Laurance S. Rockefeller purchased the David T. Vernon collection in 1972 and transferred ownership to Grand Teton National Park four years later. For more than 40 years, the Colter Bay Indian Arts Museum in the park, displayed and housed a large part of the collection. Currently, the collection is undergoing conservation work at the Western Archaeological Conservation Center (WACC) in Tucson, AZ. Work includes examination, photography, construction of custom mounts, stabilization and repair. More than 60 objects have returned to exhibits at the Colter Bay and Craig Thomas visitor centers. One day, a new museum will house a rotating selection of these incredible items. We invite you to explore the spectacular American Indian craftwork of the David T. Vernon Collection.
Highly prized, this graceful and ornamental women’s saddle has been derived from the Spanish Moor style, and adapted to native materials and modified to suit the taste of the women of the Northern Plains, Columbia River Plateau and some Great Basin tribes. The decorated saddle, beaded stirrups, bridle, girth, martingale, and crupper were used on dress occasions on women’s horses. Crow women today still dress their horses in finery to ride in the parades during the annual Crow Fair in Crow Agency, Montana.
In the early 1800s, Spanish horses often came to their new owner with a bridle. When the original leather wore out, replacements were often decorated to their preferences. Later, the Plains Indian headstalls were elaborately decorated with quillwork, beads, brass sequins, and yarn. Similarly decorated headstalls were, and still are, used in parades.
The Crow were superb horsemen and historically were successful at stealing horses from their traditional enemy the Sioux. The beadwork displayed on this horse head ornament is considered a classic style of the era between 1875 and 1900. The Crow people are renowned for their beautiful beadwork. Many horse trappings are decoratively beaded still today and can be enjoyed during the annual Crow Fair in eastern Montana. The horse head ornament is a decorative piece attached to the headstall for parade.
Before the arrival of the horse to North America the Plains Indian tribes used strips of bison leather and other natural materials to create rope. This rope is made from four strands of braided horsehair with the ends wrapped in red and blue trade cloth with lines of light blue and white seed beads. The horsehair is featured in its natural black state and also dyed yellow.
Saddle blankets were only used in parades. Today, the Sioux nation still uses them during the annual summer celebration. This blanket is comprised of four long beaded panels, horizontally sewn onto canvas. The saddle blanket and back of the beaded panels are canvas. The beaded panels are sewn in geometric and heart designs. On each corner the long panels are edged with maroon and white calico and buckskin fringe and hawk bells. The four tabs hanging down from the blanket symbolize an animal’s four legs.
Sioux women were known for their signature buckskin dresses with fully beaded yoke. Often the beaded shoulder background was blue, representing a lake reflecting a blue sky. Cross patterns represent either the four directions or the morning star. The U-shaped design positioned at the center of the breast is reminiscent of the tail of an animal. This can also represent the turtle which possessed power associated with a woman’s capacity for childbirth and the natural cycles related to femininity.
The best known article of clothing for a Plains Indian male was his dress shirt. Shirts were highly decorated with paint and small bunches of hair. Quilled or beaded strips are sewn over the shoulders and along the sleeves with long fringes and ermine skins attached. Decorative shirts of honor were worn during tribal social and political events, often by men of importance in their tribes.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Plains women broke from their traditional pattern fashion to European styles. Jackets of this style were frequently commissioned by soldiers and settlers. The binary shirts with closed sleeves are a direct adaption from their traditional pattern to European fashion. Jackets of this style were worn by men and boys.
Cheyenne dresses for younger women were made of the skins of deer, mountain sheep, pronghorn, or elk. In contrast, older women’s dresses were made from buffalo cow or upper part of lodge (tipi) covering. Southern Cheyenne women developed the three skin dress. The yoke is constructed of two pieces of hide: one for the front and the other for the back. They are sewn together along the sides and fringed. The skirt is sewn to the yoke.
