Archive for Sunday, May 6, 2001

Beadwork helps stitch together life of the Plains Indians

May 6, 2001


A request from a French museum to borrow and display some beadwork items from Kansas University's Museum of Anthropology has inspired the KU museum to put the items on display at home.

"Plains Indian Beadwork," about 150 objects representing the beadwork of the Great Plains Indians, will be shown through Aug. 5 at the Museum of Anthropology in Spooner Hall. The items include decorated moccasins, cradleboards, parfleches, clothing, pipebags, dolls, knife sheaths and leggings from the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota Sioux, Osage, Arapaho and other tribes.

"We had a request from a French museum to borrow part (of the collection) for an exhibit there," said Al Johnson, who retired last year as the KU museum's director. "Sixty objects were loaned to them about two years ago. They were there for most of the summer, and there were several articles in French newspapers (about the exhibit)."

Johnson said the Museum of Anthropology has an outstanding collection of Great Plains Indian material that was acquired in the last half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century.

"We had little bits of it on display over the years but there has been no comprehensive exhibit," he said.

That began to change during the fall 2000 semester, when 14 students enrolled in Johnson's museum anthropology class were required to research Plains Indian decoration using the museum's collection.

"Each of them was assigned a category of material cultures," he said, explaining that one student was asked to study moccasins while others were assigned cradleboards and dolls. "Much of the objects were donations from people who had little information (about them). So the students had to delve into the literature and first find the date and tribal affiliation of the object.

"They also had to think of the objects (in terms of) the materials from which they were manufactured and the process of manufacturing, and how they were used by Indian people."

The students' research eventually ended up as the source for the narrative labels for the exhibit.

"All of the material is rare because it comes from the 19th and early 20th century," he said. "There aren't very many people who do this work. The items here are replicated today but these are made with early styles, early kinds of beads, raw and buffalo hides, and sewn with sinew."

After Johnson's retirement, Kim Taylor, the museum's program assistant, and graduate student Sara Summers served as co-curators for the exhibit.

Some of the highlights are:

Several items decorated with flattened, dyed porcupine quills, probably created in the early 19th century.

Several parfleches, or rawhide carrying bags, decorated with painted geometric designs. Women typically used geometric designs in their decorations, Johnson said, while men favored naturalistic designs when painting tepees and buffalo robes.

A variety of dolls decorated with intricate beadwork that reflects the traditional ritual dresses worn by women.

A small pouch adorned with metal tinklers and pony beads, or large, blue glass beads. Traders entering the Plains often brought along the blue beads, which were popular with the Indians of the area.

Weaponry and hunting equipment. Johnson said one item is particularly rare: a quiver made from a mountain lion hide with claws still intact.

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