Fort Walla Walla Museum Announces Honoring the Red, White and Blue Patriotic Beadwork of the Plateau People

. March 25, 2011 . 0 Comments

Fort Walla Walla Museum announce the opening of a very special exhibit, Honoring the Red, White and Blue: Patriotic Beadwork of the Plateau People, on April 1.

This display, loaned to the Museum from the private collection of Fred Mitchell, among the most extensive such collections in existence. While some items have been exhibited elsewhere including the Montana State Historical Museum and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma, the scores of brilliantly colored examples will be the largest public display of its kind ever seen anywhere.

The Columbia Plateau refers to the geologic, geographic and cultural region lying across parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. It is the wide flood basalt plane between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains, bisected by the Columbia River.

The changing times of the 19th century and early 20th century for Indian people of the Columbia Plateau are represented in the beadwork they produced. Although beaded apparel probably existed back into the mists of time, their fragile status has left us with some beads but not the items to which they were attached. Beads made from stone, shell, wood or bone survived into the modern era, but were soon replaced by colorful glass and ceramic beads carried by Euro-American traders.

Other items, including Chinese coins with center holes, were employed in place of naturally occurring items. Larger beads of European or Chinese manufacture were available to bead artists in the early 19th century. Tiny seed beads became available by the mid 1800s, sometimes augmented with embroidery. Metal and faceted beads came into vogue later.

Designs changed over time, too. In the early 1800s, favored images were geometric patterns and highly stylized figures, derived from generations of quillwork designs. The arrival of Eastern Indian people employed by the fur companies showed regional people examples of apparel and accoutrements with designs from beyond the homelands. This is the predominant reason behind the rise of floral design in Plateau beadwork.

When missionaries and Indian agents discouraged or forbade the use of traditional images as pagan, other images became popular. By the end of the 19th century, these floral and animal images had become very realistic. Around 1900, contour beading became popular with Columbia Plateau craftspeople, wherein the image is beaded first, then surrounded by concentric rings of beads, accentuating the natural curves found in flowers and animals. Contour beading replaced the earlier horizontal lines of beads in the background.

Near the turn of the century, a new thematic approach began to appear. Beaded items that carried American patriotic values came into being and became popular as honoring gifts to those who returned from service in World War I and World War II. As some of these designs appeared before the wars, the reason for their appearance has numerous theories.

One theory suggests that flags were the original ‘power symbol’ associated with the Euro-Americans in the lands of the Homeland Tribes. As such, flags incorporated into beadwork may have recognized that power. Because eagles were long seen as symbols of strength and power, their use in modern beadwork is understandable. Even before the end of the 19th century wars, many Indian people participated in the United States military. Honoring those people within a warrior tradition may have been part of the reasoning. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, occurring between the World Wars, may have been a contributing factor, too. The majority of these items were created for the tourist trade, collectors, and non-Indian people.

Beyond the reasons behind the theme is the bags’ vibrant artistry. Visit Fort Walla Walla Museum April 1 through August 14 to appreciate the scores of examples of patriotic beadwork in this very special exhibit.

Category: Museum News

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