A Life in Beads

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

I recently received two requests from history faculty for our class on Westward Expansion. Unfortunately, we recently determined that the majority of the objects used for that class should be further investigated to see if they are potential NAGPRA objects – specifically items of cultural patrimony.  Which meant that if I was to fulfill the requests of these teachers I needed to come up with a new activity FAST! I had less than two working weeks to formulate and flesh out what the seventy-minute class would do.

While I was scrolling online for ideas my colleague Samantha Hixson mentioned a Plains dress that we had – thus giving me an “A HA!!!!” moment.  I had seen a lesson related to a Plains dress from the National Museum of the American Indian. That got me thinking and served as a foundation for my own lesson.

I decided to use multiple objects from the Peabody Institute’s collection to understand the long standing close connection that Plains tribes had to their surroundings and communities through traditions. Through the lens of one aspect of life – clothing – the impact that Westward Expansion had on tribes will be more clearly defined.

In addition to the dress I also selected a pair of beaded moccasins, one of the muslin pencil drawings (reproduction), a defleshing tool, as well as a bison skin rattle (reproduction). The class begins with students wandering around the room, simply exploring the objects scattered about before working together to dive more deeply into the material culture.

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Students look at a reproduction of one of the Sioux pencil drawings in our collection.

Some of the questions students are asked are basic observational ones: “what material is the dress made from.” Others begin to stretch their understanding of the process of making clothing: “what role did men and boys have in the creation of the dress and shoes.” We also delve into why decorations are important, not only in the culture we are studying, but our own as well.

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Students answering questions about the material culture.

We then pause as a class to talk about traditions and what they mean to us personally. We talk about the positive influence they have on us and how they bring us closer together as a community (Head of School Day was a favorite tradition that was mentioned. One can tell that the speculation amongst students of when it will be called is going strong!!).

We then discuss how the actions of white settlers and the government destroyed the traditions of Plains tribes and how this affected communities. This was a very emotional part of the class for many students. It is certainly one thing to read about atrocities in the past through the emotional barrier of a textbook – and quite another to “see” it when looking at the clothing that a real person wore. And based on an email I received from one of the faculty asking for more resources for students to further investigate the impact on tribes and how they are dealing with it today, it is a lesson that has already had a lasting impact on the students.

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Lindsay Randall pointing out details in the clothing.

But I do not want to end my post on such a heavy note, so I will tell you about a great way that everyone at the Peabody supports the work of each other. For the first class Samantha sat in on the activity and was VERY helpful. While she did answer some of the student questions – which was very nice and I do not mean to diminish how helpful that was – but more importantly SHE WAS WEARING QUILL EARRINGS!!!!! And in the lesson I mentioned QUILLING!! So I may have made asked her to take them out so that I could show them to students.

She also noticed that I mention elk tooth beads in my lesson and shared with me that students had recently discovered one in our collections! SCORE!!!! Collaboration for the WIN!

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