Indigenous art. Indigenous perspectives.

Beads: A Universe of Meaning


Santa Fe
Beads: A Universe of Meaning
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian

An exhibition by curator Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle, Beads: A Universe of Meaning (May 14, 2017–April 15, 2018), emphasizes the time immemorial concept of intercultural syncretism embraced by Native American and First Nations peoples. Layers of beads, shells, ribbons, hide, fabric, and fringe are infused with ceremony, dreams, rights to knowledge, and coming-of-age moments. Through available loans from collectors and artists, this show features brilliant beadwork pieces mainly made by diverse Indigenous peoples from the Columbia River Plateau and Northern and Southern Plains, with a handful of works by Indigenous practitioners from the Pacific Northwest, Southeast, Northeast, and Canada. In Beads: A Universe of Meaning, beads are portrayed as a medium with which Native artists acknowledge, draw, map, record, paint, and sculpt. Creating beadwork is a legacy that bridges communication between past, present, and future generations of Indigenous peoples of the Americas through the variance, chance, and deliberateness of this artistry. [1]

sandra okuma

Sandra Okuma (Luiseño-Shoshone-Bannock), White-Tailed Deer Bag, 2011, private collection. Photo: Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Rama Chippewa)

The exhibition begins with an impressive though somewhat disjointed display of a hide shirt and leggings decorated with quillwork, blue beads, and pigment. On the shirt a drawn narrative (primarily in red and green) archives an event, showing men carrying quivers and a spear in-air. Labeled as Mandan or Hidatsa, the shirt and leggings orient audiences to the overlap in the use of quills and beads as art media and visually parallels the exhibition’s introductory didactic text panel, which includes a reproduction of a Karl Bodmer (1809–1893) painting of a “Moennitarri Warrior,” circa 1830. While the leggings worn by the man in the painting resemble those on view, questions arise from the placement of this image. In what ways can it function as documentation? As a painting, it is a skewed window that expresses Bodmer’s Western perspective of the man he witnessed. Here, one could consider the “editing authenticity” practices of Bodmer and George Catlin (1796–1872) in pictorial representations of Indigenous peoples of the Americas. [2] Bodmer’s and Catlin’s methods served their own ideologies of truth that dovetailed with non-Native governmental impositions and forced relocation policies on Indigenous peoples. Thus, reflecting the time, this display has multidirectional narratives, between the scene on the shirt and blue beads on the leggings, the text describing the immense trade value of blue and white beads in the early 19th century to Indigenous peoples, and the Bodmer painting.

On a rounded turn to the left within the museum’s hogan-inspired architecture, a late 19th-century beaded bag generally labeled as Sioux and another created in 2011 by Sandra Okuma (Luiseño-Shoshone-Bannock) are placed together in a case to create a relationship between the elaborate use of mixed media and pictorial representations of animals. The older bag, with an American eagle, snake, sheaf of arrows, and olive branch, all lane-stitched in seed beads, connects the emergence of pictorial beadwork in the 19th century to this still-flourishing practice embedded within Indigenous cultures through its pairing with Sandra Okuma’s bag. Okuma’s work showcases a modeled deer’s face and head in frontal perspective, where the flat quality of the seed beads reads as coming from tacked stitches. These two works are keenly juxtaposed next to a case that houses a Jamie Okuma (Luiseño-Shoshone-Bannock) coat made in 2016. This regalia shines with a stunning silk centerpiece of wide stripes and abstract, plant-like forms complemented by cowry shells on the sleeves and seed bead floral designs over the shoulders. A case across the hallway spotlights an indigo-dyed wool Nez Perce regalia dress (circa 1890) that features a yoke of lane-stitched seed beads, cowry shells, brass sequins, and basket beads on hide fringe.

