Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Family Treasure

When I visited Maryhill Art Museum last month, I was excited to study their expansive native American exhibit. I have questions about some Oglala Sioux hand-made items belonging to my family. I found partial answers starting with the Plains Indian moccasin display above. The card notes that some have been found with beading on the sole, and were assumed to be funeral moccasins...except some showed wear on those soles. Well, maybe the spirits of the dead needed to walk around a bit before wafting off into the ether.

Here's my collection, and as you can see, I too have moccasins beaded on the bottom. (click on this or any picture for a larger view.) No funeral moccasins these - they were made for my mother who was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. My grandparents, Anna and Waine Whitlock, successfully applied to the Office of Indian Affairs for appointment to the Indian School there - he as teacher ($720 per annum) with "wife as housekeeper" (at $300 per annum). The documents of the provisional appointment are dated September & October of 1909 and my mother was born in January of 1911. Also in the picture you can see a rattle, a long braided bead necklace and women's leather gauntlets.

The family story handed down is that the Sioux loved my grandparents and were particularly excited when Anna became pregnant. They doted on both of them, making the moccasins and toys for my mother, beaded items for my grandmother. This is Anna modeling an authentic Oglala Sioux outfit, allegedly one made just for her. The dress has long since disappeared, making me wonder if the story got skewed along the way. I can't imagine a treasure like this getting lost when these other items survived. I also wonder about the part of the family story concerning the Indians' feelings for my grandparents. So many horror stories have surfaced about how the Indians were treated on these reservations and how the children were forced in essence to become white children. I'd like to think my grandparents were exceptions to those truths and were more sensitive to their plight. If nothing else, I know my grandfather worked to make a written record of some of the native words and I have his pictures of some of the Indian families in their native garb.

I've not really studied these items in depth, but this time out I began noticing the details in construction. On the underside of the rattle you can see the diagonal opening for stuffing which is then expertly sewn shut. No idea what's in there but it is nice and firm. By modern standards, this rattle is anything but child safe! The metal tubes dangle by a few threads and once held red feathers. It's a wonder that the beads are still intact.

The larger of the two pair of moccasins has this beautiful beading top and bottom making them surprisingly heavy. The designs on each shoe matches perfectly. The pattern isn't like any in the Maryhill display but I can see a general similarity.

The "cuff" is stitched on separately with this once indigo cotton twill tape as support. It also helps support the leather lace for snugging up the moccasin.

The smaller pair of moccasins has a strip of green felt at the join of the cuff and no beading on the soles. The beading pattern is simpler.

The design is an identical mirror image from one shoe to the other, except one toe has blue beads while the other has green. As a quilter, I've got to wonder if the maker ran out of one color or the other, or is this just a sign of a renegade creative spirit?

As for the gauntlets, I've always suspected they were trade goods that the Indians then decorated with beading. They have cotton lining and that's definitely machine decorative stitching along the cuff. I found mention of this in the exhibit to confirm that during the time these were made, the Indians were indeed getting "blanks" as it were to decorate and sell. I love that diamond beading pattern.

Oddly enough, I haven't run across any pictures of my mother as a baby on the reservation, with or without the moccasins. Ditto for Grandma wearing the gauntlets or bead necklace. I did find this circa 1910 picture showing how she got around on the reservation .

And this is Day School # 3 where Grandpa taught. My understanding is that he took and developed his own pictures, including this one. Many were made into postcards and sent to relatives. Apparently, teaching didn't settled well with Grandpa (Mom remembered being told that he became depressed and nervous from it) and by 1913 he moved his family from the reservation to a Homestead claim near Bellefourche, South Dakota.


Terry said...

These are wonderful treasures. The photo of your grandmother is priceless. I grew up in Pocatello where the Bannock-Shoshone reservation at Fort Hall is. When we were in High School we would go to the reservation to buy moccasins that we wore with our jeans. They were only a few dollars and had simple beading on the tops. They were constructed exactly like the ones you have. I think I kept one pair, but they are pretty worn. I also have a baby pair with lots of beading.I wish I had appreciated what I had at the time. I wouldn't have considered them novelties to kick around in!

Slapysickle said...

Hi, just thought you might like some more info on your items. I'm a Crow Indian but my uncle married a Lakota and as a kid I spent quite a bit of time with them in SD. Many of our customs and traditions are very similar. The item you describe as a rattle is actually a ' belly button bag' or umbilical cord bag. Part of a baby's dried umbilical cord was placed inside and the bag was sewn shut. I still have mine and I have a picture of my youngest daughter in her baby board with the 'turtle -belly button bag' attached. Lots of Plains Indians use these type of bags for their babies. I'll try to send you the picture I mentioned above. Best regards, Danielle

The Idaho Beauty said...

Danielle, thank you so much for this information. I never could make sense of that piece, the rattle just being a wild guess. No doubt then, my own mother's umbilical cord is in there!

I'd very much be interested in your picture which you can e-mail to the contact address on my profile. Perhaps we can have more conversations about this off the blog. So happy you found me!