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American Indian Dresses Reflect Tradition, Culture


American Indian dresses created over the last 150 years are showcased in a new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. Testimony to the creativity and craftsmanship of the women who made them, the dresses are also a reflection of Native American culture and tradition.

Animal skins trimmed with beads and fringe, green wool with rows of cowrie shells sewn on the bodice, dresses for young girls, and for widows whose husbands have died in battle. The exhibit "Identity by Design" features 55 dresses, all of them created by and for American Indian women.

"Everything here is extremely unique in the sense that its maker, the woman, is involved in every part of the process, the design and the production of that dress," says Colleen Cutschall (Oglala Lakota) one of curators of the exhibition now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

Cutschall says each dress in the show was created for a specific purpose, not everyday wear. As an example, she cites a Crow wedding dress made in 1890 in Montana.

The dress is made from red wool, trimmed with green and covered in elks' teeth, provided by the groom when he gets engaged. "The elk only have two eye teeth that are actually ivory, so men had to collect these teeth from a very young age," Cutschall says. "When they went to get married, those teeth came out and were used to decorate the clothing." She says some of the "teeth" are actually carved bone.

Co-curator Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota) says Native American wives sometimes honor their husbands in the design of dresses.

"We have one that is referred to as a battle dress by Vanessa Jenning, a very famous Kiowa dressmaker," he notes. "It depicts her husband's military service in the Vietnam War. And so you'll see military patches from the First Calvary division on her dress."

Similarly, two muslin dresses made by Sioux women in the 1890s honor men who died in war with paintings of battle scenes. Her Many Horses says the scenes represent the men's war accomplishments. "These women wear these dresses to honor deceased relatives, deceased warriors so they brought them out on special occasions."

Contemporary dresses, are also made to honor someone. Joyce Growing Thunder, 57, created a richly beaded Sioux hide dress to honor her grandparents who raised her in Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. She was assisted by her daughter and her granddaughter, 17-year-old Jessica Growing Thunder.

Jessica says it was an honor to work on the dress, knowing it would become part of the National Museum of the American Indian's permanent collection. She's been beading since she was three, and says she had been taking it for granted, but now has a greater appreciation of the art.

"You grow up around it every day of your life and you think, 'Everybody does this. This is something everybody does. Everybody beads every day of their life. It's just the way things are.' And as you get older you start to realize this is something special," Jessica says.

There are other women creating dresses today that, like the one created by Jessica, her mother and her grandmother, are even more ornate than those created by the women who came before them. Dresses that glitter and sparkle with rhinestones to catch the eye of the judges when they dance. Because today's dresses are mostly created for Powwows, where American Indian women and men perform traditional dances to compete for prize money.

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