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Clothing, Identity, and Creativity: The Importance of Embroidered Arts of the Plateau, Great Basin, and Plains in the William Healey Collection of Gauntlets

by Joyce M. Szabo


Collectors are attracted to various works of art or other kinds of objects for a wide range of reasons. For many, beauty is the primary motivator, while for others a sense of the era during which the works were created or used is the strongest impetus. The collection that is the focus of this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue was formed by William Healey, whose love of works of art originating in the American West caused him to collect beaded gauntlets or gloves with large decorated cuffs. Such works created by Native American artists from the late nineteenth century on do not often receive in-depth study. The examination of beaded gauntlets and gloves undertaken in this exhibition and its catalogue brings these rich garments to the attention of a much wider audience.

William Healey's lavishly embellished gauntlets include examples from closely related areas of Native North America. The collection concentrates heavily on works from the Plateau region, arguably the area where more gauntlets were made than any other. The Great Basin and the northern and slightly eastern Plains also provide evidence of elaborately embroidered works that developed through contact with non-Native people, particularly the Army; gloves with large cuffs were not an item of Native clothing prior to this contact. In fact, the vast majority of these gauntlets were probably not made for Native wear, with the exception of those that became a standard part of the clothing adopted by rodeo contestants in the early years of the twentieth century, as Steve Grafe details in his essay in this catalogue. The form of the gloves and the materials with which they were decorated all were derived from European sources, but the desire to embellish the gauntlets richly, the creativity with which the artists who created them approached their work, and the close connection of clothing and identity are all strong aspects of Native culture throughout these areas and were well before contact with non-Native people. Indian artists embellished many items of clothing, and gauntlets gave them another outlet for aesthetic expression. The fact that many of them were made for outside sale and use does not diminish their visual impact, their quality, or their importance as works of art.

Lying between the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Cascades to the west, the area known as the Plateau includes parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana in addition to portions of British Columbia and a small part of Alberta. The Plateau was home to many Native people, such as the Yakama, Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Wishram, and Wasco, all of whom have readily identifiable works in the Healey collection. Other gauntlets are undoubtedly from the Plateau area but cannot be attributed with certainty to a specific culture group and are, therefore, referred to here as Columbia River Plateau. This is an area of rich natural resources where root vegetables, wild fruit, game, and fish are abundant. The Columbia River is the major waterway through the middle portion of the Plateau and provided access to many materials beyond food sources; fibers for basketry, for example, were gathered at specific times of the year near the river. These foods and resources allowed many people to live in the area. While they might disperse into smaller communities during the summer months for hunting and gathering, winter weather sometimes brought large numbers of people together. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who traveled in the region in the early years of the nineteenth century, reported one Nez Perce village with a single lodge, made of pole frames covered with mats woven from plant fibers, that stretched for 150 feet and housed more than forty separate families. Other cultures in the region used smaller mat- or skin-covered lodges.

As is the case throughout Native North America, personal adornment was important to the people of the Plateau. Dentalium or mollusk shells from the Pacific Coast were a major item of trade, and Plateau artists quickly adopted many other materials not found in the region when they became available. Trade was also particularly strong with Native people from the Plains and with the Dené or Athapaskan-speaking people to the north. Lewis and Clark were the first non-Native people known to visit the area, and when they arrived in 1805 they reported that the people of the Plateau already had access to European trade goods, including glass beads. This region soon became one of the richest for artistic expression, employing beadwork embroidery on clothing and horse regalia in Native North America. While the Plains is better known, the Plateau is just as deserving of attention.

