Under glass cases, the Native American dolls emit a quiet power.
The Crow woman, in the doll-figurine sculpture “Maternal Journey” by Rhonda Holy Bear, sits bone straight on a painted mare, pulling viewers closer with the meticulousness of her bright red dress covered in imitation elk ivory. A sheath at the base of her back holds a tiny pocket knife. From her right hip hangs a baby cradled in blue glass beads so tiny you would swear no human hands could possibly have stitched them.
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.
Charles Diker, chairman of an investment management firm, and Valerie Diker, a philanthropist, 35 years ago began collecting art that represents how American Indians once lived.
Jamie Okuma, whose mother is from the Luiseno and Shoshone-Bannock tribes and whose father is Okinawan-Hawaiian, began beading as a child. Okuma, who grew up on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in San Diego County, says all her dolls are cut from the same pattern, yet in the creation transform themselves — some are taller, some are bigger. She does not paint their faces.
“They are created with such strong spirits within them,” Okuma said. “Aesthetically, I don’t want the viewer to focus on the face. I want you to look at the overall piece.”
Okuma, 35, believes her talent was a spiritual gift. “Each piece has a little bit of my soul in them. It is almost like breathing to me. How do you explain that to anybody? I feel they are creatures meant to be here, just as we are meant to be here.”
Holy Bear, whose mother was full-blood Lakota and whose father was half Lakota and half French, says the “Maternal Journey” piece took more than two years to make.
Her figurines represent spiritual beings. “I use the elongated-line” art style to show “a spiritual reach from this world to the spiritual world. The Crow people were deeply religious people — all the Plains tribes were. They live in this world but are reaching for the spiritual world.”
Holy Bear’s art is inspired by her ancestors. “Their art was powerful. Because I come from the real people, their blood was in me,” Holy Bear says. Her great-grandmother, whose name was White Face Woman, a survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. “Her husband [Tashunka] dies at Little Bighorn. She flees with Sitting Bull to Canada. Her name shows up on the surrender roster,” says Holy Bear, whose father, Oliver Sees the Horses Leblanc, told her the story.
Holy Bear grew up on a Cheyenne River-Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota. “If you blinked, your eye would never know all those people’s lives were there,” she said. “You could freeze to death in the winter there. There was nothing there. We got sent away to boarding school because we were starving.”
At the American Indian schools, she forgot how to speak her language, Lakota, but she learned to research her culture.
When her grandmother died, Holy Bear said she had a powerful dream. “My grandmother was the keeper of the culture in our family,” she said. In the dream, “I had a shattered back and a voice was telling me I had to pick up the pieces and put the spine back together again. I realized each piece of the spine represented our scattered culture.”
“My ancestors and their stories are connected like each vertebra of my spine. I carry their story with me in my back.”
Through Jan. 5, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-1000, www.nmai.si.edu.