I had a most delightful experience —  an unexpected reprieve from our nation’s present white-knuckle ride.  A friend urged me to visit the National Museum of the American Indian, housed in the former Customs House, a beautiful Beaux Art building in the heart of the old village of New York City, at One Bowling Green.  I urge you to see the exhibit, Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses.

Dresses are more than simple articles of clothing for Native women—they are aesthetic expressions of culture and identity. Embodying messages about the life of the wearer, dresses offer Native women the opportunity to blend artistic tradition and bold innovation while preparing themselves, their families, and their communities to partake in the “dance of life.””


The dresses are beaded in the most extraordinary fashion!  I met one of the artists, Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty, an Assiniboine/Sioux.  One of her stunning creations, including high beaded moccasins, leggings and purse, is a tribute to her grandfather, a leader of the reservation, who would gather his people and do a horse “giveaway” to honor his grandchildren. Her daughter beaded the beautiful breastplate and her granddaughter the lovely blanket strip.  It’s a majestic ensemble.

Another artist writes, “The making of these Crow traditional dresses was passed on by my mother.  She learned it from her mother.  Now I’m teaching my daughters how to make these dresses… These traditional dresses identify you as being a woman and being able to take care of your children.”

The richness of these beaded clothes, as well as the sacred painted ghost dresses on exhibit,  carry each woman’s emotions, her history, her place in her family.  Each tells a story of proud heritage that is shared at important gatherings.

I don’t know what the clothing that I buy so speedily signifies.  I know I’m not thinking about my forefathers or even my mother, not most of the time, anyway.  I’m sure not thinking about any acts of generosity on my father’s part, because there weren’t any, or the size of a stitch, let alone gazillions of them.  I’m never thrilled when I have to reinforce a single button.  But I came away from this exhibit with a new appreciation for endeavors so patiently undertaken and so gorgeously rendered.  And I was most grateful for the respite.

If you are nowhere near Bowling Green between now and September 2009, when this exhibit closes, you can buy the book online.  But if possible, experience the building, too, and the irony of the Custom House’s present use.  Here, steps from Wall Street, we celebrate Native Americans, from whom our forefathers bought the island of Manhattan for a few beads.  And here, starting more than 240 years ago, customs officials taxed incoming goods (including the beads so coveting by the Native Americans), making us a prosperous nation.


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