The Quest for High Bear

Currently on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a selection of mainly Plains Indian artifacts. They come to us from Mr. Gordon W. Smith, who put his collection together from 1925 through 1939. What makes this collection very special is not only the historic nature of the items (those that are on display were made for and used by American Indian people), but also the context. We have information on who made these and when and for whom. That is a treasure trove of information sadly often lost with objects of this nature.


Arapaho beaded vest
Early 20th century
Beads, thread, tanned hide, sinew.

The Arapaho live on the eastern plains of Colorado and Wyoming. The vests they create – such as this one – tend to be decorated with geometric designs; sometimes they depict the American flag.

The use of glass beads dates back to the arrival of the first European settlers, with some of the earliest beads being manufactured in Venice, Italy. They were used in commercial exchanges as well as in missionary work. This was the case with Father DeSmet, who worked extensively among the Plains and Northwest Indians.

Lone Dog’s winter count.
Tanned hide, paint
1801-1876, South Dakota

There are various ways to keep track of the past. Most of us would rely on written documents to refresh our memory; among American Indians oral traditions and pictorial records are of great importance. Among these pictorial records are the so-called winter counts. These drawings can be painted on either animal hide or muslin.

Winter counts are histories or calendars which record events with images, with one image representing a year. In Lakota, they are called waniyetu wowapi. The Lakota word waniyetu means “year,” which tends to be measured from first snowfall to first snowfall. It is often translated as “a winter.”

These winter counts were used in conjunction with an extensive oral history. Each year was named for an event, with the images serving as a reference source that could be consulted regarding the order of the years. The events used to name the years were not always the most important things that happened, but rather the most memorable. One such event, “The year the stars fell,” has been identified as the year 1833, when the Leonid meteor storm  was visible. Information courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Education Office.

Lakota dress
Buckskin, glass beads, thread
Ca. 1870

In its basic form, this is a typical dress worn by Plains Indian women. It consists of three assembled parts: the front, the back and the yoke. These three pieces give the garment a T- shape outline.  Very likely this dress was made during the winter months, when the cold forced people to stay inside and work on clothing.

This dress is a good example of the great diligence and talent on the part of the women who made it. It is estimated that it took 300,000 small glass beads to complete the decoration.

In February 1934, Ms. Olive Dean wore this dress to a costume ball in Washington, D.C.  She was awarded the first prize for the most outstanding costume by the two judges, Anna Ball, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s daughter and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.

Osage friendship blanket
Wool fabric, silk ribbon, thread
Late 19th century

These blankets, sometimes also referred to as wearing blankets, are still being made today.

In the early 1800s, Osage women began to sew mosaic ribbon work patterns around the borders of wool blankets, transforming them into extraordinary robes. Girls and women wore these robes at weddings and other special events and the ribbon work ranged from relatively simple bands of ribbon work to richly patterned reverse appliqué ribbon work, a technique of sewing a cut out ribbon pattern on to a differently colored ribbon background. The bold compositions were created by splitting the cut out pattern into two colors and maintaining a strict symmetry. Free hanging tabs of ribbon often framed the bottom edge of the robe.

The blankets were wore around the women’s shoulders and positioned over their forearms so that the ribbon work draped as a cascade of color in front of them. Despite the extreme fragility of the ribbon to tearing and fraying and its susceptibleness to fading and running, Osage women celebrated this art form. They also sewed reverse appliqué bands of ribbon on shawls and skirts and at the shoulder of their blouses. Today women wear these blankets as important garments that are emblematic of their Osage identity. (Information courtesy of Eva Fognell, Curator. Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. Fenimore Art Museum. Lake Road. Cooperstown, NY.)

Amulet in the shape of a turtle
Tanned hide, sinew, beads, umbilical cord
Early 20th century

Upon the birth of a child, the umbilical cord was saved inside an amulet. These amulets would quite often take on the shape of a turtle, as is the case here, or a lizard. In both cases, these animals are seen as good omens for a long and safe life – since the lizard often survives by shedding its tail, the turtle can retreat into its shell for protection.