American Indian Exhibit at The Wheelwright Museum:‘Beads: A Universe of Meaning’

Courtesy Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian “Beads: A Universe of Meaning”, a new exhibit at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe presents a concise history of American Indian beads as a medium of exchange, artistic expression, and identity for the Native people of North America.

Alex Jacobs

‘Beads:A Universe of Meaning,’ traces the history of American Indian beads as a medium & identity for indigenous peoples

The exhibit takes us on a historical tour around Turtle Island using beaded leather garments, articles of adornment, and modern works of art dating from circa 1850 to the present. These beaded treasures show us that makers of beadwork have sustained traditions, engaged with popular culture, while developing a uniquely native art form.

Beadwork has a long extensive history with various regional traditions among all Native American nations and communities. What we now consider as a contemporary decorative art form, had its beginnings with trade beads in the mid-16th century with the Spaniards in New Mexico and then everywhere across the continent where there was contact with Europeans in the 17th century.

Trade beads or imported glass beads became a popular and easy to transport trade item. The ancient tradition of bead making came first among all indigenous peoples in the Americas and then glass beads revolutionized design work as contact altered many aspects of native culture. Beads were carried along ancient trade routes before the Europeans arrived and then preceded them into the interior. On the native side, since 1608 in Quebec, the fur trade has involved trade goods, metal tools and especially American Indian beads.

The Wheelwright Museum has borrowed from several collections and the Plateau style is prominent here. They include the story that the Lewis and Clark Expedition had basically run out of trade beads by the time they reached the Columbia River Plateau, and then they ran across an Indian with a gorgeous otter fur robe who would not trade for as many blankets as they kept offering. But what he did desire was a belt worn by Sacajawea made with certain bright blue glass beads. That trade sealed the deal and Sacajawea was compensated with a blue wool coat. This was 1805 and as it ever was, women were involved in the exchange because who would end up working with those blue beads but a native woman. Probably to make something of status for the man, maybe for herself to keep or something of high value to trade.

Immediately upon entering the Wheelwright Museum you will come across bandolier bags, Metis coats, Ojibwe floral designs, a Tlingit octopus bag, leggings, war shirts, tobacco bags and pouches, moccasins, gloves and gauntlets adorned with American Indian beads. The Plateau region is well represented with flat bags, horse collars, vests and women’s beaded yokes. Multiple pieces were loaned from the collections of Lee and Lois Miner, Fred Mitchell, Robert and Niki Vandenberg, Eddie Barbeau and from the families of native artists.

Outstanding bead artists are represented here: Fabian Jenks, Edgar Jackson, Maynard White Owl Lavadour, Marcus Amerman, Jackie Larson Bread, Teri Greeves, Sandra and Jamie Okuma. Ken Williams, Jr, who manages the Case Trading Post on the lower level of the Wheelwright Museum is represented with his regalia ensemble, which head to toe, each dress piece comes from a native bead artist. So this illustrates that you are dancing with and for your ancestors, relatives and friends at pow-wows and social events.

Countless Native women go unmentioned or uncredited but it is their work, their time, dedication and passion that are the basis for beadwork culture. The Wheelwright explains this well in their citations. Beads were incorporated into Native life as a medium of expression, so the final pieces with beautiful American Indian Beads worked at over time, along with all other chores and duties, reflected wealth, status, family and tribal history and personal achievement.

Before contact the women prepared and tanned the hides used in their villages and for inter-tribal trade and then the European settlers. The evolving contact era also meant profound changes, as in horses and mobility on one hand, followed by the reservation life and not being able to gather natural materials, staying home and beading more with these American Indian beads.

One Native woman in “The Autobiography of a Fox Indian Woman” (a collected story of an unidentified Fox woman, handwritten in Meskwaki syllabary. Truman Michelson obtained this manuscript through Harry Lincoln in the summer of 1918), says she learned to “sew well” after two years and was in high-demand and able to provide for her family through this labor. Beaded pieces and adornments also reflected spiritual well-being at feasts and ceremonies and because of this prosperity, these women were honored and held in high esteem. Women’s craft societies were equal in status to the men’s military societies.

The Wheelwright Museum is a gem among all the many museums in Santa Fe and it is the oldest non-profit independent museum in Santa Fe It was founded in 1937 as the Wheelwright Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, as a collaboration between founder Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Navajo medicine man, Hastiin Klah. After repatriation of Navajo ceremonial bundles in 1977, the Museum was renamed the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

There have been additions over time including archives and work labs for collections and a library for research and public events in 2000. Most recently, an addition in 2014 houses a permanent jewelry collection to which just a few photographs cannot give it justice. The Case Trading Post has always been a place for locals and tourists to visit and purchase artwork from over 200 native artisans. In addition to revolving exhibits by living Native Artists, the Museum hosts various events, benefits and community days all year long and is open every day of the week. “Beads: A Universe of Meaning”, is up until April 15, 2018. Go now to see the beautiful collection of American Indian beads and beadwork.

For more information, visit the Wheelwright Museum website.