Museums often receive objects with little known history. This beaded buckskin pouch was given as a gift to the Institute of Texan cultures many years ago without any information on itsorigin. However, the style of beadwork and materials used indicate that it likely came from a Plains Indian tribe. These types of items are found in many museum collections. The Great Plains covers a wide range of the United States, as can be seen in the map to the left. The area designated in red highlights the Great Plains where many Native American tribes resided and are more broadly referred to as the Plains Indians (or Plains Tribes).
Because these tribes lived in the same environment, they adopted similar lifestyles and made similar daily life items. It is not uncommon for museums to struggle with identifying a specific tribe, for all their objects. By using the term Plains Indians, the museum is able to identify an item’s regional origin without having to know the exact tribal affiliation. Some of the struggle comes from the history of trade amongst the tribes across the Great Plains. This beaded pouch has a beaded design on the lower third of the bag and is made of an animal hide. This could describe the majority of beaded bags, not only amongst the Plains Indians, but most tribes across the United States. Uniformity in style, shape, color or technique, indicates trade activity and a shared knowledge amongst various tribes on how to craft beaded goods. Yet, sometimes a particular kind of bead, design, animal hide, or stitching can also help to identify a tribe. If a particular type of bead, animal hide or stitching is repeated in many craft goods of one tribe but is not consistent amongst the other tribes, you can use that feature to determine which tribe made the item. During the 1950s Orvoell Gallagher and Louis Powell wrote a paper entitled, Time Perspective in Plains Indian Beaded Art (1953). The paper discussed the struggle museums have in identifying Plains Indian craft goods. They pointed to the same issue of trade. If all the tribes are trading with one another it makes it much harder to find anything unique. Their paper called for criteria to be built on what to look for in identifying Plains Indian craft goods. The criteria would help guide other museums when identifying Native American products.
Beaded pouches have great potential to help identify tribal origin. The animal hide that many Native American pouches are made of can be the first clue. One of the first things to look for is what type of animal skin was used. If a tribe didn’t have access to that animal, they either received the hide in trade, or it is not theirs. Most tribes used animal hides for pouches, clothes, blankets, shelter and even drums. The process to prepare the skin of an animal for use is called ‘tanning the hide’. Using every part of an animal after hunting was a common practice, nothing was to be wasted. The women of the tribe often collected the skin and brain of the animal after the meat and other organs were taken. The process of transforming the skin into leather, or ‘tanning’ it, requires many steps. The hair, flesh and membrane would need to be scraped away, leaving only bare skin. Then a mixture of animal fats and/or brain would be rubbed into the skin, followed by soaking and then stretching the hide. During the stretching and drying is when they could change the color of the hide by smoking it or adding pigment. While the overall steps of tanning a hide is consistent amongst many tribes, the hide color choice could certainly be an identifying characteristic.
To watch a documentary about Native American trading networks and hide processing, please click the link: Sheep Eater –Trading and Tools
Another aspect of the beaded pouch that could be used to identify tribal origin is the beadwork itself. This particular beaded pouch uses small decorative beads, sometimes called seed beads. The glass seed beads are significant as they are evidence that the item was made after trade contact with European settlers was established. Beads can thus help identify the date of a craft good as well. The seed beads first became very common to Plains Indians around the mid-1800s, this is not to suggest that the pouch was certainly made then, but that it is unlikely that it could have been made before. The color of the beads and the design they create on the bag are also potential identifying marks.
Bags similar to the one in the Institute of Texan Cultures collections are known from the Ute tribe (see National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution [24/4225] here), Sioux tribe (see Brooklyn Museum, Accession Number: 32.2099.32549, here) and Southern Cheyenne (see Nelson-Atkins Museum, Accession number 2006.40, here). All of these are examples of beaded bags from Plains Indian tribes. All of the bags are rectangular and taper slightly up to the opening of the bag. There is also fringe and beadwork on each bag, and each uses the lazy stitch technique to apply the beads. This technique is anything but lazy. Instead of sewing on one bead at a time, you thread several beads to stitch on all at once. A time consuming task especially, when trying to create a pattern or design. The Ute example also has a four-flap opening with tie off at the top. Each is similar in style and design to the beaded pouch we are discussing, however, based on the bead design and the mouth flaps we believe the ITC pouch is a Cheyenne bag.
There are many other characteristics of craft goods that we can use to identify the tribe they belonged to. Material, bead design and how the item was made are just some of the first things to consider. Museums and archaeologists have collaborated over time to build a wealth of knowledge to aid in the exploration and identification of objects. Each object has a story and history waiting to be told. [Trisha Taylor, edited by Jennifer McPhail]
Blumberg, J. (2007). Beading the Way. How Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty created one of the centerpieces for the National Museum of American Indian’s “Identity by Design” Exhibition. Smithsonian Magazine.
