Photographer Erika Haight had the honor of beading — and being — with members of the Montana Crow family who have adopted her.
It was January in Montana and snow still covered the ground when photographer Erika Haight traveled to Crow Nation in south-central Montana to be a part of a beading circle at the peaceful home of Birdie Real Bird.
“Circles are exclusive to family members only,” Haight says. “But because I was adopted by the Real Bird family in 2015 and they have accepted me as one of their own, I was invited and able to attend the circle.”
Conscious of the private nature of the gathering and the Crow themselves, Haight photographed the intimate circle and shared the experience with C&I with a great sense of responsibility to her hosts and their culture.
“We ate together and talked — about our families, but mostly discussed individual designs, and my excitement to learn the trade,” she says. And with six Crow women, she sat around a table scattered with beads and leather and joined the centuries-old circle of delicate handwork and deep camaraderie.
“If I could explain to you the feeling of the atmosphere, I would say it was similar to church,” Haight says. “Although there was momentary laughter and occasional banter, for the most part it was quiet. There was definite reverence in the room.”
Here, Haight shares her impressions in word and image.
— Dana Joseph
Her delicate hands grip a single strand of thread as Margo Real Bird recalls her childhood. “My mother saw that I wasn’t very skilled at beading, so she said, ‘We’ll just try something else.’ ” Margo softly giggles to herself at the sweet memory.
This and other stories are shared during the beading circle I’ve had the honor of joining at the home of Margo’s niece, Birdie Real Bird, in Garryowen, Montana, on the Crow Indian Reservation. The six Crow women gathered today are all family and range in age from 17 to 79. They speak in their native tongue, only breaking into English occasionally to fill me in on the content of their conversation. There are moments of seriousness followed by contagious rounds of laughter. This is a time when Crow women are able to come together to share, create, and eat good food. “Like a tea party,” Margo says.
Beading is a centuries-old tradition among the Crow. For them, beadwork began sometime before 1805. Due to the limited number of beads available before trade was established, they did mostly quillwork, only using beads to outline the porcupine quills. With the establishment of Fort Manuel Lisa Trading Post around 1806 on the Bighorn River (near present-day Big Horn County, Montana), the Crow had easier access to beads. As trade expanded and beads became more prevalent, they used more and more of them to decorate their articles of clothing, riding gear, and containers.
The Crow are known for their individual style of sewing or applying beads. It is called Crow stitch. Geometric and floral designs are readily used. Every beaded piece is one-of-a-kind and meaningful to the individual who creates it. “Designs tell a story,” Birdie says. “Anyone can learn how to bead, but not all finished work has a feeling or spirit to it.”
To tell their stories, Margo and her family members are using beading techniques passed down through generations — instruction that has come through story, demonstration, and observation, taught by mothers, aunties, and kaalas (grandmothers) to the younger family members. The table is covered with scraps of felt, leather, pliers, and beads in every color imaginable. Each woman has brought her own personal project to work on. After dinner and a prayer, they begin to painstakingly push tiny needles through punched leather. This is time-consuming, but it’s obviously a labor of love.
You can see a clear sense of pride on their faces as they pass their pieces around the table for one another to see. With each stitch, they are sharing a part of themselves — a handmade gift that will eventually adorn loved ones or prized parade animals.
Good conversation, though sparse, and intense concentration on the handwork make the time pass quickly. There’s no hesitation when someone needs help or advice. Items are shared, ideas are expressed, and the atmosphere is warm and full of respect. It’s an honor to be in the presence of these beautiful women and watch as they work.
As we sit together, I feel encouraged to try my hand at beading. My spirit is willing, but my hands are initially awkward. The women laugh at my frustration, then praise my efforts. I quickly begin to understand the lesson being taught to me. It’s not just about beading. It’s about togetherness and the wisdom that is shared, and it’s about a lifetime of perfecting your soul, your art, your story.
Time is not kept track of here, but blessings are — generations joined in tradition, a never-ending circle.
From the August/September 2016 issue.