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Caught My Eye: The Girl in the Elk Tooth Dress

A girl wearing a beaded shirt sits on a horse with an Indian style saddle decorated with beads and a blanket decorated with beads.

Crow girl relaxing on a horse after the morning parade at the Crow Fair. Crow Agency, Montana, August 17, 1979. Photo by Michael Crummett. Montana Folklife Survey Collection. Select the image for a larger view.

This photo of an unknown Crow Indian girl has always fascinated me. Everything about her tells a story — but I don’t know the full story. The American Folklife Center’s Montana Field Survey, which includes this photo, was done fairly quickly, identifying places and people that might be studied in more depth at a later time. One of the places documented was the Crow Fair, a yearly event that includes a rodeo, a powwow, and a parade held each morning of the event. This girl was in that parade on August 17, 1979. But we don’t know her name, or how she felt about her experience riding in the parade. She is taking a break as we see her in this photo, caught in a moment resting. I hope she liked the parade and was proud to ride in it. It might have been a little overwhelming for a child so young, but she did it.

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Detail of the photo above showing a bag attached to the saddle that has colorful bead work. It also shows a glimpse of the saddle blanket in grey, white, and red. Select the image for a larger view.

I have learned a bit about the event and all the beautiful items that surround her. The Crow Parade is also a contest, with riders judged for their dress and the dress of their horses. So the best clothes and beads and blankets all are brought out for this event. Women and children ride together in the parade and put on a great show with their dress and their horse’s outfits. See the first six photos in this gallery in the collection to see other women and children in the same parade and the decoration of their horses (the sixth photo, you will see, is of a woman in the parade wearing her clothes and sash from the rodeo). This girl is displaying some of her family’s wealth, creative skills, traditions, and, no doubt, all of their pride. It is difficult to tell which of these items are new and which may be old family heirlooms, as the traditions of making these items continues today. But I suspect that each item has a larger story known to her family.

From the bead work, I gather that she is Crow, and not one of the other Native peoples who participate in the events at the Crow Fair. In the 19th century the Crow were among the first of the Plains peoples to switch from porcupine quill work to glass beads obtained from trade with Europeans. They developed a distinct style. Her belt has a turquoise background with geometric designs on it. If you look closely you can see that the beading on the belt is very smooth with some intentionally raised areas. This results from a style of sewing down rows of beads on a backing of leather or cloth that is distinct from the type of sewn beading done by neighboring Plains peoples. The beaded decoration on the front of her saddle has another shade of blue and the design is outlined in white beads. A bag behind her has a bead design using blocks of several colors, including lavender pink — a color used by Crow artists that does not appear in other Plains bead work. The many colors and colored backgrounds are common in Crow bead work, as is the white outline on the saddle decoration. Her headband with a white background appears to be a Plains design. On her braids, almost completely hidden, are beaded rosettes in blue.

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Detail of the photo above showing a hand plied braided horsehair rope on the horse’s neck. The pink fabric is a strap attaching a decorative panel that we can’t see. Select the image for a larger view.

The Plains frame saddle she sits on is generally used by women, with that high front she leans on. Under the saddle is, no doubt, one of her family’s best blankets. My guess is that it is hand woven. In front of her is a blanket decorated with beads that probably is only brought out for special occasions. We can’t see much of the horse’s fancy dress. But from other pictures of women in the parade we can see that they are decked out splendidly with beaded panels at their front and beaded decorations on the stirrups. We can just see a braided horsehair rope in at least three colors, perhaps the lead rope or rein. 

Best of all, I think, is that dress she is wearing. For the parade many women bring out their dresses or shirts decorated with elk tooth beads. The elk has two incisor teeth that do not break down and decay like its other teeth. The peoples of the northern plains use these for decoration and once used them as a type of currency. It takes a long time for a hunter to save enough teeth to cover a dress. If a family has the means, they might trade for these precious teeth. Each tooth is usually drilled with a single hole to be sewn on the dress or made into jewelry. The beads may cover a caplet of a dress, the bodice of the dress, or the dress down to the knees. So a dress may have more beads added over time as the family obtains them. Women and girls wear their elk tooth dresses, if they have them, on ceremonial occasions. The dress displays the family’s status, hunting ability, and ability to trade. It also is a symbol of their ethnic identity as Plains women.

See caption.

Detail of the above image showing the elk tooth shirt, the beaded decoration on the front of the saddle, and the beaded belt. Select the image for a larger view.

Elk teeth are so valuable that replicas are sometimes made of carved bone. It is difficult for me to tell if some of the teeth on this dress might be replicas, but the replicas tend to be uniform in size and shape and lighter than real teeth. The fact that the teeth on this dress vary in size and shape is an indication that at least some and perhaps all of them are real. The latest innovation in elk teeth are resin replicas made from casts of real teeth, and these are hard to tell from the real thing without handling them. But when this photo was made in 1979, the resin teeth were not yet available. It is interesting to me that this ancient bead tradition continues today, and that the real elk tooth beads are so valuable that they continue to be replicated in other media.

So this photo gives the impression of a treasured child who has just ridden in a parade with many other women decked out in their finery. She has participated in an important tradition that has been part of the Crow Fair for many generations. The photo also speaks to me of  a people who have worked hard to preserve their traditions and arts, passing them on to the next generation. This also applies to things we can’t see in the picture. For example, the Crow language is still a living language. Crow women enjoy a fairly egalitarian society where they can take on many roles. So she could grow up to be a strong woman like her forebears and I wonder what became of her.

Resource

Montana Folklife Survey Collection, Library of Congress.

Native American Heritage Month presented by The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

2 Comments

  1. MarthaF
    November 22, 2018 at 11:31 pm

    Now, that twisty black-and-white thing that crosses the pink strap at an angle, is quite interesting to me! It looks very much like a piece of crocheted beadwork – but I’m not aware that American Indians use this technique. I guess what we see here is all we can see – but I would certainly like to see it in higher resolution!

  2. Stephanie Hall
    November 26, 2018 at 10:11 am

    Hi, thanks for your comment. I believe this rope is plied. Each color is at least two plies and then these smaller ropes are plied together. The multiple plies do give the appearance of being woven or crocheted. A high resolution image of the photo is available at this link. Below the image select the download options and you will see a 99.6 mb tiff as well as large jpegs. //www.loc.gov/resource/afc1981005.afc1981005_mc23/?sp=11&loclr=blogflt

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