Duncan, K. (1991). So Many Bags, so Little Known: Reconstructing the Patterns of Evolution and Distribution of Two Algonquian Bag Forms. Arctic Anthropology . Published by: University of Wisconsin Press. Vol. 28, No. 1, Art and Material Culture of the North American Subarctic and Adjacent Regions (1991), pp. 56-66.
Gallagher O. & Powell L. (1953). Time Perspective in Plains Indian Beaded Art. American Anthropologist. New Series, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 609-613. Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Vanstone, J. 1997). An Ethnographic Collection from the Northern Ute in the Field Museum of Natural History. Fieldiana. Anthropology. New Series, No. 28, An Ethnographic Collection from the Northern Ute in the Field Museum of Natural History (August 29, 1997), Published by: Field Museum of Natural History. pp. i-iii, 1-48.
This item is a necklace made by a member of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of East Texas. It is made of multi-colored glass beads, plastic “hairpipe” beads, and leather. The Alabama and Coushatta are actually two separate tribes, who came together after Europeans forced them out of their homelands. Even before they officially came together, the Alabama and Coushatta were closely related through intermarriage and shared customs. While the native language of each tribe is different; they developed from the same root language. Alabama and Coushatta are called Alibamu and Koasati in their own languages. Alibamu derives from the words for “vegetation gatherers” and “Koasati” is thought to contain the words for “cane” and “reed,” important plants for the Native Americans.
The Alibamu and Koasati were farmers who heavily depended on crops. To support their agricultural life, both tribes and other Native Americans lived near rivers, lakes, and streams. Their main crops included maize, squash, and beans. They also hunted and gathered wild vegetation, which is more efficient near water. Because they lived near the coast, the Koasati had contact with Europeans early on. Their first encounter with Europeans was when Hernando de Soto and his men passed through Koasati territory while following along rivers and streams.
De Soto was a Spanish Conquistador who arrived off the coast of Florida in 1539 with over 600 men (including priests and slaves) and nearly 250 horses. Their goals were to explore the New World, discover gold, and gather slaves. For three years they traveled across the American Southeast. After traveling 1,600 miles they finally reached the Panuco River in Mexico. During the expedition the explorers documented their adventures and experiences with the natives. These documents are still read today and help scientists better understand Native American lifestyle and the historic territories of some tribes. They also give eye witness accounts of certain ceremonies and architecture, helping us link together different American Indian cultures.
De Soto and his crew came across both the Alibamu and the Koasati during the expedition. They actually were welcomed as guests by the Koasati upon their first encounter. After some of De Soto’s men stole the tribe’s maize, the Koasati attacked the Spaniards. Because De Soto had no back up during the attack he pretended to be on the Koasati’s side. He supposedly beat his own men to make it seem like he was upset with their actions. The chief believed his trick and stopped the attack. De Soto offered to take a walk with the chief and some council members to apologize for the theft. Once De Soto had the Koasati men alone he kidnapped the Native Americans and ordered that his men be appointed a guide for their travels.
After the De Soto expedition Europeans kept coming back, eventually forcing Native Americans to migrate. Later on Europeans began to settle America, further pushing out tribes. Ultimately, the Alibamu and the Koasati began to move westward. Unfortunately, the warfare with the Europeans and the introduction of European diseases killed many of the Native Americans. In fact, after De Soto and other early expeditions, 80% to 90% of Native Americans in some areas of North America were killed by European diseases alone. Due to the extreme conditions, many new alliances were formed and some tribes permanently merged. This is how the Alibamu and Koasati became the Alabama-Coushatta tribe. They were eventually granted land in Texas where they built a reservation called the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation, outside of Livingston. The Alabama-Coushatta is one of only three remaining Native American tribes in the state of Texas. (McKayla McCarty, edited by Jennifer McPhail)
This object is a necklace made by Lucille Alexander. This necklace has a brown woven cord with a circular medallion fastened to it. The medallion is bead-covered leather with a design of a black and white abstract bird on a red background, currently used as the logo for the Alabama-Coushatta tribe. The beading on this medallion was done in the “double needle applique” technique, sometimes referred to as “spot stitch.”
The following video illustrates how this type of stitching is used to bead rosettes using contemporary materials.
Lucille Alexander, the artist who made this necklace, was a member of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe. The Alabama and Coushatta were originally two separate tribes that both lived near Montgomery, Alabama. In 1763, both tribes began to migrate west because of settlers encroaching on their land. They both eventually settled in Texas, the Alabama on the Neches River and the Coushatta on the Trinity River. Both tribes participated in the Mexican War of Independence from Spain.
Over three hundred Alabama and Coushatta men fought at the battles of Salado and San Antonio with Samuel Kemper’s Republican Army. When Texas became a Republic, President Lamar set aside land for both tribes, however, it was not until six years later that the Alabama Indians received their reservation. Fourteen years after the Alabama tribe moved onto their reservation, the Coushatta tribe joined them and shared the reservation land. The tribes were effectively joined in 1918 when they were federally recognized. The reservation is located seventeen miles east of Livingston, Texas. [Amber Beck, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]