As non-Native settlers moved into the area, hunting, trapping, and ultimately farming, the relationships between the original occupants of the land and their homes altered dramatically. Contact with other Native people came through European traders from American and British fur companies, including Hudson's Bay Company, who entered the area via canoe in the early part of the nineteenth century. Some of these trappers and traders brought Native hunters from the Great Lakes region with them; the new Native arrivals came with their own styles of clothing and embellishment of that clothing that subsequently influenced Plateau people just as Plateau art forms, in turn, influenced them. [1]

Directly to the south of the Plateau lies the Great Basin region, comprising parts of what are today Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, western Wyoming, eastern Oregon, and small portions of Arizona. Here, the resources of the Plateau give way to more difficult terrain, with rocky outcroppings and near-desert conditions in parts of the region. Lifestyles in the Great Basin were, in large part, determined by the portion of the region in which people primarily lived. Hunting and gathering were important, and the Great Basin people, such as the Shoshone, Bannock, and Ute, who had ways of life similar to those of the Plateau and Plains, engaged in buffalo hunts. Native people in the portions of the Great Basin that are closest to the Plateau and the Plains shared the lifestyles of their neighbors, while those who lived nearer to the southern, drier region had lifestyles comparable to those of the Native people of the Southwest and California. Many gauntlets in the Healey collection were made by people in the Great Basin, with Shoshone, Bannock, and Paiute examples most prominent. Most of the Great Basin people who made gauntlets had lifestyles more closely allied to those of the Plains and the Plateau and developed elaborate beadwork styles just as their neighbors had.

To the east of the Plateau lies the better-known region of the Plains, and various gauntlets from the Healey collection reveal a stylistic connection to works created by the Plains Cree, Santee Sioux, and Blackfoot people. A large region, the Plains extends from the Mississippi River into the Rocky Mountains and from southern Canada to Texas. This is, of course, the area of Native North America most familiar to non-Native people, thanks to Hollywood, despite the inaccuracies the film, television and print media have promulgated. Although different styles of embroidery are known from the Plains, the Plains Cree, Santee Sioux, and Blackfoot all developed early forms of floral embroidery that they used on different kinds of objects, especially on clothing. The Blackfoot were well known for geometric styles in addition to floral ones. Often, floral and geometric designs are combined in intriguing ways, with abstracted leaves and petals subdivided into concentric rows of various colors of beads or divided vertically or horizontally with each half decorated in different colors. More naturalistically rendered floral designs fill the Healey collection as well.

As horses became more widely available by the late eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth centuries, the people of the Plains, Great Basin, and Plateau became well-known horsemen and, in some cases, kept large herds of horses. In addition to embellishing clothing, embroiderers also elaborately decorated horse gear, such as saddle blankets, stirrup covers, martingales, and cruppers. The appearance of a horse with spectacularly beaded gear ridden by a man, woman, or child also wearing richly ornamented clothing, including gauntlets, is still a strong part of the cultures of these regions for special occasions. Some of these parades are associated with rodeos or other large gatherings where people from many different cultures might come together to trade, visit, and celebrate as well as compete against each other in rodeos and dancing events or powwows.

Plateau, Great Basin, and Plains people decorated clothing in various ways prior to European contact. Hide, often embellished with heavy fringe both to deflect insects and to add motion, was a common material in each region. Dependent upon availability, deer, elk, moose, and buffalo were the main hides employed. Woven plant fibers also constituted many types of clothing. In each area, as in many parts of Native North America, specific occasions or transitions in life might call for particular types of clothing, some more elaborately embellished than others. These were often created by loving female relatives and cherished for life.

Although intertribal trade existed well before Europeans entered the Plateau, Great Basin, and Plains, European contact brought great numbers of objects as well as larger supplies of beads into Native North America. Horses, weapons, trade cloth, and glass trade beads were among the most eagerly sought items. Garments previously fashioned from hide or fiber could now be made from cloth or from a combination of cloth and hide. Hand-drilled beads of stone, bone, and shell could be augmented by glass beads that came initially in only red, yellow, blue, and white but by the middle part of the nineteenth century were available in a wide variety of hues. The first trade beads were fairly large, perhaps as much as one-quarter or one-eighth inch in diameter. These larger beads, sometimes referred to as "pony beads," were generally used sparingly, as their availability was limited. They most frequently appear in simple, blocky geometric patterns. By the mid-nineteenth century, beads became much smaller, initially half the size of the earlier pony beads and subsequently even smaller. The beads employed on the Healey gauntlets (Fig. 1) are all of this later, smaller size of beads, often termed "seed beads." While most of the beads found on gauntlets are opaque, some are translucent and may be cut with flat faces or sides that sparkle far more than opaque beads in the light. These faceted beads were available by the turn of the nineteenth century in the eastern parts of North America and were gradually traded west. Translucent uncut beads are also visible on the Healey gauntlets, as are some metal beads that became available by the end of the nineteenth century. [2] Translucent beads were often used to cover larger areas, while metallic beads generally served as accents, such as at the center of floral motifs.

