Some patterns form tribal symbols immediately identifying their origins. Others knit into complex designs producing figures and faces. Beads conveyed not only tribal, community and personal identity; they also communicated wealth, status, beauty and spirituality, as well as humor, popular culture and resistance.
“Beads: A Universe of Meaning” opens today in the Klah Gallery of Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, showcasing more than 80 works of art.
The exhibition traces the history of imported glass beads as a medium of currency and cultural expression dating back to Columbus and the Lewis and Clark expedition. Garments, bags, moccasins and articles of adornment shimmer and shine with lustrous embellishment, be they for ceremonial or everyday use. The earliest date to the 19th century.
The show highlights works by Columbia River Plateau artists in Washington and Oregon, famous for their pictorial designs, museum curator Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle said.
“We have this wonderful horse collar that dates to the 1960s,” she said. “The Plateau women wore many flat bags – handbags with beautiful beadwork.”
These tribes included the Yakima, the Umitilla and the Nez Perce. The Plains-influenced Jicarilla Apaches beaded moccasins, pouches, vests and dresses. Bead-making remains a living tradition at Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo).
“Beadwork is important in lots of contexts,” Falkenstien-Doyle said. “It’s not always ceremonial. People wore their beadwork; they wanted to look good.”
The founding of Quebec in 1608 marked the beginning of the fur trade. European traders offered beads, tools, cookware, ribbons and thimbles for the beaver pelts that became felted fur hats. The glass beads resonated, as their colors evoked natural materials – crystal, shell, copper and stone – already flush with cultural and spiritual meaning. Women combined them with traditional embroidery materials such as feathers or porcupine quills.
In 1804, Meriwether Lewis wrote to Thomas Jefferson that were his journey to be performed again, “one half or two-thirds of his stores” should be blue beads.
The exhibition features several beaded dress yokes spanning the decades from the early 1900s to the 1940s and ’50s. Their pictorial designs form deer, elk and flowers.
An unidentified circa 1930 bag showcases a portrait of a contemporary woman, complete with crimped hair.
“It looks like it came out of a cosmetics ad. People were taking these ideas from everywhere,” Falkenstien-Doyle said.
Some artists used magazine photographs as templates, stitching them directly into the leather, she said.
Beads also served as a means of resistance and rebellion as missionaries prohibited the use of ceremonial carvings for the Northwest Coast’s Tlingits.
“In a way, they replicate ceremonial ideas they already had,” Falkenstien-Doyle said. “People were making beads out of shells and stone. When glass beads came in, they had a luster and a color. Plus, you didn’t have to make them.”
Artists beaded their moccasins for both everyday and ceremonial use. One pair features beadwork on the sole.
Current bead artists Jamie and Sandra Okuma, as well as Teri Greeves, contributed contemporary works to the exhibit.
Sandra Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), who worked as a graphic artist for MCA Records, creating designs and album covers for The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cher, stitched a bag with a portrait of a deer. Okuma’s daughter Jamie created a beaded coat with appliquéd ribbon work.
Santa Fe’s Greeves (Kiowa), famed for her award-winning beaded hightop stilettos, collaborated with her husband Dennis Esquivel to stitch a painted rawhide child’s chair for her son. The hourglass shapes echoing throughout the chair were inspired by similarly shaped belt bags, Falkenstien-Doyle said.
“It’s designed like a Kiowa cradle board.”