription.”

Community Response

“I’m glad people are recognizing that we had a beadwork tradition that was unique and not made for tourists,” says Rutherford. “Look at the [precontact]shells carvings. The people had beads around their ankles and wrists. The material and techniques have changed, but the beads have always been there.”

“I almost cry when I see a photograph where people are dressed up to stompdance wearing beaded sashes,” says Berry. In less than two decades of concentrated effort by a team of bead artists, wearing Southeastern Woodlands beadwork is increasingly common both back east and in Oklahoma, at dances, and other events.

“I believe that the revival of any lost art tradition is vital to understanding who we were as a people, in the same way that speaking the language gives us a blueprint for ‘real’ Cherokee thought,” says J. P. Johnson (Natchez-Cherokee), a cultural specialist for the Cherokee Nation. “We should as an entire people be trying to revive everything. As we shed our colonized minds, bodies, and spirits, we may—just as some of the prophecies say—get it all back.”

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1 Comment

  1. I do not have the right words to describe how much I enjoyed this article America Meredith. I appreciate every single one of the artists within it and appreciate your candid honesty presenting them here, and sharing your experiences within the realm of the revival of our art.