Seed beads are primarily Venetian or Bohemian in manufacture, but more recent Japanese-manufactured beads provide brighter colors that some twentieth-century beadworkers prefer. No matter where they were made, seed beads allowed a greater diversity of elaborate beadwork styles to develop throughout these areas. With the appliqué of cloth to hide, larger numbers of beads could be more readily sewn onto the cloth than they could have been if sewn directly onto hide. More beads add greater color and varied patterns to clothing and horse regalia. Geometric patterns, floral forms, and figurative imagery abound in the decorative seed bead embroidery of the Plateau, Plains, and Great Basin. Dates for some types of imagery can be suggested on the basis of comparative material, but most of the Healey gauntlets can only be dated in an approximate manner.

Some of the most lavishly embroidered works from the Plateau, Great Basin and Plains are women's dresses and children's clothing. Other types of clothing, including fitted jackets and vests based on non-Native garments, became part of the apparel of many Native people in these areas by the later nineteenth century. Often, this clothing was prominently made for or worn at special occasions. It also served, and still does, as evidence of the maker's creativity and a marker of identity. While vests and gauntlets are non-Native items of clothing, in the hands of Native beadworkers they became identifiers of status, cultural identity, and love for one's children. These were messages important to relay during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they remain so today. Men and young boys from the Plateau, Plains, and Great Basin who sat for photographs in the latter part of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries wore lavishly decorated vests, gauntlets, and chaps along with their reservation-issue clothing as Eugene, Leonard, La Mose, and Pinto Edmo did when the Shoshone-Bannock brothers from Fort Hall had their photograph taken (Fig. 2). There were additional opportunities for public statements of cultural and personal identity through elaborately decorated clothing after the establishment of the reservation system, when Wild West shows allowed many Native people to travel across the United States and throughout Europe. Beadworkers not only created clothing and horse regalia for use in these shows but also sold many pieces to non-Natives. Many photographs exist of men and some women in these shows, Buffalo Bill's being the most famous, as discussed in Steve Grafe's essay, and those photographs provide clear evidence of the importance of clothing as a cultural identifier (Fig. 3).

As supplies of trade materials expanded and clothing and other objects such as horse regalia became more elaborately decorated with embroidery, tribal styles became more obvious. Different cuts of clothing and embroidery patterns identify the wearer as a member of a specific group and indicate both gender and status (Fig. 4). Successful men who became leaders of their communities, for example, could obtain more beads, and some Native people, including the Cree and Santee Sioux, seem to have used as many hues as possible by the late nineteenth century; some of the examples in the Healey collection include more than twenty different colors of beads. Elaborate beadwork created by a woman for her family marked her as industrious. To fashion fully beaded garments for small children who would soon outgrow them was also a clear indicator of love.

Silk thread was another trade material used to embellish clothing and other objects. The Plains Cree and Santee Sioux are well known for their use of this more delicate material; both also used porcupine quillwork in floral patterns, especially on garments. These Plains people were influenced by the founding of Catholic missions, where nuns taught floral embroidery to young women. Some of the mission churches had floral paintings on their walls, and these images, along with church vestments, combined with the Native women's well-established creativity to expand their artistic vocabulary. Trading posts established by men from various companies, including Hudson's Bay and the American Fur Company, allowed Native women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries access to calico fabrics printed with a great variety of floral patterns as well as everyday household dishes and wallpaper as more non-Native settlers moved into the region. [3] While floral patterning is present in beadwork in other locations, both the northern Plains and the Plateau evidence a strong attraction to a diversity of floral forms.

