Lacota beadwork used American flags to protect a culture under attack

In the late 1800s, the Lakota people of North and South Dakota faced an existential challenge. The United States government had stripped much of their freedom, limited their ability to practice their religion and cultural traditions, and confined their community to the reservation. To communicate their new relationship with the U.S. and to ward off surveillance of their culture, Lakota beadwork, created by Lakota women, began to incorporate the American flag and other patriotic iconography into their traditional beadwork designs.

This approach to survival peaked between 1880 and 1900, coinciding with the passage of the “Code of Indian Offenses,” which formally outlawed important cultural practices like the ceremonial Sun Dance.

A recent exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, “Stripes and Stars: Reclaiming Lakota Independence” highlighted the complicated nature of patriotic symbols and the practices that Lakota women were forced to adopt to maintain their heritage. The exhibition explores how patriotic symbols were used as a means of disguising forbidden practices, representing hybrid identities, and preserving Lakota culture through Lakota beadwork.

Among the objects featured were a child’s bonnet, a vest and pants crafted for a little boy, and a horse mask. These works—drawn from the BMA’s collection and the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York—capture the intricacy of the beadwork techniques employed by Lakota women and the distinct ways they merged their material culture with the necessities of their changed social and political circumstances.

The exhibition also includes reproductions of photographs and ledger drawings that present this practice within the context of the lived experiences of the Lakota people.

Hide, Wood, and Willow: Cradles of the Great Plains Indians (The Civilization of the American Indian Series Book 278)

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