At one time the vocational education program of Haskell Indian Junior College in Lawrence, Kansas, printed a series on Indian Handcraft books for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This was discontinued long ago, but Richard C. Schneider, a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin found there was still enough interest in 1986 to reprint the series. (In case he still exists, his address was “R. Schneider, Publishers, 312 Linwood Ave., Stevens Point, Wisconsin, 54481.) The Blackft crafts book was written by John Ewers, one of the several expert Blackft anthropologists, and the man who built the Museum of the Plains Indian.
“Indian Crafts” and “Material Culture” appear to be the “low” and “high” ways of approaching things made by Native Americans. Maybe the difference is that Indian “Crafts” are still made today -- but maybe not by Indians and probably for sale rather than use. “Material Culture” is the antique kind of object, one that shows real use in a world gone by. Cub Scouts with a bead band loom are making crafts. A quilled pipe bag from 1750 is something else entirely, and probably worth a lot of money.
Ewers’ book is somewhere in the middle of the muddle. On the one hand he was an anthropologist at a time when much of the work was sorting -- creating taxonomies of objects with close attention to their construction and use. “Just exactly what IS a typical Blackft moccasin beadwork design?” they might ask, with full confidence that there was always a “typical” to be found. Jessie Schultz, surviving wife of James Willard Schultz, was famous for insisting that Blackft designs were geometric and Cree designs were floral. After she’d been saying this for a while, it certainly became true of all the moccasins made for sale to her.
Jessie and John Ewers were collaborators in the creation of the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana, which was funded in part by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Craft Board. The building has a workroom on one end, supplied with tables that have drawers for storing half-finished work. The vision was that tourists would come to visit the museum where many wonderful objects were displayed and then they would buy reproductions or new creations from the dedicated workers, through the little shop also in the building. This would be much needed income for them.
Ewers’ little 66 page book (“Blackfeet Crafts,” no copyright given, paperback, ISBN 0-936984-0) would be useful for someone buying artifacts and concerned about their authenticity, or it could also help a person who wanted to make new reproductions or original creations. Adolf Hungry Wolf began his literary career with dozens of this sort of book, full of photos and diagrams.
At the elite “material culture” end of the spectrum, one would do well to buy a “book on demand” reproduction from UMI (300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48106-13460). “Material Culture of the Blackfoot Indian” was edited by Clark Wissler, an earlier anthropologist of the Blackft. The book was originally published by the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. V, Part 1. Wissler’s introduction is dated October 1, 1909. He acknowledges Robert H. Lowie and Walter McClintock, his contemporaries, for helping.
It’s interesting that of Bob Scriver’s three self-published books, the one that has doubled in value is not about sculpture, but rather the high-quality, super-close-up photo inventory of the Scriver Artifact Collection. (The book is called, “The Blackfeet, Artists of the Northern Plains,” in homage to Ewers’ history, “The Blackfeet, Raiders of the Northern Plains. It is out-of-print.) Several crafts workers on the Internet advertise that they take their designs from this book.
When the first Euros came up the Mississippi and then the Missouri, they arrived in Montana with trunks and crates capable of taking many objects back to Europe with them. Just as the Blackfeet were enamored of needles, awls, strike-a-lights, falconry bells, brass buttons, iron kettles -- metal objects -- the Europeans fell in love with the buckskin/bone/fur objects of the prairie people. Some, like millionaire Heye who had to have one of everything in existence, even if there WAS only one, became obsessive. (His collection is the foundation of the new Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.)
When Europeans saw the wonderful things unpacked by aristocrats returned from the great American plains, they were also smitten. The effect on the ones unlikely to travel was to try to duplicate what they saw. Today there are German craft clubs who make “arti-fakes” so authentically that no one can tell them from the real objects -- except that they’re not old.
While this imitation Indian phenomenon has continued to the present day in Germany, something entirely different has happened in the United States. Instead of treasuring and defending the unique tribal characteristics of dance gear, the Pan-Indian Pow-Wow movement has supported the development of cross-cultural styles that become ever more flashy and ingenious. They rather remind me of Ball Room Dancing Competition costumes: many feathers, much glitter, and -- on grass dance costumes -- much bright yarn. Anything that might distinguish a person from the others and catch the eye of the judges. After all, the prizes are money and a person has to pay for the gas to get there.
Even so, individuals have discovered that they will stand out in competition if they wear costumes designed like those Catlin painted, with their faces painted in striking ways. These folks can run into trouble in two ways: some of the most authentic and striking accoutrements were once considered sacred and some purists might claim that using them at a pow-wow is disrespectful.
The other problem is that the more authentic the costume is, the more likely it is to include some material that comes from protected or extinct animals like eagles or swift foxes. This imposes a legal taboo that could get problematic. Who can kill enough elk today to adorn an entire dress with their ivory incisors?
A quite different stream of consciousness than pow-wows focuses on originality and treats material objects and their making as art. These people don’t necessarily think of themselves as doing “crafts” but as creating something like a fine painting or sculpture, an expression of their vision, maybe something never seen before. This is undoubtedly what the first Blackft craftpeople believed, too, but their vision was conditioned by their own world, much of which is gone now. What was once the inventory of a museum crafts shop has now become the display of an art gallery.