On Independence Day, I went to the National Museum of the American Indian, near the Capitol in Washington, DC. It is the newest Smithsonian museum. One of the main exhibits was “Identity by Design,” showcasing Native American dresses. The Museum’s website has more information about the exhibit and I encourage you to take a look at the online exhibit information; it is a good overview of the importance of this art form to the tribes that practiced it, and how the materials obtained from European cultures was absorbed into the Native culture.
The dresses were from the late 1800’s up to this decade. They were displayed in a simple setting in a very large darkened gallery. The work was outstanding — such a variety of color and design, many beaded patterns but some with elk teeth and quillwork also; a few were painted without any other decoration. There were “patterns” behind some of the dresses showing how they were cut from one, two or three hides.
I took a lot of pictures of but a sampling of the dresses on view; click on these thumbnails to see a larger image.
The two dresses in the first image have combinations of elk teeth and beads.
The dress below uses metal thimbles as decoration. Think of the “music” it must have made as the wearer moved and perhaps danced in it.
This is one of the rarer painted dresses, recording the history of a battle.
More dresses with interesting motifs; the one on the right with American flags was (I think) from the turn of the 20th century.
There were also dresses related to The Ghost Dance (I have deleted the pictures which were previously posted here), which eventually led to the massacre at Wounded Knee. The signage explained,
“The Ghost Dance dresses are a direct connection to and a reminder of those events of history that should not be hidden, however difficult or saddening they may be. The dresses embody the collective effort of Native women to speak out against the rapid cultural changes being forced upon them. They are a visible reminder of women’s participation in the spiritual rites of their peoples. And they point to a moment of political resistance carried out peacefully.”
The exhibit got me thinking about the universal need for artists to find an outlet for their creativity, using whatever materials they had available. The Plains Indians had few possessions (certainly compared to current American standards) and had to be mobile, but they found a means to satisfy this urge to make visual art. This exhibit enlightened me about the Native American women’s skill with limited tools and materials to express their culture’s view of beauty; but even more it demonstrates how they made visual their feelings as their world changed so drastically.
Are you aware of other indigenous cultures using art to record their passage into the modern world? Perhaps the aboriginal Australians?