Hiwan exhibit captures history on a string

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By Stephen Knapp

Art, craft and history are deftly woven together in the Hiwan Homestead Museum’s latest showcase, Brilliant Beads: Native American Beadwork of the Wild West.

“It was a natural for us,” says Hiwan’s program coordinator, Meghan McGinnes. “We’ve done exhibits on Navajo rugs, Indian jewelry and horsehair baskets, so this is a perfect extension of that theme. And Indian beadwork fits the house so well.”

Indeed it does. In a pioneer manor already rich in Native American art and manufactures, the brightly beaded artifacts stand in pleasing contrast against ancient wood and muted woolen textiles. Best of all, the Homestead’s cozy 19th-century floor plan and McGinnes’ thoughtfully informal approach to display make for a remarkably authentic and wonderfully intimate look at the dozens of delicate treasures.

A pair of beautifully beaded and still-pliant moccasins occupies a shelf in Hiwan’s sunny Julia Douglas Doll Room. Like everything else on display, the appealing ceremonial relics have a story to tell, but very old stories sometimes lose clarity over time.

“We think those may have belonged to Red Cloud himself,” says McGinnis, proudly referring to the storied Oglala Sioux leader. “We may never know for sure, but they’re still beautiful moccasins.”

Considering the public’s insatiable appetite for Native American antiques — and how jealously aficionados shield their collections — one might wonder how McGinnes managed to assemble such a splendid array. As it happens, she had a good start on Brilliant Beads before she ever left the museum.

“We had quite a few pieces right here, and we had quite a few in storage,” McGinnes explains. “We also had several pieces that were out on loan to other museums. I was quite surprised when I went around gathering them up to see how many were already in the Jefferson County Historical Society’s collection.”

Even so, Brilliant Beads wouldn’t shine as brightly without sparkling inclusions from two other local history depositories. Much of the bead exhibit comes courtesy of the Humphrey Museum on Soda Creek Road and the Buffalo Bill Museum on Lookout Mountain.

“I visited those museums just to see what they had, and they had some fantastic stuff,” McGinnes smiles. “What you see here is just a tiny fraction of what they have in their collections.”

Judging by the articles on loan to Hiwan, those collections must outstanding. Resting near Red Cloud’s purported footwear, simple yet striking red and black designs adorn antique bedding on loan from the Humphrey. A few steps down the hall in the dining room, a beaded saddle bag once belonging to the Geronimo band of Arizona’s Chiricahua Apache and now an important part of the Buffalo Bill inventory lays beside a green beaded holster and an impossibly ornate, child-sized pair of beaded deerskin trousers clearly suitable for a boy who would be chief. A perfect pair of gorgeously decorated Athabascan mittens sits on a low table nearby, as if casually dropped there by a seal hunter on his way to the kitchen after a day on the ice.

“I don’t know if a lot of people realize how much work went into these things,” McGinnes says. “You can just look at them and instantly appreciate the artistry that went into them, and the love that went into them. Personally, I’m shocked at how well preserved they are.”

While most of the museum’s Brilliant Beads date to the 19th century, the remarkable curiosities upstairs are of more recent vintage. And yet the brilliant leatherwear on display in the lovely Buchanan Room manages to be relatively young and very old at the same time.

“One of the staff suggested I call Al Huffman to see what he had,” McGinnes says, smiling. “I’m glad I did.”

And museum visitors will be glad, too. Huffman, as longtime residents will recall, is the white-whiskered local historian who attended 30 years worth of area parties, parades and similar occasions in the very convincing guise of Buffalo Bill Cody. At McGinnes’ request, he furnished several articles from his extraordinary collection of authentic Wild West Show costumes.

“What’s really cool about these is that Al hand-beaded all of them himself based on pictures of Buffalo Bill,” says McGinnes, gesturing toward an extravagant fringed leather jacket colorfully embellished with flawless bison silhouettes and intricate floral designs. On the wall above, a century-old photograph depicts the West’s greatest showman wearing an identical garment. “They may not be original, but they’re perfectly authentic. And it’s beautiful bead-work.”

Brilliant Beads runs through Nov. 23. To learn more, call 720-497-7650.