A long time ago, a Kiowa woman brought beadwork to the Kiowa people. She was compelled to express herself and her experience as a Kiowa woman of her day. Perhaps she had begun as a parfleche painter or a tipi builder or a clothing maker. However she arrived there, she was compelled to bead/express herself and at some point, compelled to share her techniques. Today, a Kiowa is not properly dressed if they do not have at least one piece of beadwork on.
My grandmother, Suzy Big Eagle, was a beadworker. She made money doing menial jobs- field worker, dishwasher, cleaning lady but she was always a beadworker…and an artist. She not only showed and won awards at the Gallup Ceremonials for several years; she also made the outfits both of her daughters wore as Kiowa and Cheyenne royalty. She too was compelled to bead/express herself and her experience as a Kiowa living during her time for her family, for her tribe, and for the larger community.
My mother, Jeri Ah-be-hill owned a trading post on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming among the Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. On the only highway to Yellowstone Park, tourists from all over the US and the world stopped at her gallery. On one of the many highways through Indian Country, Natives from nations all over the US and Canada stopped at her store to visit and sell their work. I heard her patiently explain the history, culture, art, and values of the Native world to the tourists that stopped. And I heard her tell stories, joke, discuss politics, history and values with her Native friends, artists, and visitors. Though never a beadworker herself, my mother spent a lifetime educating others about beadwork, with a depth of understanding that reached generations into the past.
I am a beadworker. I started beading when I was about 8 years old. I feel a need to express myself and my experience as a 21st Century Kiowa and I do it, like all those unknown artists before me, through beadwork. And though my medium may be considered “craft” or “traditional”, my stories are from the same source as the voice running through that first Kiowa beadworker’s needles, it is the voice that ran through my grandmother’s hands--it is the voice I first heard, as a young girl, at my mother’s side.
To all the Kiowa women who labored over their families most beautiful and prized objects, who gave us such an awe inspiring canon of expression to be born from, I thank them. Ah-ho.