As I look at this amazing Yakama Dress I can’t help but wonder about the woman who made it. It was not exactly like she ran out to the store for a length of fabric and a pre-made pattern; she had to start from scratch! The dress is all handmade, beginning with cleaning and softening the hide and bleaching it to pure whiteness.
You can see the care in which it is made and the artist’s attention to detail by looking closely at her choice of beads. Each bead is chosen for its specific color in the design, and then sewn on – not an easy task pushing the needle through hide. The Yacama woman’s choice of danglers to use on the bodice makes me think about my own collecting habits. Perhaps the Chinese coins were treasured heirlooms. Or perhaps the pieces came from other dresses now worn out or given to her from a family member.
We know that this Yakama dress was part of the collection of designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) and exhibited in a special Native American gallery in Tiffany’s Long Island home, Laurelton Hall. He was an avid collector of Native American art and traveled to the Northwest area in 1910, 1911 and again in 1916 where he collected many Native American objects including baskets (also in the Museum’s collection) and this Yakama Dress. The dress came to the Museum in 1946 when the contents of Laurelton Hall came up for auction.
Today, the Yakama Nation with around 10,000 members is located on the Columbia Plateau in Washington State near the Columbia River. The women are still famous for their containers and headgear made in a traditional basketry style and their fine beadwork on clothing and horse gear.
Susan Kennedy Zeller joined the Brooklyn Museum in 1998, where she is responsible for the Museum’s 14,000 objects in the Native American collection and is the curatorial representative to NAGPRA. The recipient of a B.F.A. from Pennsylvania State University, Zeller received an M.A. from New York University and an M. Phil from Columbia University, where she also received a Ph.D. in Art History. The recipient of numerous internships and fellowships, Dr. Zeller has taught at Columbia University, Long Island University, and the New School for Social Research. She is currently co-curator of Tipi of the Great Plains, scheduled for the spring of 2011. Prior to joining the Brooklyn Museum she spent sixteen years in retail management.