This dress corresponds to a nearby Nez Perce beaded yoke of the same time period. The yoke has a solid, light-blue background with two side-profile deer flanking a head-to-waist frontal portrait of a male wearing a green (possibly beaded) vest. Vertically terraced forms in red, navy, and pink are on both sides of the yoke’s center, marked by a V shape, which represents the gathering of an animal’s tail and hind legs in hide dress forms. Within this beaded yoke a universe of meaning is reflected, as indicated by the central theme of the exhibition and subtext of its title. Wealth in experience is also brought to the fore, and the man’s vest in the yoke points to three laboriously beaded vests (circa 1900) in nearby display cases, thus offering a visual cue and connection to other artworks in the gallery.

Sac & Fox moccasins

Unknown Sauk and Fox artist, Man’s Moccasins, ca. 1870, private collection. Photo: Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Rama Chippewa)

Throughout the exhibition, attention is given to different types of beaded bags made in the not-too-distant past. A series of flat pictorial “Plateau” bags are on display, three of which bear side-profile portraits of women in regalia (circa 1900–1930) while others are more whimsical scenes of dogs, such as one listening to a phonograph (circa 1940). And in the center of the exhibition space, a section is devoted to tobacco. Five Kiowa strike-a-light pouches, often worn on women’s belts to hold flint, are positioned alongside small pouches and pipe bags made by Indigenous peoples of the Northern and Southern Plains regions. The works in this case were created during the mid- to late 19th century and represent the mosaic of variant color, patterning, and texture put forth by combinations of seed beads, pony beads, and tin cones. Also on view in the center space is a contemporary mirror bag by Maynard White Owl Lavadour (Cayuse-Nez Perce-Palouse). Sewn circa 2000, the focus of this piece’s seed bead geometric design is its blue hourglass forms sandwiched between elongated areas, demarcated by thin red columns that border vibrant shapes of pink, yellow, and blue. This kind of man’s bag historically held a mirror, an important commodity that could function as a shaving tool, a reflective surface to use when applying pigment to the face, a signaling device, or as a coveted bartering object valued as much as a horse. [3] Later in the exhibition, a late 19th-century Tlingit octopus bag and two bandolier bags (one Seminole, circa 1830; the other Ojibwe, circa 1900) are on view for audience consideration.

At the back of the exhibition gallery, a section is offered to honor children. A captivating display houses two historic cradleboards (circa 1875), one Baby on Board cradleboard (circa 2000) by Jamie Okuma, and Ah-Day: The Favorite One’s Chair by Teri Greeves (Kiowa-Comanche) and Dennis Esquivel (Odawa-Ojibwe). With the extended text panel for these objects placed parallel to the case, audience movement is facilitated, and the beadworks feel very much alive. The “Baby on Board” beaded panel on Okuma’s cradleboard instigates laughter, while the Ah-Day chair promotes education of Kiowa cultural practices of a cherished ah-day tahlee (favorite boy) or ah-day mahtaun (favorite girl) who takes a leadership role in the Black Leggings Warrior Society dances. [4]

This exhibition provides visitors with an expansive view of beadwork and intercultural fusion. Other notable displays include Northern Arapaho-Seneca artist Kenneth Williams Jr.’s multicultural regalia ensemble, Blackfeet split-horn headdresses, and several pairs of decked-out beaded moccasins. In closing, a concern about the exhibition was the omission of media listings from labels. More information about the beads, shells, metals, hides, and fabrics could further resonate with viewers, leaving a lasting impression of the material artistry found in beadwork. —Michelle Lanteri 

  1. Kenneth Williams Jr. and Orlando Dugi, It’s in the Details (Santa Fe, NM: Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 2014), 21.
  2. Janet Catherine Berlo, “Creativity and Cosmopolitanism: Women’s Enduring Traditions,” in Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses, Emil Her Many Horses, ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins in association with Smithsonian Institution, 2007), 107, 120.
  3. Williams Jr. and Dugi, It’s in the Details, 21.
  4. Teri Greeves, “Ah-Day: The Favorite One’s Chair,” Teri Greeves Beadwork, web; Alecia Keahbone Gonzales, “Kiowa Language Nest: Easy Reference Guide For Kiowa Families,” Kiowa Kids, PDF.

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