Apprentice knife maker branching out, making her own
Cherokee knife maker Becky Martin, of Tahlequah, has been learning knife making from fellow Cherokee knife maker Ray Kirk, and is now making and selling her own knives. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee knife maker Becky Martin says it takes patience and skill to grind a knife blade evenly. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
After forging a knife and putting on a handle, knife maker Becky Martin grinds the blade evenly to give it a sharp, even edge. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee knife maker Becky Martin, of Tahlequah, uses various hardwoods and deer antlers for her knife handles. The handle on the knife second from left is made from the antler of a Sambar Stag from India. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
KEYS – Eight years ago, Becky Martin, of Tahlequah, began working a part-time job with local knife maker Ray Kirk. Five years later, she began making her own knives after apprenticing with him.
“At the time I was a stay-at-home mom, and it worked out well. I could drop the kids off at school, come out here, work five hours and be in time to pick up the kids from school, so it worked out really well,” she said. “I started out being a grinder girl, doing the grinding (of metal). We were cutting up steel, pricing it, wrapping it and shipping it and doing all of that sort of stuff. It just grew from odds and ends and helping out around here to slowly helping him with his knives, and then I started doing my own knives.”
Martin said her father has known Kirk “for a long time,” and he had taken a welding class taught by Kirk. Her father heard Kirk needed help at his shop in Keys and was looking to hire a part-time assistant. She inquired about the job and started working with the experienced knife maker in 2011.
The Cherokee Nation citizen said in the three years she’s been making knives, she has “gotten better,” but it takes patience and practice to make good knives. She said Kirk makes it look easy, but hand forging a knife is not easy, especially on an anvil. She said she is still perfecting her technique.
“It just kind of happened, this journey, this direction,” she said. “Just from helping him and doing things and then it became an interest. He kept giving me more responsibility, and then he goes, ‘you know what, you ought to start doing your own,’ and then I did and here we are.”
Martin, 46, started out making the Trail of Tears knives Kirk makes. She continued with “integral-type” knives, where the blade is fashioned from a round bar of steel. She said her knowledge of knife making grows as she makes different sizes of knives, such as small “neck knives” that can be worn on a lanyard around the neck.
In 2019, she accompanied Kirk to a show in nearby Westville and sold her first knife.
“A lot of men who were showing their knives weren’t selling anything, and I was woman there for the first time and sold a knife. I was really tickled,” he said. “He’s (Kirk) got me stepping out of my comfort zone because I’m really shy. I’ve sold about 15 knives since I’ve been doing this. I don’t publicize myself. It’s just word of mouth.”
She said she has probably given away just as many knives as she has sold.
“Everybody tells me I need to get a website, but I don’t know anything about websites, so I’ve got to figure that out,” she said.
She and Kirk plan to sell their knives at the Cherokee Heritage Center during the Cherokee National Holiday over Labor Day weekend, and in the fall, they expect to attend another knife show in Westville.
“Ray has also got me doing a (knife making) demonstration. Oh, my goodness, I’m trying to get out my comfort zone,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot of things from Ray, not just knife making, but outlook on life, kindness, giving, what you send out is what will come back to you. He’s very spiritual, very knowledge, he’s a wealth of information, and it has been a pleasure to work with him and try to learn just a tenth of what he knows.”
Martin is one of many students Kirk has invited to his shop. As far as Kirk knows, Martin is the first Native American woman knife maker.
“He teaches classes, but I’m the only he’s ever taken in and done this with. I’m his one and only apprentice,” she said. “It is hard work. It’s nice seeing something that’s just a piece of steel that you can form and make into something that someone is interested in and something useable. I like seeing the change, and it’s neat being able to do that.”
She has even adopted Kirk’s uniform of overalls, and said she bought several pairs because they are comfortable and “you’ve got pockets everywhere” for tools.
She said at some point she expects to teach others what Kirk has taught her, and has already been sharing her knife-making knowledge.
“That’s the great thing about knife makers, it’s a wonderful community of helpful, kind people, and everywhere I go it’s good folks. It’s a good group to be involved with,” she said. It’s been a journey, and I’m excited to see where my journey goes.”