With a sense of duty to pass on cultural tradition, five contemporary native artists use beadwork to tell their stories—each with a unique and dazzling voice.
Tiny shimmering glass seed beads can highlight the power of art to heal, transform, provoke, and inspire. Native American artists Jamie Okuma, Karis Jackson, Ken Williams Jr., Martha Berry, and Teri Greeves have created elaborate pieces that do just that.
These artists come from a mix of backgrounds, age ranges, and interests, yet they have much in common. Most have been beading since childhood and were encouraged by a mother or grandmother. Most are self-taught, though some have sought formal art education to complement and enhance their skills. All have won awards for their work.
Each artist educates through the vocabulary of beads. Individual beads act like words, strung together in sentences. Backed with buckskin, the images tell stories about inspiring leaders, pass on cultural histories, and celebrate the qualities of animals and the beauty of nature.
Each artist can tell the story of a piece — when it was made, what he or she was experiencing in life at that moment, and what inspiration triggered the design. These beaded objects are deeply personal. The artists share bits of themselves, transferred from their nimble hands to the needle, string, and beads to create images of beauty to share with the world.
“What started out as a necessity for being able to dance at powwows as a child turned into a career in art.”
To truly appreciate the breadth of creativity in Jamie Okuma’s artwork, you must be willing to appreciate and revel in the power of contradictory elements.
Okuma arrived on the art scene when she won Best of Show at the Santa Fe Indian Market in 2000 for a soft-sculpture doll featuring miniature historically accurate traditional regalia and beadwork. These tiny tributes to the past were immaculate, taking months to complete and garnering great demand from collectors. While she created the models, she considered changing course and designing ready-to-wear fashion and couture garments.
After 15 years of creating the small soft-sculptures, Okuma is now a fashion artist, and she has shifted her focus to making wearable art. Her historically inspired beaded accessories remain a central component of her new fashion-forward body of work.
Known for fully beaded designer shoes, spike-edged parfleche purses, and Plateau-inspired cuffs, Okuma’s work is undeniably luxe. She prefers high-end or rare materials, and she never skimps on beading every inch. “Detail and quality,” she says, “are the two elements I obsess about most.” Her work can be characterized by bold geometric Plateau designs with stylized flowers, birds, or animals beaded on shoes, bags, and cuffs. She often incorporates old vintage beads to get rich, rare hues. One of her circular bags boasts a huge fully beaded rose. The long metal spikes that edge the piece seem to echo the reality of thorns: Look, don’t touch, for the beauty will defend itself.
Pieces like this show that her work isn’t just glitz and glamour — it’s also thoughtful and reflective. She can recall each project distinctly: What was going on in her life ends up in her beadwork.
For example, Okuma’s beaded Christian Louboutin boots featured in the Native Fashion Now exhibit (on display October 2, 2016 – January 8, 2017, at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma) are covered with swirling swallow birds made from antique beads. Luxurious, beautiful, and meticulously beaded, the images on these boots depict her childhood adventures on her grandfather’s land. She shares a part of herself in each of her art and fashion designs, contributing to our understanding of the human experience and bringing beauty into our lives through carefully beaded thoughts and memories.
“I’m just happy to be on this path, this journey.”
Up-and-coming artist Karis Jackson recalls her first piece of beadwork — it was a small flower for a pair of baby moccasins that she made by her grandmother’s side. Decades later, those tiny moccasins would go on to be worn by both of Jackson’s daughters, and, thanks to that first simple lesson from Grandma, her beadwork projects would develop into elaborate and award-winning pieces.
Jackson continued beading throughout school as she pursued a degree in the health field. “It’s the norm where I come from,” says the Montana-based artist. “There are so many amazing artists here.” For years, she made items for herself and family members, perfecting her craft and experimenting with design, yet she never formally sold any work. All that would change when she attended a workshop hosted by the First People’s Fund, opening her to a new art world and prompting her to think about her work from a different angle.
Her artwork is a labor of love. Jackson can spend months on a project, and creating a piece involves more than mere stitchwork. Researching old designs and flipping through old photographs provide the creative spark, followed by inspiration that flows through her and takes form in remixed designs on buckskin. A recent flat bag features the portrait of Old Coyote, who seems to be looking back at the viewer, coming through from another time and another dimension. Her decision to render his image in red gives this man a supernatural quality; you get the sense that his presence is still felt in the northern prairies on some old hidden Indian trails. The back side of this panel bag is embellished with an optically exciting design, one inspired by a textile pattern. To hold this piece and feel the weight of the beads in your hands is to feel Jackson’s passion for her work. By sharing her vision with the world, she not only honors the past, but also highlights the beauty of tradition.
This tradition of art creation is more than just figures and blocks of color — it’s about kinship, value systems, storytelling, and, perhaps above all else, it is about love for the mentors, for the ancestors, for the youth, and for the self. Twenty years after that first beaded flower took shape, Jackson still calls her grandmother daily to catch up and share their latest beadwork projects.
Ken Williams Jr.
“I am proud to say that my beadwork will continue to evolve, just as the traditions themselves have done so before me.”
