Washington -- The prominent roles of women in American Indian societies are mirrored in the evolving designs of the ceremonial dresses and accessories they have created over the past 200 years, says Emil Her Many Horses, an expert on Northern and Southern Plains cultures at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
Her Many Horses, a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) nation of South Dakota, is co-curator of the NMAI exhibit “Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses.” The exhibit traces the history of native dressmaking from the 19th century to the present, with examples of richly ornamented deerhide and cloth dresses representing a variety of North American tribal and regional styles.
The dresses, shown with moccasins, leggings and other handmade items, illuminate the vibrant artistic traditions of American Indian communities. “In our cultures, artistic ability is considered a spiritual gift,” Her Many Horses told USINFO. “Women who excelled at dressmaking always were held in high regard” for contributing to their families’ well-being, and their creations enhanced the status of their families within the tribal framework.
Designs “sometimes originated from dreams and visions,” he said, but societal changes also played a part in design trends. As North America’s indigenous societies came into contact with white settlers in the 19th century, new materials such as glass beads, wool, cotton, ribbons and silver buttons were acquired through trading and quickly found their way into native dressmaking designs. Traditional methods of embellishment -- such as stitching elk teeth onto a deerhide surface, adorning a war bonnet with eagle feathers or painting symbolic motifs -- remained popular, but were combined with intricate beadwork patterns.
American Indian women had to learn how to circumvent heavy-handed restrictions on their customs and ceremonies. In the late 19th century, U.S. government authorities pressured tribes to assimilate into white culture and tried to eradicate tribal languages by enrolling American Indian children in English-only schools. Paiute tribal elders responded by establishing the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that called for a revival of the traditional Indian way of life. It soon took hold among tribes throughout the American West. The federal government -- fearing tribal insurrections -- banned the Ghost Dance in 1890 and insisted that traditional ceremonies be replaced by patriotic displays on official holidays such as Independence Day, celebrated annually on July 4th.
Indigenous societies outwardly complied with this demand by staging July 4th celebrations with elaborately costumed dancers. But those dancers -- wearing fringed and beaded outfits designed by resourceful native dressmakers -- were sending coded messages to their communities, signaling tribal solidarity in the face of government repression. They performed traditional dance steps, and their costumes -- adorned with beaded representations of the U.S. flag -- used conventional patriotic imagery to honor their own warrior ancestors.
Today’s American Indian dressmakers still bead their costumes with red, white and blue flag motifs to pay tribute to U.S. war veterans within tribal families. In fact, the Kiowa tribe now dedicates its age-old War Dance ceremony to its soldiers serving in Iraq and elsewhere. The finely crafted buckskin dresses worn by Kiowa dancers are an integral part of this custom, said Her Many Horses.
He also pointed to the Fancy Dance and Shawl Dance practitioners, who take part in dance competitions at contemporary social gatherings. The dancers wear extravagantly decorated costumes with long fringe that sways with every movement or dance step. Thus, the dressmaking skills of native women continue to perpetuate their tribal heritage.
Although the traditional elements of costume design are passed down through generations, today’s innovators ensure that dressmaking techniques also look to the future. The “Identity by Design” exhibit opens with a video of dancers in modern-day ceremonial garb, followed by a panoramic display of dresses, leggings, moccasins and cradleboards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibit also includes heirloom-quality garments from award-winning American Indian dressmakers of the 21st century.
At the exhibit’s conclusion, dressmakers and dancers appear in a film montage, offering commentary on the larger meaning of ceremonial American Indian clothing. Georgianna Old Elk, an Assiniboine, explains that the dress she wears in dance competitions was a gift from her extended family. “When I dance, I am never alone,” she says. “Even though they are gone now, they are still with me, and I feel them with me.”
In the film, dancer/designer Keri Jhane Myers, a Comanche, says she ventures into New York City’s fashion district to hunt for unusual dressmaking materials whenever she travels to East Coast dance competitions. “You look at the things available, and how you could incorporate them while keeping to a type of tradition,” she says.
The NMAI exhibit has generated “a very positive response” from viewers who are “dazzled by the phenomenal artistry” of indigenous craftswomen, said Her Many Horses, but its main purpose is “to highlight the traditions and roles of Native women dressmakers in their societies, then and now. In Native societies, women are really the keepers of tradition and knowledge. They keep the culture alive.”
The exhibit has been on display at NMAI since March and will remain open until September 2008. The exhibit also may be viewed on the Smithsonian’s Web site.