108 years strong

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Muscogee Creek elder is the last original allottee

OKMULGEE, Okla. - In June 1900, Cassius McDonald Barnes assessed conditions in Indian Territory in his ;'Report of the Governor of Oklahoma'':

''The white-topped prairie schooner ... with its burden of family and belongings is an everyday sight coming into the Territory from all the points of the compass. ... Allotment of lands; citizenship ... is certainly the solution of the Indian problem.''

One month later, on July 12, Martha Berryhill was born in the Creek Nation capital of Okmulgee. Barely 18 months old when her name was added to the Dawes Rolls, she received an allotment of 100 acres of land in Okmulgee County. This year, Berryhill celebrated her 108th birthday, surrounded by family, friends, relations and fanfare.

Ruby Mauk, Berryhill's 87-year-old daughter, said Berryhill loves singing hymns, visiting and yard sales. Although she has slowed down considerably, she still leads a very active life.

The Muscogee Creek Nation held a party at its Elderly Nutrition Center in honor of Berryhill's birthday and in recognition of her status as the tribe's last original allottee. She is also one of the oldest people in Oklahoma. More than 100 well-wishers attended.

Children from the tribe's Office of Child Development sang Happy Birthday in Creek and showered Berryhill with gifts and cards. She sang along enthusiastically, thanked God, and thanked everyone for coming.

It's hard to comprehend how much history she has seen and experienced in her lifetime, but those who have heard her talk of the past are often dumbstruck.

She tells about the time her father, who often read the newspaper to his children, read them the news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. ''He was telling us about a bad shipwreck. He told us about all the people that died,'' she said.

She also remembers the week her husband, John, was preparing to ship out for the battlefields of Europe. Fortunately, the war ended that very week with the signing of the armistice. It was November 1918, and the conflict was World War I.

She fondly recalled transportation by horse and buggy, telephones that had to be cranked, records played on a Victrola, happy days spent at religious ''camp meetings'' and doctors that visited patients at home.

''Dr. Milroy ... would come out to the house and take care of us. He would bring us oranges, apples and bananas. He was real nice,'' she said with a smile.

Berryhill remembers very little about her mother, Betty, because she passed away when Martha was 4. But she has vivid memories of her father, Rev. Harrison Berryhill, a Creek Methodist minister. The family attended Tullahassee Church, established in 1850 by Robert McGill Loughridge, a missionary among the Creeks.

''We would have all-night services. ... I was just a little girl then, so sometimes I would fall asleep. There was a big pew in the back row and sometimes I would go to sleep there,'' she said.

She also remembers carefree times with neighbors in Okmulgee.

''We would all go down and sit on the benches by the Council House. A lot of Indians would go down there and visit one another.''

As a young woman, Berryhill attended boarding school in Eufaula. She was forced to quit, however, when her father became ill and she had to care for him. Mauk said her mother has always kept busy visiting elders with gifts of food and clothing.

''You never know what the Lord has in store for you,'' Mauk said. ''I never thought she would live to be the oldest.''

''Many people have numbers that are special to them,'' said Muscogee Creek Nation Speaker of the House Thomas Yahola. ''Berryhill's is 9671 - her roll number. Those are numbers that we all need to cherish;

[they] help us to carry on.''

When Berryhill passes, Creek Nation flags will be lowered to half-mast. Yahola hopes that won't be for a long time. ''I'll see you all at her 109th birthday,'' he beamed.

In May, eight original Dawes Roll alottees were honored by the state of Oklahoma. They were Berryhill; Daisy Hawley Blackbird, 105, of the Chickasaw Nation; Eva Cheek Gilbert, 105, and Asa Glenn Purcell, 102, of the Cherokee Nation; and Georgia Mae Roebuck Self, 103, Ruby Lee Trammell Brewer, 102, Dorothy Arnote West, 105, and Roberts Mills, 103, all of the Choctaw Nation.

After being introduced to Berryhill, Jerry McPeak, citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, organized the state event. He described the meeting as ''looking into the eyes of history.''

''The Dawes Act is not the proudest moment in American history, but we can still learn from it,'' remarked Gov. Brad Henry. ''These [allottees] not only witnessed history, they lived it.''