NATIVE AMERICAN WOMEN - ARTISTS OF A CULTURE
By Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell
Too often the art we see of the Native American is a male dressed in his full plumage, or famous chiefs of long ago. The female is unimportant unless she is particularly handsome or is so quaint, elderly, and unusual, that she could be extracted from a National Geographic Magazine. Fortunately, not all images of the female Native American are thus. One of the most incredible things one can learn from printed matter is the social history of a subject. Baskets, blankets, beadwork, pottery, etc. are just a few of the incredible printed documentation one can find for the actual items.
Fred Harvey was one of the publishers that showed Native Americans going about their daily life. The Native American was an image people liked to see, domesticated and peaceful yet still fulfilling and satisfying their curiosity about the “Noble Savage”.
There is something about the beauty in the work these women produced, a nobility and intensity of skill and artistry that introduced the public to the art and culture of the Native Americans. Many people view the Native American as being a hunter, a warrior and a victim and nothing more. Those of us in the antique world are privileged to have seen and perhaps even owned or handled the beautiful baskets, blankets, clothing, jewelry, pottery, and beadwork. We know that this is not the work of a ancient culture, but of one that is highly evolved.
Even today, most forget that Mexico is part of North America and the native peoples from there still make glorious wares that may be imitated (*and imitation is a sincere form of flattery) but just aren’t as inspired or authentic. During the linen era of postcards some incredible images of Native American women producing items for family use or to be sold were captured on postcards. These are documentation and identification for the pieces themselves, which can run into the thousands of dollars. These are not crafts as in knitting a potholder from a pattern in this month’s craft magazine but folk artists and artists that have studied under generations of others who created beautiful items to be worn and used.
Most jewelry was made by the men….yes…the silver jewelry but not the beaded jewelry. Collectors and dealers in Native American items can find a wealth of information looking into actually vignettes of time in situ. Images of Maria making her beautiful pottery, women of the different tribes making tight woven baskets and weaving different designs into the cloth, are treasures not to be lost. There is a treasure trove of information to be gleaned from these. We are not speaking of rare, valuable and impossible to find books on the subject but postcards of real Native Americans, doing real things, creating relics and heirlooms that tomorrow will be even more difficult to obtain. The nice thing is that the prices on these are so inexpensive and affordable.
Certainly if you want Sitting Bull in full regalia, there are many images of him as well as the other great chiefs of their time. Except for a rare few, such as Maria of Maria Pottery, the tribe is named but the woman? No. Unfair? Obviously. It is unfair to the woman that she was considered so lowly to her photographers that they couldn’t be bothered asking her name. Unfair to her heritage? Certainly. Unfair to collectors, historians, and those who would love to be able to identify pots, and baskets, etc.?
Looking at the cards we can identify the image of the creator and her creation. Records were kept by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and it may be possible to go to them and say,” this is a Pueblo potter circa…can you give us any information? Who is the artist in the picture that is in a Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina and sits holding her bead loom and on the stairs besides her pottery?”
Why is it that even today with all the books about Native Americans artifacts the women who made these items are ignored and unappreciated- unacknowledged? Who were these basket makers of the Hopi, Cherokee, and others who created such beautiful items that were a major source of income to the tribe and yet were mere squaws and not worth of being named? If her name is Princess Pumpkin Pie, Or Silver Moon Beam or Maria Nimble Fingers, they deserved the recognition and the accolade that any artist deserves. The workmanship, design and weave are very traditional from tribe to tribe but they are also, individualistic . Scholars and collectors are trying to identify the work of these women but they need to do more that look at an item and attribute it to the person who made such and such beaded item in such a such collection or museum. It is wonderful to tell us that the item is Seminole or it is Abanaki but what about the artist, and these women were artists, who created them? There are so many Native American postcards and photographs showing the women hard at work creating items both for the tourists and for utilitarian purposes in their everyday reservation bound lives. Taking these images and matching them up to the items and then researching the records of the time the images were captured is a very good beginning for opening up an entire new vista in exploring the history-social history of the Native Americans and the Social history of yet another ethnic culture which is only one piece in the fabric that is woven with the toil and tears of womankind.
Prices on cards of Native Americans fluctuate greatly. Some of the nicest are the least expensive. Women tend to show up more often on Linen era 1930s-1940s cards. The clearer and more important the item shown is the more valuable the card. Fred Harvey, the publish er, was very prolific on the subject and includes some wonderful images that are still under 10.00! Seminole cards are less and often it is because they are using sewing machines to sew clothing. These are very colorful cards but are not as interesting as those of the Southwest. Unfortunately, there are very few cards of the Native Americans of the Northeast. Real photo cards will always draw a premium and often are overvalued. If these are scarce the images of women working are even fewer. In actually photographs the women fare even more poorly. Early Chromo cards and cards done by Tuck, Detroit, and others ignore the women almost entirely. There are wonderful sets of named chiefs and warriors especially those produced for Wild Bill’s Wild West Show but they are again only of men. Perhaps Buffalo Bill didn’t think people would come to the circus to see a few women weaving blankets or beading moccasins. The chiefs can bring up to 35.00 per wearing magnificent clothing made by women whose creations made them look so affluent and proud.
The key to identifying these women is through government records. Identify these women and the pieces they made and the prices will escalate faster than one wants to see them rise. Besides, after all this time wouldn’t it be nice if these women, every posthumously, to receive the accolade they are due? Looking at the pictures and the care worn intensity of concentration and creativity in their beautiful faces one can only wish someone had cared enough to tell them that someday they would attain immortality through the treasures their hands had wrought. A Prophecy? If so one that is long overdue in fulfillment.
* Native American turquoise jewelry is being made in Thailand. Baskets are being made in China and the Philipines and weavings in China etc. Because it looks like something doesn’t mean it is authentic. Fake items are being shipped into the USA and brought by dealers all the time knowing they are fakes and not genuine American made items, nor do they have any age on them.