The words whimsical and energetic are not often used to describe Native American beadwork, yet Ken Williams Jr. manages to make his designs pop. The beaded swirls and complementary colors create this effect, and when you look at his recent works (like his homages to Charles Loloma and Lloyd Kiva New), you can’t help but feel the impact of these midcentury modern Native artists on contemporary designers. In turn, you can almost forecast that Williams will also have an impact on beaders for decades to come.
Williams’ journey began as a kid emulating his relatives in beadwork circles, a traditional way of teaching that involves much sitting and observing, trying and refining.
His mom’s family members, the Spoonhunters, are well-known for their work, and as Williams expressed interest, they encouraged him, stressing the use of high-quality materials and precise stitchwork. A turning point in his journey occurred during his studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts with acclaimed Kiowa beader Teri Greeves. She pushed him to shift from using traditional designs and experiment to find his voice. At the time, he enjoyed the antics of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, so Williams included him in a class project, forever changing his style.
His work now is simultaneously a clear departure from traditional beadwork and a clear homage to it. He continues to use old techniques and materials like smoked buckskin in traditional forms, but vibrant hues shake up the expected. Background beads ripple out around figures, electrifying portraits and conveying a next-level sense of power. And Williams agrees: The traditions ground us and help us to understand our purpose and direction.
“Today, among the descendants of the Southeastern tribes, a revival has begun.”
The power of the past moves through Cherokee beadwork artist Martha Berry’s fingertips as she brings ancient designs forth in the one-of-a-kind bandolier bags, moccasins, and other specialty items that she creates as part of her overall mission to revitalize Southeastern Woodlands Native American beadwork.
Her work is distinctive yet classic. The meticulously crafted pieces are based on traditional designs, materials, and techniques used prior to the 1840s. Yet, none of them are mere replicas. Her ancestors didn’t copy previous work, and neither does she. Instead, she takes us on a journey during which time collapses — ancient Southeastern swirl designs merge with silk ribbon and wool, and precious seed beads tell contemporary stories with an age-old visual vocabulary.
Until recently, there was a persistent belief that Cherokees didn’t do beadwork. With most significant historical pieces housed in museum collections located in the East (as far east as Scotland), Cherokees didn’t have access to their ancestors’ beadwork. For more than 150 years, they didn’t see it, didn’t interact with it, and weren’t able to maintain the practice. But this didn’t stop Berry. She was interested in pursuing beadwork as a hobby and began her initial research, finding that there was a vital lost practice that could be revived. Self-taught, Berry learned by studying old photographs of Cherokee leaders and examining beaded pieces at the Smithsonian.
Through all of her challenges and accomplishments, Berry recalls a specific piece that she made years ago. Titled Our Fires Still Burn, the award-winning bandolier bag tells the story of Little Water Spider, who risked great danger and endured great pain to bring fire to the Cherokees. Berry dedicated the bag to all the Cherokee people who kept the fires burning, kept the culture alive, and continued their ancient practices through the centuries. While this is a tribute to others, Berry sounds a lot like that small spider, working hard to keep the beadwork practices alive — one tiny bead at a time.
“A Kiowa is not properly dressed if they do not have at least one piece of beadwork on.”
Artist Teri Greeves highlights just how stylish Native Americans can be in her beadwork, which easily shifts from flat portraits to three-dimensional objects, such as her iconic fully beaded Converse sneakers.
Greeves has been known to work with cat-eye sunglasses, rockabilly haircuts, basketballs, and high heels. Although the cool factor is undeniable, it’s not her main focus. In fact, if you were to ask her about her work, she’s apt to use phrases like “pictorial symbolic shorthand,” “transferring stories and memory,” and “ancient artistic canon.” For Greeves, beadwork is not only a profession, it’s part of her identity.
From the beaded cradleboard that held her when she was born, Greeves has been literally enveloped in beadwork since birth, with her grandmother and mother (the influential artist, advocate, fashionista, and elder Jeri Ah-be-hill) to thank for these gifts. She has childhood memories of the closet that housed the beadwork in her mother’s store and being engulfed in the smoky fragrance of the hides while she and her sister ran their fingertips over the cold smooth glass beads. To this day, she still delights in the tactile nature of beadwork when busting open a new bag of beads to take in the colorful hues and smooth surfaces.
Although her work is vibrant and has a distinct pop art quality, Greeves continues to pull from the traditional, using brain-tanned deerskin and ancient symbols and colors as her means to pass on cultural information and values. Beadwork is her chosen medium to express her thoughts, concerns, and obsessions. How can she tell a story in a new way? How is the Kiowa world vital to humanity? These deep and thoughtful concerns are punctuated with humorous and lighthearted pieces aimed at nurturing self-love among Native youth.
Even as Greeves continues to be inspired by her predecessors, she inspires others with her work and is passing the torch of an evolving tradition to artists finding both their own creative heritages and their own voices — a stringing of beads across generations.
Jessica R. Metcalfe is the founder and owner of the Beyond Buckskin blog and store.
From the August/September 2016 issue.