The classic Cheyenne dress has three wide horizontal beaded strips across each shoulder, along the front and back. The yoke is painted between the wide beaded strips with yellow pigment. The hem on each side has rectangular “tabs” hanging with three rows of decorated elements of metal tinklers. The attention to detail in making this dress embodies the Cheyenne woman’s philosophy; “Dress your daughter as you would dress yourself and she will wear it with dignity, honor and respect.”
A fine example of the use of trade goods, this child’s shirt is made from hand-sewn cotton fabric decorated with German silver discs. Red and brown ribbon was sewn across the chest and along the neck and front opening. Fabric shirts and blouses were made during the early 1800s as these materials became available through trade. Many trade items such as metal buttons and discs were made of silver metal called “German silver,” a mixture of nickel, copper and zinc.
Native tanned bison robes were commonly used prior to 1840. When a bison was taken, it was skinned and the hide was split down the center to allow fleshing and tanning. The hide was later re-sewn and a narrow strip adorned with porcupine quill work and circular pendants was sewn over the seam. With the arrival of trade goods, beads replaced quillwork. Beaded blanket strips were made, such as this spectacular robe, perhaps the centerpiece of the exhibit.
The entire belt is sewn sinew (tendon). There seems to be no native prototype for this panel belt made entirely of trade goods. It may simply represent one of the unexpected ways new materials were used. However their origin, panel belts were common throughout the Northern Plains, Columbia River Plateau and Great Basin.
The Great Lakes have long had a reputation for making loom-woven beadwork utilizing distinctive and complex geometric patterns in a wide variety of colors. Large bandolier bags, wide sashes, and garters were worn by the men during dress occasions. The workmanship and intricacy of this pair of garters are fine examples created from the Great Lakes region.
Northern Plains, Columbia River Plateau, and Great Basin tribes adapted the custom of wearing skin gloves with long, flaring cuffs from army officers stationed at military posts during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Gauntlet gloves featuring beaded cuffs were also commissioned by army officers. Prominent Indian men wore gauntlet gloves for parades and dress occasions.
Mirrors in all sizes were a very popular trade item, desired by both men and women. Mirrors were used for signaling and reflecting light. During social dances, a dancer might intimidate competitors by reflecting light into their eyes. Mirrors were also used for projection of spiritual power. This beautifully created mirror case was worn around the neck.
Infants born between 1870 and 1900 were living in a time of change—from hunting and living off the land to settling in one place. Mothers began dressing their children in settler style clothing. This baby bonnet with flag motifs exemplifies the blending of cultures. Flag patterns were popular during this period for the Plains, Columbia River Plateau, and Eastern Great Basin tribes.
These woman’s boots extended to the thigh and tie just below the knee with the top flap folded down. Women’s boots of this type were popular in the mid-nineteenth century on the Southern Plains with Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Arapaho, and Cheyenne people. This boot style is still worn occasionally for special occasions.
These hard sole buckskin moccasins feature fringe on the heel and along one side of the upper or vamp. The beadwork includes diagonal bands and a chevron pattern in cobalt blue, greasy yellow, rose whitehearts, light blue, on white background. The buckskin is stained yellow with a stripe of red paint down the vamp.
These leggings are sewn with sinew and beaded on buckskin. The geometric design in royal blue, green, greasy yellow, red, and Bodmer blue stands out on a white background. Along the side, a beaded strip features triangle design in royal blue, greasy yellow, red white-hearts and green. Beaded leggings were worn for special gatherings.
During the fur trade era of the early 1800s, the British Hudson Bay Company, based in Canada, assigned Eastern Woodland and Great Lakes Indian men to the Northern Rocky Mountains to trap beaver for hats popular in Europe and the eastern U.S. Plains Blackfeet men started wearing European style tailored jackets featuring beaded floral patterns on the cuffs and epaulets.
Grand Teton National Park Staff
Grand Teton Association
Grand Teton National Park Foundation
Western Archeological and Conservation Center
Harpers Ferry Center