An example of Cheyenne beadwork, circa 1890. Photo: Bob Sinclair

Clara Caufield: Bead working is such a blessing

King’s Saddlery in Sheridan, Wyoming, has a wonderful western museum – a vast collection of old cowboy stuff (saddles, photos, bridles, guns) and a fine collection of American items, including old, old and fine beadwork, emphasizing the Crow, Cheyenne, Shoshone and Arapaho, all of which have distinctive designs, patterns and methods of stitching. Once in awhile I go there to check out the old Cheyenne designs.

On a recent trip, I notice a placard, placed in front of a Cheyenne beadwork display. “The Cheyenne had a women’s guild comprised of elite beaders who made all of the beadwork for the Tribe.”

Excuse me. As often occurs, that’s about half true. Yes, there was a guild of beaders within the Tribe, the finest craftspeople (even some men, as is still true today). Take my good friend, Steve Littlebird, for example. Not only did he make a fully beaded intricate buckskin regalia for his daughter, but he is regarded as the master of peyote work (fans, rattles, etc.)

Moccasins and beadwork attributed to a Cheyenne artist. Photo: DutchAstrid

It took many years of patient practice and the vetting of the members to gain induction and the recognition and respect which accompanied that high honor. Needless to say, many of them were elders who were entrusted with important beadwork items, especially ceremonial or for Chiefs and they were also instructors. We ever want our men to look good.

But, to think that this guild could or would produce all the bead and quill work for the Tribe is simply silly. Besides, there must be room for the beginning and novice beaders to gain these skills and abilities. Finally, beadwork items are most treasured when made and given by a relative or special friend.

Think about beadwork: first of all, it requires time (depending upon the item, it can be lots of time. It took more than a year of continuous beading for Steve to complete his daughter’s entire outfit); it requires patience and great attention to detail (even one little size 11 or 12 bead can throw a whole pattern off); it requires dedication, especially for larger projects and is best accomplished in quiet places, generally in solitude.

There’s nothing more distracting to a bead worker than noisy, curious children, always tipping over beads, clamoring for attention, etc. But they do quickly learn to leave Grandma’s beadwork area alone and to be quiet so concentration can be achieved. Some of the reservation high schools teach beadwork, those students producing beautiful items. This should assure some of the non-Indians who fear we are totally losing our culture.

At any rate, “at my age”, I have turned my attention to beadwork. In the past, as a terribly busy single mother I mastered some loomed hatbands and other simple items. Now, I am learning a variety of other stitches: peyote, lazy, flatwork.

Finally, I tackled a Pipe Bag for my brother cousin, Dennis Limberhand who now lives in Nebraska, remarkably close to the Fort Robinson breakout site. Dennis is a Sun Dance and Ceremonial Man, now in his early 80’s. He gets up with the sun, sits on the porch and prays. In the evening he watches the sun go do and does the same.

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Contact Clara Caufield can be reached at acheyennevoice@gmail.com

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