Nearby, a warrior in “Preston and Skylar” from the famed horse people the Cayuse, of the territory that is now part of Oregon, wears a feathered headdress as he rides a horse dressed as elaborately as he in a creation made of silk ribbons, horsehair and porcupine claws.
“Assiniboine Chief” stands 18 inches tall in a war shirt fashioned from porcupine quills in a pattern that represents whirlwinds, stars and horse tracks.
The handmade figurines are featured in “Grand Procession: Dolls From the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection,” an exhibition that runs through Jan. 5 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The exhibit, which contains 23 figurines representing the ceremonial dress worn by Plains and Plateau tribes, highlights the work of five master figurine makers, including three generations of one family: Joyce Growing Thunder, Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, Jessa Rae Growing Thunder, Jamie Okuma and Holy Bear.
The women are the premier contemporary bead and porcupine quill artists in the country, said Emil Her Many Horses, a Smithsonian curator specializing in the Plains cultures.
“When the figurines are done, they radiate emotion,” said Holy Bear, 53, who lives in Las Vegas. “Anybody who looks upon them receives the blessing. If a piece is successful, it has a power to it and it empowers.”
“There is nothing fast about what we do,” said Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, 43, an Assiniboine and Sioux artist from Montana. “Everything is tedious, from sorting quills to the tiny fine beadwork.” Some dolls take years to make.
The dolls, some of which stand two feet tall, mimic scenes from grand processions before tribal meetings in which men and women wore intricately decorated regalia that often represented the wealth of their families.
“How your family was dressed reflected on you,” Her Many Horses, an Oglala Lakota, said. “In the Great Plains, traditionally, men painted tribal and personal stories on rocks and hides. Women designed household items.” A woman skilled in quill and beadwork was often revered.
The tradition of dollmaking goes back almost as long as people have existed, Her Many Horses said. Native American people created dolls for ceremony and to be children’s toys. Many were made of tanned hide and stuffed with buffalo hair.
“A lot of the material we are using now wasn’t introduced until the early 1800s when traders brought cloth, beads and glass items,” Her Many Horses said.
The dolls in the exhibit, which traveled here from the Denver Art Museum, come from the collection of the Dikers, art collectors who live in New York City.