The concept of creating beauty is basic to our human makeup. From the beginning of time, humans have always surrounded themselves with objects of beauty of their own creation, from their simplest functional tools to massive cave paintings created under very imposing conditions. When one studies the art and the artistic explosion, which occurred during the 19th century on the Plains of North America, we have to marvel. Both physical and political conditions make this outburst of creativity during the 19th century difficult to imagine. The nomadic lifestyle with its need for total organization caused objects of beauty to have specific shape or function. There was continual change occurring in the world of the Plains Indian at this time. The barrage of information from the Anglo world with all the physical inter-change and the introduction of new materials brought by the fur traders and explorers, brought so much new information to the tribes. The westward expansion of the Anglo society into the plains brought change at every level. The time period was less than one hundred years, but the change was gargantuan. The introduction of information and new materials to the culture of the Plains Indian began a change from utilitarian embellishment to decorative enhancement of almost every item. Decoration, which was very tribally distinct, was a very important aspect in each and every item. This included painting, incising, carving, quilling, weaving and beadwork.
Anyone could readily identify the group who made an object just from the design elements and construction. Today these objects are very desirable not for there original function but for the artistic beauty that pervades each object. To better understand the artistic changes of the 19th century one has to also take into account the outside influences that occurred alongside, against, and for those changes. The trade items brought with the white culture were significant to the artistic explosion throughout the century. These items such as beads, thread, commercial paint, fabric, metal and mirrors changed everything very rapidly. Women Indian artists were very quick to adapt these new materials to their own very established vocabulary of artistic tools, all the while maintaining their own tribal design significance and information.
Every object needed to be easily stored, accessed and moved. Parfleche (Native American rawhide containers) were so important to a household. Everything had its place. Some Parfleche envelopes were used to store dried meat, others clothing, others were used for various household materials and utensils. Other object specific cases were made and decorated. Most of the Parfleche were made as pairs and decorated likewise by being cut and painted from the same large rawhide. To have pairs of envelopes today is very desired as most of the pairs have been broken up either by attrition or sold individually at some point in time. The geometric painting of Parfleche by the plains peoples was a woman’s art form. Today, Parfleche are viewed as art which hold their own when viewed next to 20th century geometric abstract paintings. Condition is very important element when collecting Parfleche. The imagery should be in good condition without too much paint loss. One of the prime collecting concerns for the Parfleche collector is what type of hide was used. Buffalo was the earliest rawhide used, the next generation were made using cattle rawhide. I see collecting Parfleche as collecting works of art, rather than ethnographic objects from a specific time period. I believe viewing through an artistic lens when collecting any 19th century Native American object is the most intelligent choice for any collector.
Beads were the singular most significant Anglo artistic product introduced to the Plains artisans as trade items. Beads allowed for more experimenting both with color and design when decorating clothing and storage bags. Pony beads came first to the hands of the Plains artisans in the early part of the 19th century with limited colors available and also somewhat limited supply. Next came the introduction of the seed bead by mid century. All of the pony and seed beads were imported and traded from Italy until the late 19th century when Czech beads entered the plains. The seed bead spurred the creation of the most beautiful and intricate objects for wear and use that can be imagined.
These beaded objects stand out not only because of the incredible creativity but also the outstanding beauty during this very difficult time period. Constant need to move camp, the ever vigilant need to be aware of hostilities during the Indian war period, and the abject poverty of the reservation period did not provide the most optimum working conditions. The need and desire to create beauty prevailed with these talented women.
There is an area of study involving the time certain beads enter the tribal culture, how long those colors were used before being replaced by the next years color, and which colors were preferred by which tribes artists or who preferred this for background colors or which tribes used which colors in their object field color relationships. Certain colors preferred by these women artists in the 19th century are not popular to the collector today, which says nothing about the artistic merit only the fickle nature of the market. I find the 1870-1880s time period to be the zenith of the artistic outburst of the Plains Indian artists with their adaptation of the newer materials and the expanded visual representations with more pictorial representation. By the early reservation period the native women artists were expanding their creative horizons rapidly as artists with both the adaptation of materials and the somewhat more sedentary lifestyle.
American Indian art is always alive with the soul of the native woman artist who created the object. Just as with todays clothing, styles change. The American Indian objects decorated with beadwork and or paint were and are an ever-changing art form. The desire to create beauty remains a constant human pursuit.