Native American Traditions

When I was a third-grader in northeastern Oklahoma in 1950 near the Quapaw Agency, our school principal was a stern, handsome woman. I admired her long dark hair, usually worn up in a bun, and her vivid ruby lipstick; I admired her trim business suits and nylon stockings with dark seams perfectly aligned. And I really admired the beaded moccasins she always wore to complete her ensemble.

Birch-bark box covered with red wool, embroidered with moose hair. The box was found in London and dates before 1830. Photo by Scott Landis. 
July/August 1998 issue of PieceWork.

I was reminded of her the other day when I ran across a copy of the July/August 1998 issue of PieceWork, a special theme issue on Native American Crafts Today. The cover is a very closeup view of a pair of beaded moccasins made by Catherine Hoffman, a Cheyenne. The beadwork is solid turquoise lane stitch (also called lazy stitch, because several beads are applied at once). They are beautiful.

The whole issue is stunning, in fact. Besides Plains tribes beadwork and quillwork, there’s Cowichan knitting, basketry from the Passamaqoddy, Huron moose-hair embroidery, and more. This is not work sitting in a museum somewhere. It’s traditional work being done by contemporary Native Americans. They do it for ceremonial use, for sale, or simply for celebration of the past.

Cowichan sweaters hanging on the line in the yard of knitter Sarah Modeste on the Koksilah Reserve, Vancouver Island, 1976. Photo

© Ulli Steltzer.

Sometimes we become so steeped in our primarily European needlework heritage that we forget about the intricacy, sophistication, and pure invention to be found in the handwork of our own Native people. And we sometimes forget that it’s a living tradition. This particular out-of-print issue of Piecework is a vivid reminder. And it’s available now as part of a collection of all the 1998 issues of the magazine, handily produced on CD.