The following Introduction was written by Twig Johnson and Napiura Taubman for the illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition "Connecting Generations: Contemporary American Indian Dolls." The essay is reprinted with permission of the Montclair Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you wish to purchase a cop of he catalogue, please contact the Montclair Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Introduction

 

Connecting Generations: Contemporary American Indian Dolls documents the accomplishments of four prominent living American Indian doll makers; Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty, Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, Rhonda Holy Bear and Jamie Okuma. This exhibition celebrates and explores the highly distinctive and personal style of each of these artists.Their work combines both a careful reinterpretation of their rich cultural traditions with new and original ideas that exemplify contemporary American Indian art. Influenced and inspired by their elders, and particularly by the mid-19th century and later dolls made by Plains and Plateau Indian women, these artists provide a connection between the past and present; creating masterpieces that transcend both time and place.

Dolls are objects that can invoke the spirit of childhood, that bring to mind past personal experiences or memories. Playing with dolls is a form of entertainment, however, it may also serve as a means to educate the young practically, or in some cultures, even spiritually. Dolls are emotionally imbued objects that are often passed from one generation to the next, accompanied by stories of those who cherished them.

The introduction of dolls as play things among Plains and Plateau Indians has not been well documented. However, the methods and means of sewing with quills and beads that would later be used in the construction of dolls, were already manifest by the early 19th century among these American Indian groups, as evidenced by the clothing and accessories that have accurate collection data.

The mid-19th century marked the expansion of the intercontinental railroad system and along with it, the United States government's emphasis on westward expansion. An inevitable result was the upheaval and relocation of innumerable groups of American Indians. Particularly effected were the people of the Plains who soon realized that life, as they once knew it, would and could no longer be the same. Large Native populations from tribal communities throughout these regions were quickly removed and relocated to tracts of government-supervised lands, more commonly referred to as "reservations."

The open spaces and natural settings formerly considered Native homelands were soon usurped by new homesteads populated by an influx of people, primarily from the East, but also from as far away as Europe and Asia. Incoming families brought along a wide range of commercial goods, many of which were from their own, far away birthplaces, and most of which were previously unknown or unavailable, particularly to Native people. In all likelihood, these same westward-bound families, who would have traveled for long periods of time and over great distances, brought along with them their most treasured possessions; included among these would have been their children's toys, such as dolls.

An organized system to disburse goods to both the Native and non-Native population was also soon established with "trading posts" put in place along the railroad routes and in close proximity to many of the government bases. Many factory made items would be distributed or traded to Indians and would shortly replace similar or related items that were once solely Native-made. Already adept at various craft techniques, Native people adopted in many instances a more "western" style of dress, and simultaneously incorporated the new and more available commodities, such as printed cotton or calico cloth, glass trade beads in a wide range of colors, silk ribbon, and other materials, to a lifestyle that reflected both their old ways and the new ones they were forced to appropriate.The tradition of doll making carried forward the opportunity to pass on the methods, traditions, stories and songs from one family member to another, as it continues today. Among the many artifacts that survive from this era of the later 19th and early 20th century, often referred to as the "reservation period," the American Indian dolls often provide tremendous and accurate insight into the everyday clothing, ceremonial attire, and accessories that were worn at the time they were made.

The contemporary dolls featured in this exhibition illustrate the pride and elegance of Native people, whether highlighting particular ceremonial attire or classic dress.They further serve as confirmation of the universality of childhood. The featured artists, Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty, Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, Rhonda Holy Bear, and Jamie Okuma share a common bond of cultural roots. Within these parameters, however, they have created objects that go beyond the more generic label of artifact by providing insight into a past culture, and a more vibrant meaning to what has come before and what is now.These women have emerged as independent creative artists, using their traditions of craft to express their history, their individuality, their dignity, and the human condition.They are uncompromising in deepening their explanation of the past as they articulate new artistic and cultural limits, commemorating and honoring generations that are gone but not forgotten.

Twig Johnson and Ellen Napiura Taubman

 

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