American Indian Artistry at the Old Courthouse Museum

Big Stock Photo

Big Stock Photo

Last week I attended the monthly meeting of the Sioux Falls chapter of the South Dakota Archaeological Society (SDAS). Usually the group meets at Augustana University, but last Thursday the group met at the Old Courthouse Museum and toured the American Indian Artistry exhibit.

The exhibit had examples of baskets and pottery; bows, arrows, and clubs; bowls and horn spoons; but the focus was on the painting, beading, and quilling used to decorate moccasins, clothing, bags of various sizes, handles of clubs, and knife sheaths. The moccasin in the above photo is similar to the ones at the museum, except the ones in the exhibit had beads, and the one in the photo looks like it has quilling.

I’ve seen beading before, but quilling was new to me. In traditional quilling, the women would soften porcupine quills, in their mouth, and then flatten the quills, either between their teeth or with a bone tool. Then they would sew these in rows, like an embroidery satin stitch. Many of the designs were also painted. I don’t know if the quills were painted before or after the sewing. And I don’t know if they used needles or made holes in the skins with an awl. Can any of you tell me?

I was so impressed by two things at the exhibit: First, beading and quilling must have taken an immense amount of skill and time. I’ve done enough embroidery and cross-stitching to have an idea of the work involved. And I nearly always followed a commercial pattern; only once or twice did I make up my own design. I wonder if the beading and quilling would have been a winter occupation? Can you imagine doing that by firelight? And without a magnifying glass?

The second thing that hit me is that we crave more than just survival. We also crave beauty. Especially if it is symbolic to us. That makes me think of the movie The Monument Men (which I still haven’t seen). Is art important enough to die for? I don’t know. Maybe. But, it is certainly a gift to us to have so much of the world’s art preserved. Life is so much better when it includes some kind of beauty, whether it’s visual art, music, or literature, etc.

Just for fun, there’s a third thing that impressed me at the exhibit. The museum displayed lots of bags of various sizes and uses, all decorated with paint, beads, and/or quills, so maybe I shouldn’t let myself feel frivolous for loving colorful purses! How do you combine functional and beautiful?

If you’re in the Sioux Falls area, Augustana College and SDAS are hosting a program about the use of geophysics in archeology, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Mar. 16 in the Gilbert Science Center on campus. The program is free and open to the public.

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  1. Pingback: Native Americans’ Day in South Dakota | Deb Watley

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