The choice to create a geometric design, floral, or figurative design is partially determined by cultural identity. Beadwork designs and styles of clothing are cultural identifiers, in some cases announcing tribal connections. Some designs are associated with families. Mothers pass on designs to their children, and the community at large recognizes who made something on the basis of design and skill; no signatures are necessary in small, closely connected communities. A third level of identification is the individual one that separates one artist from another, even within families. Non-Native people have often been slow to recognize the great individuality and experimentation that exists in Native American art. Beadworkers are no exception to this creative outpouring. As Steve Grafe reports for contemporary Plateau-area beadwork,

. . . the designs must be interesting and "fun to sew." They must also make those who eventually wear and carry them look "beautiful." Some artists select plant and animal imagery because the life forms speak to them during the embroidery process. On, occasion, especially attractive bead colors also inspire designs. [4]

Designs and techniques for applying beads to cloth or hide are closely related, although cloth allows the ready appliqué of more beads than the stiffer hide does. Some techniques are suited to rendering curving, floral forms, while others are not. The two primary beadworking techniques found throughout all of the regions are the lane stitch (often referred to as the lazy stitch) and the appliqué or overlay stitch. The lane stitch can be used to cover larger areas of cloth or hide with rows, or lanes, of beadwork and is widely used in geometric patterns (Fig. 5). In the lane stitch technique, the beadworker tacks a row of beads at both ends, for example, stringing six to eight beads loosely between those points where the sinew or thread is stitched to the surface being decorated. Row after row of lane stitch results in color variations providing geometric designs. When curvilinear designs are desired, however, another technique needs to be used. The appliqué or overlay stitch uses two threads or pieces of sinew, one to string the beads and to bend that line of beads into the desired outline and one to tack down the thread with the beads on it every few beads. Floral designs, for example, can be made with the overlay stitch with the exterior outline created and the interior space of leaves and petals then filled either with rows of beads placed in concentric rows inside the outline, sometimes referred to as contour beadwork (Fig. 6), or in straight, parallel lines (Fig. 7).

Fortunately, the Healey collection has examples of a relatively rare style of beadworking unique to the Goshute or Western Paiute people of western Utah and adjacent portions of Nevada. According to Clyde Hall, a highly regarded beadworker on the Shoshone-Bannock reservation at Fort Hall, few artists worked using the one-by-one method in the first half of the twentieth century, and it is a tradition that still exists. [5] This technique provides a spotted effect: one or two beads are tacked down, and space is left between these beads and the next set on the gauntlet's cuff (Fig. 8). As a background filler, one-by-one not only utilizes fewer beads than lazy stitch would, but it also provides a very different visual effect that causes the figurative form, such as a rider or large flower, to push forward more in space. The speckled work remains in the visual background and foregrounds the larger elements of the design.

As floral embroidery became more widely dispersed and non-Native people had a greater influence in the Plateau, Plains, and Great Basin, commercially produced embroidery patterns also became available. Often, these patterns, with their designs lightly rendered on tissue paper, remain under the beading of various garments or horse regalia as beadworkers sewed directly on top of them. Petunias were particularly prominent in many designs in the 1920s and roses by the 1940s, [6] but patterns might also remain unused for years, only to be brought out and employed long after the commercial companies were creating other designs. While these designs might no longer be "in style" for the wider public, they retained their importance for Native artists. The practice of associating families and individual beadworkers with specific styles might also have caused the continued use of an older pattern. Figurative beadwork, too, became a part of artists' vocabularies, especially during the twentieth century, and the individual artist's manner of representing a man on horseback or an elk positioned in a landscape often stands out. Other designs were based on what artists saw in their everyday lives, including patriotic symbols such as flags or government seals. The possibilities for pictorial imagery are endless, yet some themes became far stronger than others and are represented more in the Healey collection. Plateau beadworkers, for example, often depict the most important game animals in their region, deer and elk, as well as powerful bears; given the importance of horses both historically and today, beadworkers often include them both separately and as part of rodeo imagery.

