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Exhibition celebrates Lakota history, Wood Mountain connections

There is no word for “art” in the Lakota language. Historically, beadwork was part of everyday life and utilitarian use.

ASSINIBOIA - The Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery continues a special exhibition that began September of 2023 and will run to Sept. 1, 2024 entitled, Wakšúpi: Historic Lakota Beadwork.

Dr. Claire Thomson, Curator, Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation, selected and curated the display to tell the story of Lakota history in Moose Jaw and Wood Mountain. The exhibition highlights the Lakota traditional beading patterns and practises.

The exhibition is a result of a collections research project supported by SaskCulture Aboriginal Arts and Culture Leadership grant, where the Indigenous Advisory Committee oversaw research on the Indigenous collection at MJM&AG.

Jennifer McRorie, Director/Curator for the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery, said, “Claire Thomson and Lita Ferguson are two members of Wood Mountain that sit on our Indigenous Advisory Committee and have led the research on the Indigenous objects featured in the exhibition.”

“Through community consultations, including members of the Metis local and Wood Mountain, and referencing Claire Thomson’s PhD research on Lakota history, archival images and historical documentation at the Moose Jaw Public Library Archives, MJM&AG’s object files and consulting with a Lakota pipe-carrier, we have been able to connect some Indigenous living objects with their original nations, and in some cases, with their original families, identifying beaded objects and ceremonial pipes that belonged to specific individuals of Wood Mountain First Nation.”

The exhibition also includes a Dana Claxton installation, which is part of the permanent collection at MJM&AG.

McRorie added that this research project allowed MJM&AG to establish relationships with members of Wood Mountain First Nation and the Wood Mountain Rodeo Museum and gather knowledge to enhance providence for Indigenous objects in our collections, to start the process of linking them with their families and community stories, to ensure that objects are accurately documented in the collections and are accurately representative of the histories and contemporary culture of Indigenous nations of this area.

Dr. Thomson, said, “The Lakota beadwork in the exhibition, Wakšúpi, comes from two collections: the Annie Wallis collection and the Ostrander collection, housed in the MJM&AG. Most of the Lakota items here come from the decades flanking the turn of the 20th century. Lakota people lived at the new settlement of Moose Jaw at its very start in 1883, to work, hunt antelope in the Dirt Hills, and continue in seasonal movements as much as possible, particularly between Moose Jaw and Wood Mountain.”

Dr. Thomson also stated, “The Lakota people who lived at Moose Jaw had come in larger numbers to what is now southern Saskatchewan after the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn. They had resisted the American treaties and settling on reservations, and they continued this resistance north of the international border. Most Lakota families moved back to their American occupied lands by 1881, but some families stayed in the Wood Mountain area and then moved later to Moose Jaw as well. The Canadian government refused to view them as ‘Canadian Indians,’ a term that reflects the paternalism and ownership over sovereign Indigenous nations and lands that Canada was trying to assert.”

For some Lakota people, living at Moose Jaw was part of their resistance. The seasonal movement between Moose Jaw and Wood Mountain was a way of reducing government interference in their lives and continuing in Lakota societal ways, while making a living in the changing and challenging atmosphere of settlement.

The Lakota families who lived at Moose Jaw found work as farm labourers, domestic help, and butchers, and some people sold things they made at the train station as souvenirs. The pieces on display here range from items made for that tourist market to personal/family items.

Dr. Thomson notes that around 1916, most families at Moose Jaw had moved more permanently to Wood Mountain. By 1930, the reserve was ratified and made permanent, though at half the original size.

Moose Jaw still remains an important urban centre for many Lakota people, affirms Dr. Thomson.

The MJM&AG, along with Dr. Thomson, said many of the pieces in the collection are unattributed but they have been able to link a few pieces to their original owners and creators. This exhibition outlines the complicated and fraught history behind items becoming part of museum history.

“Annie Wallis was a friend to many of the Lakota people who lived in the Moose Jaw area, particularly the Ferguson family and Tȟatȟáŋka Sápa/Black Bull and Tȟašína Ská Wiŋ/White Shawl Woman, and she was most likely gifted many of the things in her collection,” notes Dr. Thomson.

“James and Sara Elizabeth Ostrander owned and operated the first Brunswick Hotel. They employed Lakota women as domestic help in the hotel, and so gifting items to the Ostrander couple may have happened. However, surviving police reports from the early 1890s also indicate that Ostrander was not on good terms with Lakota people in general and that he was the ‘prime agitator’ in an effort to remove Lakota people from the Moose Jaw area. This may suggest that not all the pieces of their collection were obtained within the bounds of good relationships.”

Dr. Thomson says that making sure we understand the nuanced histories and relations of these items, beyond just the aesthetic of what we consider now to be art, is an important part of viewing these pieces.

It was learned there is no word for “art” in the Lakota language. Historically, beadwork was part of everyday life and utilitarian use, though that does not mean that adornment and beauty were not important. Clothing was especially significant because it is so deeply personal and things like moccasins were made by women for their closest relations, often for their brothers.

Women gained honour in their families and communities for their exceptional beading and quilling, and there were societies specifically for these accomplished women. Furthermore, the dreams and skills associated with fine bead and quill work made room in society for other gender relations like wíŋkte.

The beadwork included in this exhibition has many different forms and shows changes in styles and materials. Materials represented range from hand tanned to commercially purchased leather, sinew to cotton thread and horsehair to synthetic tassels.

“These collections of historic Lakota beadwork are significant because they reflect a large array of beadwork styles, materials, methods, and uses. And how people made those selections to put into their creations were deeply personal but always for a collective purpose,” noted Dr. Thomson. 

When other aspects of Lakota life were becoming increasingly difficult to carry out, Lakota women used beadwork to maintain Lakota values and systems.