UNKNOWN ARTIST, Sioux, late 1800s; muslin, buckskin, glass beads, sinew, paint, thread, hair, 31.8 centimeters tall.


ARLENE MILES-KAST, San Carlos Apache, 1991; commercial wood and cloth, yarn, glass beads, leather, thread, 36.8 centimeters tall. Photographs by Craig Smith; courtesy of the Heard Museum.

Life in miniature


Indian Dolls

native arts


Dolls are serious business in Indian Country. The toys so beloved to children teach cultural ideals, parenting skills and the roles of men and women in traditional cultures. An exhibit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, showcases a wide variety of dolls that provide a glimpse into the rich cultures of Native America as well as display the artistic skills of contemporary dollmakers. More Than Child’s Play: American Indian Dolls opened at the Heard in July and is on display through October 16, 2011. The original version of this exhibit was on display at the Heard’s North Scottsdale location in 2010.

UNKNOWN ARTIST, Seminole, circa 1936; palmetto fiber, cloth, thread, glass beads, 33 centimeters tall.

More Than Child’s Play curator Janet Cantley notes that dolls, the human form in miniature, communicate a cultural ideal, such as how a man or woman would dress for a particular ceremony or event. For example, in the Arctic as in other areas, dolls were not only playthings but instructive tools. Young girls learned how to sew, prepare hides and tan leather in creating a plaything. A figure might demonstrate a particular role of a man or woman, such as hunting or weaving, or in a traditional ceremony. Arlene Miles-Kast of the San Carlos Apache Tribe created a wonderful doll that portrays the godmother or assistant of a young woman who was undergoing the Sunrise Dance ceremony. Additionally, children learn parenting skills through play with dolls, which reflect the value Native people place on children in their community.

The amazing diversity of dolls on display reveals the immense differences of Native people from Arctic Canada to northern Mexico. “Each piece is a small window to understanding a tradition, ceremony or people. Dolls allow us to engage our imagination in some child’s play, as intended by the doll’s maker,” says Cantley. Just as with other facets of Native culture, local materials dictate what goes into a doll’s construction. A doll can be as simple as a stick wrapped with cloth or as grand as pow wow regalia. Sometimes plant fibers such as corn husks or palmetto bark are used. Materials from the Arctic include ivory, reindeer horn, sealskin, and musk ox or caribou fur. The Plains Indian tribes use tanned buckskin, glass beads and horsehair for their dolls. Sometimes a porcelain or bisque doll’s part appears on a doll dressed in Native clothing, such as the Apache cradleboard and doll with a cloth body and two porcelain arms.

UNKNOWN ARTIST, Aleut, 1940s; squirrel and rabbit fur, wood, leather, ink, thread, 24.1 centimeters tall.

Seminole dolls are representative of how culture and environment influence children’s playthings. In one example, the doll’s body is made from dried palmetto fiber and sports an outfit stitched of patchwork material similar to the clothing worn by Seminole people. As early explorers, and, later, tourists came into contact with Indian tribes, they sought to take home a miniature representation of the culture. Tribal dollmakers responded and began making dolls for sale. Sometimes small businesses developed based on production of these dolls. For example, Seminole women began using handoperated sewing machines to make clothing (both full-sized and doll clothing) with colorful stripes and geometric shapes to sell to tourists arriving in the Everglades in the 1880s.

Today, American Indian artists make dolls for collectors. They are expressions honoring the dollmaker’s heritage. The artists invest much time in researching historically accurate portrayals, finding the correct materials of the right scale and then assembling the piece. In recent years, these artists have gained more recognition in juried competitions at Indian fairs and markets. It is exciting to watch this developing artform as newer materials and a new generation of artists come on the scene.

VANESSA PAUKEIGOPE JENNINGS, Kiowa/Akimel O’otham, 1985; flannel, leather, wood, shell, horsehair, glass beads, feather, thread, 43.8 centimeters tall.

Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) is one of the contemporary makers of soft sculptures (as she prefers to call her dolls). Okuma won the Best of Show Award at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in 2006, as well as awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market. She spoke at Heard Museum North Scottsdale in 2010 about her exquisite art. “I use vintage beads from Europe,” says Okuma, who also handcrafts each part of the dolls and spurns commercial doll forms used by others. “It can take up to six months to make one doll.” Her artistry is evident in her tiny masterworks, which are perfectly scaled figures, down to their carved elk teeth.

Some of the dolls in the exhibit do not have facial features. This is done intentionally to allow children to use their imagination. On the other hand, Kiowa dollmaker Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings wants the viewer to notice the details of the dress for a specific ceremony instead of the doll’s face. Jennings says, “I make traditional regalia used in our Kiowa ceremonials. The doll figure was to show the acceptable and proper placement of the regalia items for a complete and finished outfit. Our Kiowa culture is still here and alive. As long as I have a breath in my body, I will continue to tell our story.”



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