Beaded gauntlets are the dominant works in the Healey collection, but it also includes examples of smaller, women's gloves. Gauntlets suggest wear for special events, while decorated gloves could be worn on many other occasions. Creating gloves was one of the ways in which women in the Plateau area, for example, expressed their creativity and drew upon traditions during the 1930s and 1940s, as Celina Garry, Sara SiJohn, and Marcelina Seltice Kevis of the Skitswish or Coeur d'Alene Kateri Club did (Fig. 9).[7] While not as numerous as they were previously, embellished gauntlets and gloves continued to be produced as part of the creative outpouring of people in the Plateau, Great Basin, and portions of the Plains during the 1930s. Some artists still make them and other beaded items today as important components of their artistic and cultural heritage. While many of these may be offered for outside sale, they are deeply rooted in the long-held associations Native people have with richly embellished works of art. Just as the elaborately embroidered gauntlets of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did, contemporary examples provide strong evidence of the aesthetic concerns of their makers and relay to non-Native purchasers the creativity of their makers and the close connection of clothing and identity throughout Native North America.


1. Steven L. Grafe, "The Origins of Floral-Design Beadwork in the Southern Columbia River Plateau," PhD diss., University of New Mexico, 1999, 104­16.

2. Kate Duncan, Northern Athapaskan Art, A Beadwork Tradition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989), 64­66.

3. Grafe, "The Origins of Floral Design Beadwork," 281­322.

4. Steven L. Grafe, Beaded Brilliance, Wearable Art from the Columbia River Plateau (Oklahoma City, OK: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 2006), 19.

5. Clyde Hall, interview with Steven L. Grafe, September 10, 2006, Colter Bay, Grand Teton National Park, WY.

6. Richard Conn, A Persistent Vision: Art of the Reservation Days (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1986), 131.

7. Kateri Clubs or Kateri Circles consist of Catholic adults or youth who emulate the principles and values of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a seventeenth-century Algonquian-Mohawk woman who was the first Native American to be beatified, in May 1939. Such circles still exist and focus on spiritual, social, and educational issues. Historically, many also included sewing circles.

About the author

Joyce M. Szabo is Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico.


About the exhibition

Real Western Wear, Beaded Gauntlets from the William P. Healey Collection, an exhibition of decorated gloves that reflect the diverse backgrounds of the American frontier, will be on view at the Georgia Museum of Art from September 29, 2007, through January 6, 2008.

This exhibition, drawn from the private collection of William P. Healey, presents 73 pairs of decorated gloves crafted by American Indian artists from the Plains, Plateau and Great Basin regions. These unique objects were produced from the 1890s through the 1940s, and they effectively blend the practicality of everyday items geared for use in the frontier with beautiful designs from the tribes in those areas.

For centuries, American Indian artists have embroidered porcupine quills, bird quills and moose hair onto a variety of objects and surfaces. They soon integrated new materials such as glass beads and silk thread into existing traditions, merging these new design elements into their art. Despite being foreign goods, these imported items soon became identifiers of American Indian identity and aesthetics to both Native and non-Native people.

Euroamerican leather gloves were among the objects adorned with Native beadwork and worn in both Indian and non-Indian communities. Indian women found that settlers desired all of the buckskin work gloves that they could produce.

By the late 19th century, beaded gauntlets had become necessary components of cowboys' fancy dress wardrobe and favorite items of eastern "dudes," who kept them as souvenirs of their western adventures. The numerous rodeo and western pageants founded after 1910 further fueled demand for the gauntlets.

Real Western Wear was organized by the Georgia Museum of Art, with Marilyn Laufer, director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn (Ala.) University, serving as guest curator and Dennis Harper, the museum's curator of exhibitions, acting as the in-house curator. It will travel to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Okla., and the C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Mont.

The exhibition is accompanied by a large-scale full-color catalogue that illustrates each pair of gloves and contains essays by Joyce M. Szabo, professor of art and art history at the University of New Mexico, and Steven L. Grafe, curator of American Indian art at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, that illuminate the history and context of beaded gauntlets.


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