Sunday, June 11, 2017

Beads: A Universe of Meaning

“Beads: A Universe of Meaning” opened recently at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, in Santa Fe. The exhibition traces the history of imported glass beads as a medium of exchange, artistic expression, and identity for indigenous peoples throughout North America.

Who would think that it was the Europeans who introduced the Native Americans to one of their greatest art forms, beading.  From first contact in the 15th century the Europeans brought strings of glass beads as gifts and trade items.  Even today the most coveted beads are made in Czechoslovakia.

In primary school I learned that the island that I was born and lived on, Manhattan, was bought from the Indians with just $24 worth of beads.  (Today there is still debate about what the medium of exchange was.)  Even then not a great sum of money but the beads served as currency.  The Indian woman found it a lot easier to work with these beads and not have to find and prepare stone, shell, bone or porcupine quills for adorning garments.  The Europeans also found that the Indians valued blue beads above the other colors.  On his 1804 exploration of the Northwest, Meriwether Lewis (Lewis & Clark expedition) reported “The blue beads occupy the place which gold has with us.”

You have probably seen the classic postcard, “Greetings from Indian Country”.  In 2002 it was turned into an artwork by Marcus Amerman  (Choctaw) and was lent to the show from a private collection.  He adapted it with updated and more political imagery.   When we moved out here I bought my wife an Amerman beaded bracelet, which showed a New York City scene, the hawks nesting on a Fifth Avenue apartment building, on one side and the open range on the other as a symbol of our move!




There are many striking images in the show, here is a Nez Perce Woman’s Beaded Yoke circa 1900 from the Collection of Lee and Lois Miner who have lent a number of items to the show.  If you are not familiar with the Nez Perce tribe, don’t be surprised.  I don’t know if anyone can name all of the over 560 recognized Indian tribes.  The Nez Perce, were historically nomadic and, when this piece was made, they claimed parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana as their homeland.   From about the same period, and borrowed from the same collection, is this vest from the Plateau region, which included around 17 tribes including the Nez Perce.  These Indians lived between the Rocky Mountains to the East and the Coastal Mountains to the West.  They went as far North as British Columbia.  Obviously, these tribes traded among themselves and borrowed decorative ideas from each other as well as Anglo sources like floral printed cottons.



Children’s clothing is always thought precious and takes extra skill to work in small scale.  This Cheyenne child’s dress must have been made for a very special occasion around 1890.  It was lent to the show by Nikki Vandenberg.  It is shown with a pair of high top child’s Moccasins from the Shoshone-Bannock Fort Hall Reservation around 1940 and were lent by a private collector.


I love the idea of a pair of man’s moccasins that are beaded on the bottom as well as the top.  They too must have been made for a very special situation because they could not have been comfortable to dance in.  They are Sioux, circa 1890, and lent by Robert Vandenberg.


It is well worth seeing this exhibition for these are works of art that tell stories and express the identity of their creators and their communities.

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