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CAROLINA A. MIRANDA

Object Lesson: Rare Cree coat a window into America's complex history

A rare Cree jacket on view @TheAutry embodies everything that is Native and American

Walk through "Floral Journey," an exhibition of North American Indian beadwork at the Autry museum in Griffith Park and you will see some absolutely wondrous pieces: a pair of delicately adorned moccasins produced in the middle of the 19th century in the Northwest Plateau, a Sioux vest from the 1870s embroidered with porcupine quills, and a Cheyenne saddlebag made roughly a decade later, bearing green and red silhouettes of horses.

But the showstopper lies at the rear gallery: the Plains Cree jacket from 1900, which is pictured above. The fringed leather jacket, whose maker is no longer known, is embroidered with a beaded trim comprised of vines and flowers, as well as a repeating pattern of American flags topped with crosses. It is staggeringly beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time.

This jacket was produced 70 years after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced unassimilated Indians out of the southeastern United States. And it came 31 years after the last tie was laid for the Transcontinental Railroad, bringing together the East and West coasts — and in the process, depleting buffalo, shrinking and fracturing Indian lands, and drawing ever greater numbers of white settlers to the West.

It is hard to know what the symbols on this jacket could have meant to its maker or wearer. "Were they," as the wall text asks, "expressions of the merging of culture or a symbol of submission to the United States government?" Trying to divine its meaning is a tricky act, says the exhibition's guest curator Lois Dubin.

"It could mean maintaining a balance between the native world with the bilateral symmetry of the American flag," she explains. "Or perhaps it was someone taking something that they saw as a symbol of power, and putting it on their clothing, so they could attain some of that power."

Whatever it was, it wasn't simply a pretty design. "I do not think the motifs on that jacket are arbitrary," says Dubin. "The Cree had a history of attributing a spiritual power to clothing or adornment. And they had a history of layering concepts into their designs."

As it is, the very style of the jacket has all kinds of significance. It is derived from the "Captain's coats" of the 18th century, when European settlers gave military-style coats to tribal leaders around the Great Lakes as a way to reinforce trade. The jackets conveyed status and, as the catalog for the exhibition reports, "were worn with great pride."

By the late 18th century, some Great Lakes ethnicities had begun making their own versions of these tailored coats out of moose hides, which they presented as gifts to their English trading partners.

These fringed leather coats, often embellished with floral and other designs made from paint, porcupine quills and, later, beads, became the signature look of the American frontier: "Daniel Boone always wore one," says Dubin. "George Custer and William [Buffalo Bill] Cody each wore one."

"The interesting thing is that to white people, these were symbols of rugged individualism," adds Dubin. "But when the Indians wore it, the whites looked upon it as a symbol of a pacified people."

It is hard to know what this particular jacket would have meant to its Cree fabricator (almost certainly a woman). The Cree, composed of various Algonquin-speaking ethnicities that occupied an area from the Great Plains to Eastern Canada, actively traded with whites. In fact, they were an integral part of the fur trade.

While the jacket does indeed display various aspects of European influence (its tailoring, the floral patterns around the border, the repeated use of the American flag), it is also distinctly Cree.

"It goes back to the idea of duality and finding balance — for Native Americans, the reason to be a human being on earth," says Dubin. "The leaves, for example, have dual colors." It also displays a symmetry that is common to indigenous textile practices.

The jacket was important regalia, meant to be worn on a special occasion. But what else could it have symbolized to a culture tested by war, disease and the vagaries of European treaties? It is impossible to know.

"It is one of those pieces that gets you in the gut," says Dubin. "You see it and you know there is something going on there."

"Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork" is on view at the Autry museum through April 2015, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park, theautry.org.

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