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Celebrating the intricate craftsmanship of Native American art

July 5, 2015 at 12:55 PM EDT
The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois, has delved deep into its archives for its latest exhibit. On display are the custom clothes and adornments of Native Americans from across the U.S. and Canada. Phil Ponce of WTTW in Chicago reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: This summer, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois has dug into its collection of 10 thousand items to show off Native American fashion.

The exhibition, “Native Haute Couture,” displays examples of late 19th and early 20th century garments and accessories from tribes across the United States and Canada, from the Arctic down to Florida. Phil Ponce, from our Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW, reports.

PHIL PONCE: From elk teeth and porcupine quills, to woven fabric, beads, and animal hide. For centuries, Native American artisans have made exquisite designs from whatever materials were at hand.

Most items on view are not every day outfits and jewelry, but were made for special occasions and people of honor.

JANELLE STANLEY: Mostly the leaders within the communities wore the elaborate garments. You might have been a very higher status member but you had a responsibility to provide for the rest of the community too. We were wanting to highlight native fashion in the sense of before contact, making European contact.

PHIL PONCE: Native Americans also embraced new crafts from Europe, including metalwork and beads which often replaced the quillwork in their earlier designs.  The designs helped identify the wearer.

JANELLE STANLEY: Whether that was by a bead design utilized for [a] specific tribe or technique — and definitely symbols, could be a spiritual connection, could also represent clans within the family unit.

KATHLEEN MCDONALD: A lot of the regional differences between the designs and the types of material being used are shown in what people are choosing to put into the more elaborate outfits and regalia. Those materials are important materials to express their culture locally, but they also sometimes incorporate pieces that express their trade capacity. The ability to bring macaw feathers from South America all the way up to the Plains, to me that’s a very impressive feat to do when you don’t have cars or trains for transit.

PHIL PONCE: The Mitchell Museum also looks at more contemporary Native American creations.

Whether modern or traditional, Native designers have kept their cultural identity alive within the world of high fashion.

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