Sunday, November 01, 2009


We tend to think of trade goods as being the result of European contact, but in fact there has always been vigorous trade along routes that networked both North and South America, as well as very early detectable trade around the Pacific Rim many thousands of years ago.

One of the interesting aspects of traders and brokers that has not been much explored is the role of women as the persons who were more likely to be where goods were accumulated, and then as persons affiliated with Europeans. In my reading I’ve run across several of these trading women but, alas, I didn’t keep notes, partly because those mentioned were in the SE. In Blackfeet country, of course, the obvious person is Natawista, the wife of the major steam-boat-based robe trader Culbertson, but there were also solitary women or women who accommodated travelers and in the process either acquired objects or knew about them.

Pre-Columbian trade must have been much attuned to materials: red pipestone from Sioux country, obsidian, the pink quartz Tim mentions, pigments and many other things like seashells (dentalium) or bear claws. So far as “made” goods are concerned, there must have been many kinds of baskets and pots.

Less peacefully, many items changed hands as war booty, either in individual encounters or as the result of raids. Though certain patterns of weaponry or decoration may be typical of one group, both trade and capture mean that no tribe has a “pure” collection of items. A powerful warrior might be equipped from several tribes.


Once trade begins with the European materials, the scene is very complex but 19th century objects are what most people think of when they say “Indian artifacts” even though some things are the result of imported practices and media. For instance, the typical artifacts of people in the SW are wool blankets woven on looms, though they use unique local patterns, possibly from much older sand paintings, and jewelry made of silver and turquoise. New forms of commerce arrive with the trading post which offers pawn as a form of credit based on these beautiful commodities.

The introduction of glass beads and brass tacks or bells transformed the decorative craftwork, becoming so typical, colorful, and admired that they define the most attractive bits of clothing and horse accoutrement. The lore of beads, where they came from, who made them, who moved them across the country, and the story of the various patterns used is enough to keep a person busy for a lifetime. The red wool manufactured in Stroud, England, turned up everywhere as a fine background for black velvet applique or navy blue wool cloth. Some groups had a sense of geometry, others an awareness of function, and still others created a kind of embroidery that traced botanical themes. Rather later came pictorial beading: American flags, eagles, and quite recently sophisticated works like that of Debbie Magee Scherer who creates landscapes and portraits. Contemporary objects like sneakers and ball caps are often beaded and it has become popular for high school graduates’ families to quickly add beading to graduating gowns and mortarboards.

The addition of horses meant a whole new class of accoutrements from saddles to decorative face masks and chest bands. Travois and lodges sort of go with horses. Such innovations as cast iron Dutch ovens are made possible horses who can carry or drag much more weight.

In the early days the Indian penchant for collecting small and strange objects -- which is shared by all people but strengthened by a whole new class of unique bits to acquire -- can cause surprising uses of objects: mirrors as pendants, small metal bits pried off furniture or personal chests and reused in ingenious ways. Lathe-turned wood, even spiral legs off chairs, become pipestems.

Native American material objects can be sorted by the time period, the access to materials, the aesthetic taste of the group, the needs of people for a range of goods from the constant renewal of moccasins and addition of robes and storage containers, and the ecological demands of the location. Eelskin capes where it rains, woven rabbit fur strips for blankets where large animals are scarce, woven grass sandals in dry hot country.

As soon as these objects become noticed and collected by Europeans either connected by missionaries, explorers and colonizers or the people actually on the continent, some become valorized and others pushed aside. One of the most beautiful buckskin dresses I ever saw was white buckskin with a band across the chest and arms made of porcupine quills, not dyed but taking advantage of the white-to-black variation in the color of each quill. It had been acquired by a church official in very early days. Clothing changes over time, though the typical design stays mostly to the shirt-and-leggings pattern for men. One of the innovations is the idea that all the pieces of clothing should form a “set” with the same or related patterns. In early days the two leggings were separate items and not necessarily patterned the same way or matched to the shirt. When the fondness for tobacco led to a huge accretions of snoose-can lids, someone invented the “jingle dress” which is decorated with rows and rows of the lids curled into bugles that sound like bells when the dress is worn for dancing.

Blankets are a whole category in themselves. The most commonly associated is the Hudson’s Bay Blanket provided in trade in the early days. The vivid solid colors, decorated with a black band near one end, came in various weights, indicated by a “hash mark” on one edge that were supposed to indicate how many beaver skins were necessary to pay for the blanket. A “four beaver blanket” is so heavy a person can hardly turn over under it. The Pendleton blanket was marked by what were taken to be “Indian” patterns. In my childhood an “Indian blanket” was a cotton blanket with what was understood to be Indian patterns (geometric) that was commonly used for things like camping. Blankets were made in capotes, the hooded coat.

Chronologically, one can trace the evolution of materials and patterns, but also the source of fabrication. Various beading techniques with needle and thread (attaching one bead at a time versus stringing five or six onto the thread and then either making a stitch or whipping down the whole mini-row) was joined by “loom beading,” which was much faster, flatter and produced in strips. It was a quick results technique done by boy scouts, overseas Asian locals, and even by machine.

Curating and valuing all these techniques, time periods, sources, practices, and inspirations is done by academics, artists, amateur collectors, professional collectors, the Native American people themselves and others. One may need an expert to distinguish historically created items from what are called jokingly, “artifakes.” The best of the latter are made by German crafters who belong to clubs dedicated to the accurate recreation of ancient objects, not in order to deceive, but as a kind of homage. Jack Smith, down the street from me, does brisk business in new but authentic materials drawn from the “trade days” on both sides of the Indian/white line.

The many gradients in value, all governed by knowledge as well as appeal, have created many opportunities for “marketing.” Buyer beware. Especially with a lot of sentiment is involved as in family keepsakes acquired by whites generations ago.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Knives and awls were the most cherished, along with blankets. Far more than guns, iron or steel knives and awls made nomadic hunting and gathering life a lot easier. Add lance points to that. Imagine how hard it was to butcher and skin animals before these implements arrived. During the fur trade rendezvous, natives with skins to trade bought knives and awls in great numbers.