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Two sides of Lakota life on a beaded suitcase

Nellie Two Bear Gates, a Lakota artist, skillfully combines traditional beadwork with scenes of Native American life on a valise. She depicts a wedding ceremony and reservation life, showing the wealth a bride brings and the family's cattle roping. This artwork highlights the enduring vitality of Native American culture. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Jill] We're in a storage room here at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, MIA. Looking at an object that seems to combine two forms that I don't expect to see together. We have this valise, and yet it's decorated so finely with these images that recall Native American life. - [Beth] The artist who created this, Nellie Two Bear Gates, was from Standing Rock area. And her father was a noted warrior, his name was Two Bears. And he fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn. - [Jill] So she comes from this prominent family, but she's engaging in beadwork that goes back centuries. - [Beth] Nellie incorporates beads made in Italy and brought into the plains as early as the 17th century, early 18th century. She's executing the same kind of techniques that are also used in quillwork. Drawing upon her traditions in which everything was adorned. And then she just takes it up a notch and creates a magical view of Lakota life ways. - [Jill] On one side, we see men on horses roping cattle. Then we see another kind of beadwork at the top with abstract forms, where the beads are placed in rows. - [Beth] She combined abstraction that is typically found in Lakota artwork, and then the figurative. She was a true maverick in doing this. And to be able to make cattle seem like they're moving, and a horse tail twitching, and a rope meandering, is a great accomplishment to do on beads. - [Jill] So this would have been beaded on hide and then attached to the valise afterwards. The Lakota were a primarily nomadic people by the 1700s. And that's because of the arrival of the horse with the Spanish in the 16th century, and a change in their way of life. And it's interesting to think about a culture that is nomadic as we're looking at an object that helps people to travel, this valise. - [Beth] Women would be on horseback, adorn their horses in full beaded regalia. They would adorn the sides of their saddles with containers that had abstract designs. They would have pipe bags made for their family members. They would have what's called teepee bags or possible bags, made for any possible thing to fit into. So it makes absolute sense that Nellie draws upon her history to create this new form within a container. - [Jill] This was a gift. - [Beth] We believe that this was made for her relative, Ida Claymore. You can see her name on the top right on one of the sides. - [Jill] We think that what's represented is marriage, the coming together of two families, and the wealth that the bride would bring to her marriage. - [Beth] You see 10 horses framing two sides of the valise. And then at the bottom left, a horse fully decked-out in regalia with elaborate beadwork that is presented to a young woman who is wearing a beautiful dress and has a white breastplate. - [Jill] And this is presumably the bride. And she stands next to additional items that she would have brought to her marriage. - [Beth] To her left, you see a little pail, and that indicates food and sustenance. And then you see small little bags that could be saddle bags, likely pipe bags that are made for holding pipes and tamper and tobacco. And you see these complicated buffalo hides that are fully embellished. And then a trade cloth with a blanket strip bursting from the center. And then at the end, an additional robe. - [Jill] And so we're looking at objects that would have taken months to decorate, so we have a real sense of the incredible wealth that this bride is bringing. And then above, we see what are likely her parents. - [Beth] Her mother is to the right, and she holds a cup that symbolizes sharing food and providing a marvelous feast with all of the pails in the middle. And to the left is probably her father. - [Jill] And to the far right, a teepee. - [Beth] The teepee is the symbol of family, the tiyospaye. The tiyospaye, in Lakota, means the center of the universe. Everything that you do in life is for the benefit of the tiyospaye. - [Jill] What's interesting is that on the other side, we see a very different scene. We see the scene of roping cattle. - [Beth] When you're looking at the depiction of an important ceremony celebrating the importance of the kin network, that is often what is typically understood as authentic Lakota culture. But what Nellie does so beautifully is she incorporates on the other side that which is just as traditional, just as conventional, in her lifetime. Wrestling with cattle, having particular brands. And those brands identify individual families. - [Jill] So what Nellie is giving us a view of is reservation life at this point. After 1870 or so, the Lakota are living exclusively on reservations. - [Beth] After the buffalo were decimated by the United States government-- - [Jill] To cut off the food supply of Native Americans. - [Beth] Native American people could no longer find the traditional sustenance that had fed them for years. Native people were incarcerated on very small tracts of land. - [Jill] So when we're looking at this object, we see the horses that are coming from the Spanish colonists, we're seeing the cattle that they're now relying on because of the actions of the United States government. We're seeing a changing, more circumscribed way of life. But a way of life that's also continuous. - [Beth] One thing that lasted was beadwork. - [Jill] And this reminds us of the continued vitality and presence of Native Americans here in the United States. - [Beth] Both of the scenes that she depicts are happening today in Lakota societies. They change, they reform, but they are essential for Lakota life ways. (upbeat piano music)