Splendid Heritage: Perspectives on American Indian Art

February 10, 2009 - January 3, 2010


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(above: Bear Claw Necklace, ca. 1860, Plains, Sioux, grizzly bear claws, wool trade cloth, glass beads, tanned rawhide. WC8708308)

Respected men of the Eastern Plains wore bear claw necklaces made from the long claws of grizzly bears that once roamed the Southern and Eastern Plains. Plains Indian men held grizzly bears in high esteem because of their strength, power, and fighting abilities­qualities universally admired by Native warriors.


(above: Moccasins, ca. 1835, Northeast, Huron, black-dyed hide, moosehair, silk ribbon. WC9605008)

Moccasins were fundamental traditional attire for many North American Indian people. Those made for daily wear were usually undecorated, while moccasins worn for dress occasions were often embellished with paint, quills or beads.. Moccasins with beaded soles were used primarily for ceremonial purposes, their exquisite beading raising them above a mere utilitarian function.

During the 1700s, Ursuline nuns and other religious orders at Lorette, near present-day Quebec, taught Huron girls to embroider using European techniques. By the early 1800s, Huron artists at Lorette were producing large numbers of moccasins with floral embroidery in dyed moose hair for sale to tourists. The floral designs could have been Native-inspired or derived from European fabrics or embroidery.

The deep color of the hide used to make these moccasins is a striking background for the intricate design and delicate colors of the moose hair embroidery. Underlying the harmony and symmetry of the design are slight inconsistencies: one side of the cuff is not a mirror image of the other side. The left and right cuffs have different border colors; one is white and the other orange. The same variation of colors is seen in the floral patterns.


(above: Shirt, ca. 1860, Plains Sioux, tanned deerskin, porcupine quills, glass seed beads, human hair, sinew, mineral pigments. WC8803013)

Native American women spent many hours making clothing for themselves and family members. Skilled in tanning the hides of animals, they contributed their own artistry by producing practical yet beautiful shirts and dresses for daily wear or ceremonial use. Following ancient artistic traditions, women painted clothing with natural pigments, adding geometric and floral designs of dyed porcupine and bird quills for decoration. They incorporated glass beads into their designs as new materials became available through Euro-American trade.

Accomplished Sioux warriors earned the right to wear shirts that symbolized their status. Such men were expected to lead in battle and to act for the well being of all people in the community. The wrapping technique used to attach the quills on this shirt produced a linear pattern that is repeated in the rows of beadwork. The number of locks of human hair adorning the shirt indicated the wearer's status. The shirt uses primary colors to a striking effect; blue paint enlivens yellow quillwork, which serves to highlight the red bear paws. The bear paw design may indicate that the owner was a bear dreamer, a special warrior who wore yellow face paint in battle and was believed to have the power to heal wounds.


(above: Saddle, ca. 1875, Plains, Cree, tanned buffalo hide, buffalo rawhide (cinch strap), glass seed beads, porcupine quills, cotton cloth, wool cloth, two iron belt rings, thread. WC8308066)

Native American people developed specialized equipment for riding and handling horses. Women made pad saddles of tanned buffalo, deer, or elk hide for their male relatives. They also made saddle blankets of tanned hide, some of which were left undecorated with the hair remaining, while others were embellished with porcupine quillwork and beadwork. Other specialized horse gear included women's saddles made of elk antler or wood covered in rawhide, as well as decorated head ornaments and masks, bridles and headstalls, martingales, cruppers, and saddlebags.

Plains Indian men rode bareback or used pad saddles for buffalo hunting and warfare. Such saddles may have derived from Spanish pack saddles. Plains Cree and Plains Ojibwa women made pad saddles that feature corner decorations of quillwork or beadwork for riding in parades or for trade. The decorations on this saddle exemplify the balance and symmetry that one finds in American Indian art. Subtle changes in color and pattern lend great energy to the design.


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