As the solar prism above them cast rainbows onto the 22-foot totem pole behind them, three generations of Assiniboine/Sioux artists sat quietly at a table in the museum’s Potomac Atrium earlier this spring, demonstrating the beading, quillwork and intricate sewing that results in some of the most detailed and beautiful contemporary Native artwork in the world.
The Growing Thunder family—Juanita, Joyce and Jessa Rae—were surrounded by museum visitors looking on in wonder and curiosity. Some visitors stepped forward to ask questions, but most just stepped closer for a better look at a centuries-old tradition made contemporary. To call the family’s artwork “dolls” seems almost to dismiss the hours of technique and talent it took to create them. This public demonstration not only served to showcase their finished work, but also to reveal the patience and skill required to do so.
Upstairs in the museum’s Sealaska Gallery, more examples of doll work stood in brightly lit glass cases as part of Grand Procession: Dolls from the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, an exhibition open through January 5, 2014. Along with the Growing Thunder women, the exhibition also showcases the work of Rhonda Holy Bear (Cheyenne River Lakota) and Jamie Okuma (Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock), two of the world’s premiere Native American dollmakers.
Through brightly colored designs and accoutrements, each of the exhibition’s 23 dolls tells a unique story about a specific time and place. Holy Bear’s Maternal Journey, for example, depicts how a Crow woman caring for twins would have appeared as she traveled with her family across the Plains. The mother doll’s jingle dress and the horse’s regalia pay tribute to the magnificent beadwork and impressive equestrian parades for which the Crow are known, while the male and female twins in the travois represent a Lakota origin story.
For Holy Bear, seeing her dolls on display at the National Museum of the American Indian -Smithsonian brings her work full circle. As a teenager who had just moved from South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to Chicago, she says she stayed connected to her indigenous roots by visiting the Plains Indians collection at the Field Museum. It was there that she discovered the delicate artistry of traditional dolls like the ones she creates today, though she has since replaced the cloth rags and cotton balls she used to make her first doll with century-old Venetian glass beads, turkey feathers, shells, animal hide and carved wood, among other materials.
Okuma’s designs are not only inspired by historic photographs, but also from more unexpected places, like the carpet of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, Nev. Describing the Shoshone as an eclectic tribe, Okuma says her artwork similarly embraces the traditions of many Native cultures.
“It must be passed on in my DNA because I don’t want to be pigeon-holed or boxed-in because I’m only from this tribe,” said Okuma. “There’s so much beauty in Native peoples’ culture, I just hope I can do it justice.”
For the Growing Thunders, creating dolls has always been a family affair. Born on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, Joyce Growing Thunder began learning beadwork and quillwork as a 10-year-old child and later handed down these skills to her daughter, Juanita, and granddaughter, Jessica. One of the exhibition’s objects, Buffalo Chaser, not only represents a collaboration between grandmother and granddaughter, it also symbolizes the passing of tradition from one generation to the next. Today, Joyce and Juanita continue to make dolls together in their household in California.
People young and old seem to be drawn to the dolls. Their universal appeal can be witnessed across cultures. For much of human society, miniature human likenesses have been used to teach children about roles and customs, as well as provide entertainment and comfort. “It’s a childlike glimmer,” Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty says when describing how people’s eyes often light up when they see her work. “It brings them back to their childhood.”
But the figures of these exhibitions represent much more than that. As one Washington Post reporter put it in a review of the exhibition, these handmade figures seem to “emit a quiet power.” And as the title of the exhibition suggests, these dolls represent actual regalia historically worn during “grand processions,” or the openings of powwows during which participants enter the arena wearing dazzling outfits meant to convey pride, tradition and often a family’s wealth.
Similarly, the dolls themselves have become symbols of wealth, tradition and status. Two years ago, the Cheyenne River Sioux community honored Holy Bear’s work by bestowing her with the name Wakuah Yupiqa, or “Making or Forming Beauty With Exceptional Skill,” during a special naming ceremony, feast and giveaway. “The kids of my reservation told me it translates as ‘mad skills,’” Holy Bear recalled with a laugh.
During the hands-on demonstration in the Potomac Atrium in April, a museum visitor asked Jessa Rae Growing Thunder how she first started making such elaborate, intricate dolls. She smiled and replied simply, “I’ve just always been around it.” Even as a little girl, Jessa Rae said she can remember her mother and grandmother waking before dawn and getting right to work at a shared table in their home. From morning until nightfall, that is where she could find them. Every day. This is how they work. This is what they do.
Molly Stephey is a public affairs producer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. This article appears in the Fall 2013 issue of American Indian magazine.