The traditional Crow tribal beading of Birdie Real Bird

Birdie Real Bird is a Crow tribal member in Garryowen, Montana, who works at Crow Agency teaching traditional Crow culture. She also beads every day. She always has a beading project going. Currently, she is filling an order for special pieces.

At Real Bird’s home, a blue pit bull terrier named Josie provides a happy greeting. Real Bird is a fashionable woman resembling a model in a magazine. She wore a sweater and slacks accessorized with a scarf and knee-high leather dress boots.

Her home is a pre-fabricated log home with large picture windows that frame the rolling plains outside. The house is drafty but full of color and life.

Real Bird does her beading in the TV room in a comfortable chair next to a small round table with a lamp. All of her beading materials are stored in closets and drawers nearby. She uses a round table so that she doesn’t bump her elbow when she pulls the thread.

“I turn the lights and the TV on and just bead and bead,” Real Bird said. “The space is not too big. I don’t need it too big. If it were big I would fill it up with things.”

Real Bird has been endorsed as a member of the Montana Circle of American Masters by the Montana Arts Council in Visual Folk and Traditional Arts.

She was raised on the Crow reservation.

According to Real Bird, she learned beading from expert beaders: her aunts and her grandmother. No one sat her down and taught her to bead, she learned by watching and then figured it out on her own. She watched her mother, her aunts and her grandmother make dresses and moccasins and bead them over and over.

Real Bird’s mother worked in geometric flower designs, and her aunt did freehand drawing. They beaded designs using a single line of beads. Real Bird prefers a different technique. She outlines the design, then fills it in.

Real Bird started beading with her grandmother when she was about 12 years old. They beaded medallions together and sold them for gas money. Her grandmother also helped her make her elk tooth dress when she was 18. She taught Real Bird to use contrasting colors to make the designs visible from a distance.

“She said you’ve got to find colors that are across from each other,” Real Bird explained. “I didn’t know what she was talking about until I went to college and took art. She was talking about the color wheel. She always put her beadwork up to check if the color combinations and design could be seen from far away, that was her thing.”

When Real Bird was 30, her brother inspired her to take her beading more seriously. She set up a beading room in her house with a table and good lighting. She attended the Peabody Museum in Boston and studied the collection of Crow beadwork for a week, spending each day going through drawers and drawers of belts and elk tooth dresses.

The old way of beading, which she studied in the museum, was very simple. Many of the belts were about an inch and a quarter wide with white edging. Many were solid colors, especially light blue. The stitching that held the beads in place was hidden along the sides of the belts and the beads were laid out in a slanted pattern.

“Real beading has a sort of a spirit, a spirit or feeling of making something,”  Real Bird said. “Beading is not a craft or hobby, it is an art. I think spending time at the museum is where I got that spirit of not just beading. It’s that kind of feeling you get when you pick up a beaded item, and it makes you feel something.”

According to Real Bird, the old way of beading was simple because beads were scarce. Beads, cloth and wool were trade items. Before beads arrived from overseas, Indians painted their buckskin or elk skin clothing with earth colors they mixed with water, and decorated them with dyed quills and elk teeth. They also decorate their horses. Decorated clothing was for special occasions and not everyday use.

According to the National Park Service, glass seed beads were introduced by 18th-century European traders. The beads were much simpler to work with than quills and eventually replaced the traditional rawhide painting and quillwork.

The first beads given to the Crows were light blue and white beads. Those colors are considered Crow colors. Real Bird uses Crow traditional designs and colors in her work. There are seven colors of beads that are used in Crow designs. The light blues are used for backgrounds. Then red, green, yellow and a rose pink or lavender. Navy blue is used instead of black “because death is the end of things when you use black,” Real Bird said.

According to the National Park Service, Crow beaders were selective of color schemes. A popular combination was a light blue with a dusty pink sometimes called “Crow rose.” The beadwork often featured color schemes that were only possible with Italian beads from Murano.

Crow beadwork also projected sacred power and life. Pink symbolizes the early morning glow. Blue represents the sky. Green is the color of Mother Earth. Yellow is the color of the East — the sunrise.

Designs came from nature — clouds, plants and whatever they saw. For example, if a beader saw a particularly pretty flower, he or she would copy it in beading. According to Real Bird, some designs were adopted from Nez Perce work. The two tribes must have been friends, she said, because designs were shared between them.

At first, leggings were made of colorful wool that was tied around the leg at the top and had beading around the ankle. As more beads were traded, the designs became more elaborate. They began to exhibit what Real Bird calls “bead-mania.” Leggings were covered in beading, moccasins tops were beaded, the front of vests were all beaded. Also as beads became prevalent, the designs changed and became more geometric.

According to the National Park Service, each design during the “classic” era from 1850 to 1910 worked in harmony with the decorated article. Borders of white beads outlined darker design areas. The hourglass and triangular shapes created a distinctive geometric style.

After her visit to the museum in Boston, Real Bird stopped beading just to make money and started beading with spirit. She worked to figure out the techniques used to hide the stitches. She has since copied the old Crow techniques that she studied while looking at the belts and elk tooth dresses in the museum.

Real Bird copied an elk tooth buckskin dress with heavy beading around the collar that she saw at the museum. She paraded in it at Crow Fair and took first place in the beadwork competition.

Real Bird also makes dolls that exhibit the everyday dress styles that her mother, Lucy Real Bird, wore. The dolls are in numerous collections including the Smithsonian Museum.

According to the National Park Service, most Plains Indians used mainly two methods of sewing beads to skin or cloth. Crow women, however, often used three techniques in beading a single article.

The Overlay Stitch was used primarily in beading curved lines or in tacking down the single lines of white beads which outline darker areas.

According to Real Bird, to bead clothing, mostly bands around the neck of dresses, a Lazy Stitch is used to make a line. An odd number of beads, seven or nine beads, are strung on one needle and thread. Odd numbers of beads are needed to make a point in the design. The Lazy Stitch resembles quill work, with lines of beads replacing the quills. These bead lines soon replaced quillwork altogether, making it a mostly forgotten art. There are not many Crow quill-workers left, Real Bird said.

“You just work on the top and go back and forth,” Real Bird said. “You pick up the top part of the skin and you come back, string it up, pick it up on the other side — go back and forth.”

According to the National Park Service, the third stitch is the Modified Lazy Stitch, which is used to fill in large areas measuring three or more inches in width.

“I love beads; I just kind of feel good when I’m among my beads,” Real Bird said. “You have to have that kind of passion and don’t look at it as labor. It is a therapy that relaxes me.”

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Kristin Magnusson

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