An overwhelming percentage of the ancient and historic American Indian art that one sees in museums, both across the United States and abroad, was produced by women. No one familiar with this art would argue that, at its very best, the aesthetic sensibilities it embodies are anything less than sublime.
The extraordinary range of materials with which American Indian women worked, their proficiency in a great number of artistic techniques and their obvious desire to push the artistic possibilities of any given medium or technique are truly remarkable.
Equally amazing is the ability of American Indian women seamlessly to incorporate new materials acquired through indigenous exchange or trade with Europeans, into their design vocabularies and, conversely, to create virtually new art forms out of recently acquired materials. American Indian women artists have always been both exceptionally responsive to exploring the artistic possibilities of the materials they knew best and unflinchingly open to working with new ones. In other words, innovation, coupled with an aesthetic and often reverential treatment of their media, is a hallmark of the art produced by American Indian women. And in this regard, one must mention their uncanny and seemingly innate ability to riff ingeniously on recently encountered foreign forms with their traditional materials and techniques.
As is well known, these artists were exceptional weavers, twiners, potters, basket makers, baby carrier makers, tanners, painters, dyers, seamstresses, quilters, embroiderers, bead workers and more. But while their repertoire of artistic accomplishments is widely recognized and even acclaimed, much that deeply underlies the execution of their work has yet to be fully appreciated by a wide audience.
This artistry embodies a wealth of Native knowledge about the world, including, of course, spiritual knowledge and the knowledge of nature that is gained from its close observation and in which one does not just learn about nature but learns the wisdom of life from nature. Alongside this essential knowledge so often imbuing the art created by American Indian women, their art can also embody knowledge about the movement of peoples that linked Native communities long before the arrival of Europeans, and that resulted in the exchange of ideas, beliefs, goods and expertise.
American Indian women’s art can embody as well deep knowledge about colonial encounters and encounters with the U.S. government. What is more, this art is imbued with Native strategies for maintaining one’s sense of identity and values in periods of social upheaval, including, now, in the modern world. Cultural and historical factors effecting, stirring, shaping, influencing, challenging, enriching, straining, threatening, perplexing, exciting, inspiring, fortifying and otherwise undergirding Native life throughout centuries have often found their most powerful aesthetic expression in the artwork of gifted women.
Consider from our collection this pair of finely made Western Apache child’s moccasins (opposite) dating to the early decades of the 1900s. As is typical of Western Apache moccasins, they have rawhide soles (although unusually thin) and deerskin uppers that are stained with yellow ochre and beaded in familiar Western Apache motifs. Nonetheless, these moccasins are an anomaly, or seemingly so.
They were fashioned after a Victorian-styled shoe that first became popular for children shortly after 1900. “Mary Janes,” as they came to be known, were based on the shoe worn by the character, Mary Jane, in the Buster Brown comic strip. Mary Jane shoes had thin, flat soles, round toes and a strap across the top of the foot that was secured shut with a buckle or mother-of-pearl button – as do the Western Apache moccasins.
Pondering these carefully crafted moccasin Mary Janes, one cannot help but think about the poignant 1887 before and after photographs of 11 Chiricahua Apache adolescents at Carlisle Indian School. When the photographs were made, the families of the adolescents had just been designated as prisoners-of-war of the United States government, removed from Arizona under armed guard, divided into two groups and imprisoned in Florida at either Fort Pickens or Fort Marion. The adolescents were taken from their mothers and fathers without their parents’ consent. Their parents had no say in the matter because every aspect of their lives was controlled by the U.S. Army. In one of the 1887 Carlisle Indian School photographs, the young people are wearing clothing Apaches typically wore for everyday in the late 1880s. In the other photograph, they are wearing brand new Carlisle Indian School uniforms. They have been symbolically stripped of their Apache identities and cultural moorings.
Another photograph comes to mind when thinking about the Western Apache moccasin Mary Janes. It is a 1919 picture of a White Mountain Apache mother holding her son on her lap. The boy, not much older than a toddler, is staring out at the photographer. The youngster looks inquisitive and smart, but he is not old enough to know why his mother put around his neck the necklace he is wearing. Seated safely in his mother’s lap, he cannot know how concerned she is for his health and, in fact, for his life. The little boy is wearing a medicine necklace that is meant to protect him from disease. During the 1910s and 1920s, several devastating infectious diseases such as trachoma, tuberculosis and influenza ravaged the Western Apache reservations in Arizona. They took the lives of many Apaches, including entire families. When this photograph was taken, the worldwide influenza epidemic, one of the deadliest viruses in history, had struck those reservations.
The same year, the man who photographed the little boy wearing the medicine necklace, also collected a pair of unadorned White Mountain Apache child’s moccasins(above). They have several sets of pinholes all over them. The sets of pinholes were made when small feathers and bits of turquoise were secured to the moccasins during a curing ceremony. In other words, these moccasins were worn by a seriously ill child, quite possibly one stricken with influenza. With their evidence of having been worn in a curing ceremony, these unadorned moccasins and the exquisitely crafted Apache moccasin Mary Janes appear to exist in stark contrast to one another. Somehow, they appear to evoke totally different worlds. But do they really?
The Apache moccasin Mary Janes were undoubtedly made for a special occasion, probably even a happy or at least hopeful one. But still, for what occasion were they made? The truth is, we will never know. However, thinking about the moccasin Mary Janes in relation to the unadorned moccasins with sets of pinholes, the Carlisle Indian School photographs and the photograph of the little boy wearing a medicine necklace, is deeply suggestive. Perhaps the pair of moccasin Mary Janes was made for a young girl’s first day of school or to accompany her mother or grandmother to Christian worship services on Sundays. Christian missionaries started working among the Western Apaches in the 1890s. They built small chapels and, later, schools. The U.S. government also established schools, and by the 1910s, there were several on- and off-reservation day and boarding schools that Western Apache children were being sent to. It is also quite possible that the moccasin Mary Janes were made for a young girl to attend a traditional Apache ceremony, such as her big sister’s puberty ceremony. To this day, Apache four-day puberty ceremonies not only bring spiritual blessings and strength to a girl entering womanhood, but to her entire community. Whatever the occasion for which a young girl wore this footwear, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the mother who made them likely did so with personal knowledge of the startling death tolls devastating her reservation and the growing presence of non-Apaches impinging upon her world – and, what is certain, the world in which her daughter would grow up.
It is quite possible that an Apache woman made the beautiful moccasin Mary Janes to equip her daughter for a changing world by ensuring that she was grounded in her Apache identity and that she would grow up with her cultural moorings intact. And that she did this with one of the best means at her disposal – her art. Much as countless other gifted American Indian women – who had fully mastered their art and were able to see the advantages of pushing its aesthetic boundaries – have always done.