A full-blood Muscogee Creek is a rare thing. Mike Berryhill estimates that there are about 1,700 left in the world, and he is one of them. His first wife was not quite full-blood, she was seven-eighths Indian so their daughters are not quite full-blood either. Mike refers to this process as a “whittling down”, a metaphor which comes naturally to a man who spends much of his time crafting wood. According to Mike a blood quantum is just a number and a tribal membership card may promise to bestow an identity, but it can’t. “If I meet a half-blood child and their knowledge (of Creek culture) is greater than that of a full-blood, then how can I say that he is less Indian?” Mike said. The measure then is knowledge and involvement. Mike said that this is all the more important because Indians have to “walk in two worlds”. Not that he is against progress. Mike believes that material possessions aren’t inherently bad; they’re just a poor tonic for a person’s spiritual needs. He gives the example of hunting, which was once about providing food and has become a competitive sport. Materialism has crept in, “You have to have the best compound bow, to buy the biggest gun and kill the biggest deer” Mike said, “People kill for pleasure nowadays.” Mike used to hunt, now he goes into the forest to observe animals and to learn from them, “How careful they are, how they elude, and how they win”. It takes this kind of maturity and respect for nature to make a good bow. Mike can’t remember how many pupils he has had, but he only counts four good bow-makers among them. “You can’t really get people into it until they’re in their mid 30s or older, until they have had their family and achieved all they can in this world and they’re looking for something for their spirituality,” he said. The middle-aged apprentices Mike takes on are a world away from the young boys who learnt the craft over the shoulder of master bow makers in Muscogee tribal villages, but they’re no less essential to keeping the craft alive. It took Mike ten weeks to make his first “real acceptable bow”. After 18 years of practice it now takes him a matter of weeks. “Trees are like people,” he said, “They have different traits and qualities.” A bow maker needs to learn to deal as deftly with wood as they do with people. “They need to understand that wood is not just a dead piece of matter, it’s alive. It tells you how it wants to be made.” By communing with the wood and working with the knots and imperfections a talented bow maker can make a beautiful bow. “That bow has soul,” Mike said, “A bow without soul has nothing because it looks like it was made by a machine.” The greatest sense of achievement Mike gets is when the craft of one of his pupils exceeds his own. But if 18 years of bow making has taught him anything it’s that “No matter how old you get you never reach the plateau of knowledge. There’s always more to learn”.
Oklahoma's Largest CulturesAmerican Indian
- Muscogee (Creek)
Arab, Middle Eastern and North African
- Asian Indian
Hispanic and Latino