Mention Native American art and most people think of basketry, sand painting, pottery, carvings and leather goods with geometric designs. However, another art form was the intricate beadwork many tribal women began doing after meeting white settlers. A new exhibit at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles takes a detailed look at the Native American beadwork, particularly floral designs traditional to Europeans.
The Autry’s Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork is the first exhibit to look at how beaded floral designs became an art form and a method of economic and cultural survival for native peoples. The Floral Journey exhibit includes moccasins, pipe and saddle bags, vests, jackets, and other exquisitely beaded and quilted items from multiple private collections and 15 cultural institutions. The exhibit also includes some contemporary Native American pieces using the art form. The more than 250 beaded objects will be on display from March 15, 2014, until April 26, 2015.
Thousands of tiny glass beads were sewn by firelight into the works of art, including 70 pairs of moccasins. The shoes, which are embellished with colorful beads, are from tribes throughout North America, including Arapaho, Shoshone, Lakota, Nez Perce, and Tlingit. Many of the elaborate shoes, including tiny ones for toddlers, were created for ceremonial purposes.
The use of glass beadwork was not a traditional art form. It reflects the impact of white settlers, who encouraged the women in the tribes to use the glass beads and flower designs favored by European settlers and sell them to support their families. The 18th and 19th century Native American women found it easier to use the settlers’ needles and glass beads than their beads made of shell, wood, seeds or bone. However, they resisted using only European floral art and embedded their cultural symbolism into the flowery art works.
Very little in native art is just to be creative, according to exhibit curator Lois Sherr Dubin. The Europeans and later Americans viewed the use of flowers by the native women as a sign of pacification and acceptance, Dubin noted, but the Native Americans subtly worked their culture and messages into the designs. For example, the native elements of the four directions and harmony are worked into the pieces. Dubin also pointed out that practice of embedding cultural icons into the floral glass bead images was repeated across tribes from coast to coast. This secret code allowed them to represent their culture under the noses of those trying to assimilate them to European ways.
While most of the exhibit at the Autry focuses on the floral beadwork, there are some Native American pieces on display that feature detailed needlework. The settlers taught the women to use silk thread, but several pieces use moose hair, porcupine quills, and other elements more indigenous to North America.
Located in Griffith Park next to the Los Angeles Zoo, the Autry is a museum focused on the people of the American West. Besides the Native American floral beadwork, the Autry has more than 500,000 pieces of art and artifacts in its collection, which also includes the works on exhibit at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed most Mondays.
By Dyanne Weiss
Autry National Center of the American West
Presentation by: Lois Sherr Dubin, Curator, Autry National Center of the American West