Moccasins: Fire Carrier's Footsteps

Materials: European glass seed beads on wool saved-edge stroud; leather, silk satin ribbon.

Dimensions: 4”H x 8”W x 9”D (Woman’s size 6 ˝ medium)

“Long ago, a little Water Spider risked great danger, and endured terrible pain, in order to bring the very first fire to the Cherokee people. These moccasins are dedicated to her, and to all of the Cherokees who have kept our fires burning . . . down through the centuries, from generation to generation, and across the miles. Wado (Thank you).” - Martha Berry

These traditional, soft soled, center seamed, Cherokee moccasins are all about fire. The toe motif is the Little Water Spider, bringer of fire to the Cherokees. On her back is a pre-Columbian sun symbol, to commemorate the relationship between the sun and our sacred fires. The moccasins also include representations of smoke and water.

This artist often uses the numbers two, four and seven in her work, since those are the most powerful numbers in Cherokee tradition. With the cuffs, there are seven sun symbols on each moccasin. Also on the cuffs, water is represented by transparent blue seed beads, smoke by white beads. The smoke curls upward, the water flows downward, important symbols of the Cherokee belief in the balance of the Upper and Lower Worlds, and the separation of their elements.

As always in Mrs. Berry’s work, the materials used are authentic to those used when Cherokee and Southeastern Woodlands beadwork flourished, c. 1750 to 1840. The cloth backgrounds are 100% wool navy saved-edge stroud cloth, the ribbon is 100% silk satin. The beads are European glass, in colors authentic to the same period. Just as the old Cherokee beaders did, the artist has allowed the background cloth to be exposed and incorporated into the overall design of the moccasins.

The Origin of Fire
(Traditional Cherokee story)

Long, long ago there was no fire and the world was very cold. Then the Thunders sent their lightning and put fire into the bottom of a hollow sycamore tree that grew on an island. The animals knew it was there because they could see the smoke, but they could not get to it over the water. They held a council to decide what to do. Every animal that could swim or fly was anxious to be the one to bring back the fire.

Raven offered to go first. Because he was so large and strong, they thought that he could surely do it, so he was sent. He flew high and far across the water and alighted on the sycamore tree. While he was wondering what to do next, the heat scorched all his feathers black. He was frightened and returned without the fire.

Then the little Screech Owl volunteered and reached the place safely. But, while he was looking down into the hollow of the tree, a blast of hot air came up at him and nearly burned out his eyes. He managed to fly back home, but his eyes are red to this day. Next went Hoot Owl and Horned Owl. By the time they reached the tree, the fire was so fierce the smoke almost blinded them. The ashes carried by the wind made rings around their eyes that are still there today, but they had to return without the fire.

Well, no more of the birds dared attempt this great feat, so the snakes decided to give it a try. The Black Racer Snake swam out to the island and crawled through the grass to the tree. He squeezed through a tiny hole in the bottom, but the heat and smoke were too much for him. After dodging about blindly over the hot ashes, he managed, by luck, to find the hole and crawl out again. But his body had been scorched black and, to this day, he darts about as if still trying to escape that first fire. The great black snake, the Climber, offered next. He swam over and climbed up the outside of the sycamore, as was his habit. Predictably, the smoke choked him and he fell into the trunk, burning himself black in the process. He survived but brought back no warmth.

Cold and dismayed, the animals held another council. All the birds, snakes and four-footed creatures came up with good excuses for not venturing back to the tree. Finally, the Little Water Spider said that she would like to try. (Now this was the little spider with black downy hair, who can run over the water or dive under it.) The other animals were relieved for a volunteer, but wondered how she would carry the fire back.

“Don’t worry,’ she said. “I will use thread from my body to spin a tusti (little bowl) and fasten it to my back.”

The animals watched in wonder as the Little Water Spider crossed the water, found the tiny hole in the bottom of the trunk, put one tiny coal into her bowl, and brought it back. Ever since, we have been warmed by fire and, more importantly, the smoke has carried our prayers to Creator. And the Little Water Spiders still carry the red marks on their backs, lest we forget their grandmother’s great accomplishment.