In “Painful Beauty: Tlingit Women, Beadwork, and the Art of Resilience,” Megan A. Smetzer explores how Tlingit women have beaded beautiful, detailed and colorful designs for over 150 years. Smetzer is a white artist, author and lecturer in the department of art history at Capilano University in North Vancouver.
The Tlingit people are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, from Southeast Alaska down through Western Canada; while they are separate groups, the Tlingit and Haida nations have a common history in a shared land and formed a central council in 1935.
In the Tlingit language, the nation’s name means “people of the tides,” which refers to how the Tlingit moved in and out of other communities. In the context of the book, Smetzer explains how the women beadworkers were instrumental in forging relations and alliances through marriage. The book suggests beading was an integral part of the community even when white colonists came to the area and attempted to repress Tlingit culture and society. Smetzer notes that Abby Johnson Woodson observed in her late 19th-century book, “Picturesque Alaska,” that contemporary Native Alaskans were advancing toward what Woodson considered civilization and abandoning their so-called old-time tribal customs.
Beading was not seen as an art form, in part because it was produced by women and mostly for tourists, but it continued being an important part of personal family histories, ceremonial regalia and the economy. Smetzer uses various methods and materials from museum collections, archives, photographs and interviews to contextualize and reframe beading as something that gave women economic freedom, helped portray their clan identities and passed on cultural and social knowledge.
The book’s title exemplifies the duality of the reasons behind and the results of beadwork across generations of the Tlingit people. In a conversation with Tlingit-Haida elder and weaver Della Cheney, Smetzer became familiar with the meaning of “painful beauty.” Cheney told her how the art of beading represents both beauty and pain to many Tlingit people across generations. “Along with the beauty and versatility of this medium, which quickly became deeply embedded within long-standing cultural practices, came the pain and trauma of settler colonialism,” Smetzer plainly states. Beadwork can call to mind, for a Tlingit person, everything from disease and missionization to cultural artifacts being stolen for a museum to the laws that denied them basic human rights.
Smetzer explores all these aspects in her book. “Painful Beauty” examines how settler colonialism wreaked havoc on the Tlingit population, how women were instrumental in creating alliances and trade relations through marriage and how forced assimilation and ambiguous laws threatened the livelihood and culture of Tlingit women who created beaded objects. Women helped elevate the financial conditions of their families by selling beaded moccasins, baskets and anything else they could think of to tourists, while also trying to get their children an education on par with what the settlers received. Smetzer not only portrays the women as resourceful and intelligent, but also inventive.
The practice of beadwork is passed from grandmothers to mothers to daughters. This serves as a bonding exercise, ensures that this art of beading is not lost and also prepares the women for a life of domesticity. Beading promotes qualities like patience and persistence, which were indispensable in the life of a Tlingit woman. It is necessary to reclaim the histories of Tlingit women and society; the intricate stories behind and identities of the beaded artifacts are often lost because the settlers dismissed them as unnecessary or unimportant, as the beaded items were created by women. Therefore, beading was not considered an art, as opposed to tangible expressions of culture that men created, such as painted and carved wooden houses, containers, poles and masks.
Smetzer analyzes different specimens of beaded work, such as moccasins, ceremonial regalia, pouches and octopus bags: “distinctive pouches with four pairs of ‘tentacles’ made from wool and beaded with seaweed and floral designs.” She explains that, by trading with inland groups, Tlingit women were inspired by other nations’ pouch styles and added local designs to better match their environment and aesthetics.
The book begins by focusing on the economic realities of Tlingit women in the 19th century through contrasting the work of an unnamed Tlingit beader and that of a Tlingit woman named Gadji’nt, the most celebrated beadworker of that era. Gadji’nt was notorious outside of her community for having three husbands and utilizing photography to market herself and her collection of curios to tourists, who believed she had greater access to Tlingit souvenirs, including from remote communities. Smetzer moves on to discuss the actual photographs from the so-called “last” potlatch in Sitka, Alaska, in 1904. The potlatch was the culmination of negotiations among four Sitka clan leaders, and the photographs show the diversity and complexity of the beaded regalia worn by the attendees.
The third section balances the archives of Alaska Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative with interviews of Tlingit beaders and their descendants. Smetzer gives context to these narratives through contemporary works of art, such as the 2012 print by Native American photographer, printmaker and author Larry McNeil, “Once Upon a Time in America.” Other artists are reworking and keeping the tradition of Tlingit beadwork alive, such as Tanis S’eiltin, Chloe French, Shgen Doo Tan George and Lily Hope.
“Painful Beauty” reveals how beadwork has been significant to the Tlingit nation — often a means of survival and providing a better life for their descendants. Moreover, Smetzer’s book is a comprehensive resource on Tlingit history in the Northwest, detailing various ceremonies and trade relations, past and present resistance of colonial practices, the incorporation of clan crests into weaving and beading, and contemporary influences and economic demands changing the methods and designs of beadwork. Beadwork has a long, painful history, but through this new book, the beauty is also given a chance to shine.
If you are interested in “Painful Beauty,” you might also like reading:
■ “Arts and Crafts of the Native American Tribes” by Michael Johnson and Bill Yenne.
■ “The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest” by Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason.
■ “Beadwork Techniques of the Native Americans” by Scott Sutton.
■ “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Rashmila Maiti is from India and lives in Oregon. She’s a scholar of comparative literature and cultural studies. Find her on Twitter @Bookreviewite.
Read more of the Sept. 8-14, 2021 issue.