Sunday, April 3, 2011

Terri's Quest

Grand Portage Treasure... 

Re-creating The "Hiawatha" Dress

My family is originally from Grand Portage, Minnesota. In the search for my Mother's Grandmother, I came across this collection of paintings by Eastman Johnson, painted in Grand Portage around 1856.

He was most famous for his rendition of "Hiawatha", a painting he painted with the use of Grand Portage regalia created for this purpose by local women.

What I find strange about Eastman's painting is its title. Hiawatha is mythical a male character from the poem of the same name.

The painting was of a young woman seated on a hillside, not a man.

From what I have been able to find out was that the poem was very popular at the time the painting was made, I feel  Eastman just chose to trade on that popularity.

It wouldn't be beyond Eastman to exploit something that didn't belong to him, he after all was in Grand Portage to buy land that had recently been taken from it's rightful owners, (the Ojibway), on the pain of being relocated to Wyoming.

The only good thing I can say about him was he took the time to capture in oil a point in history that otherwise would have been lost forever.

It then occurred to me that I am descended from a long line of expert hand seamstresses, and the woman who created the dress may very well have been my relation. I was also intrigued with the design of this garment, how did the sleeves work? Were they useful, or just ornamentation? The paintings seem to depict a usefulness, one even showing a family paddling a canoe with the sleeves on. These were more than just ornamentation, to be set aside at work time, as has been suggested.
I then found that the garment used in the painting was currently in storage at the Museum Depot in Duluth, just an hour or so from my home. I made an appointment with the curator to photograph and measure the "Strap Dress" depicted in the painting. After examining the garment I decided to recreate the dress myself, to see what this dress really looked like and how it was worn.
I used an Swiss army blanket as my "mock-up" as the material used by natives at this time was imported "Stroud" or "list" cloth from England. Re-created "stroud" wool costs more than $75.00 a half yard.

The army blanket was much thicker so the plans did have to be slightly altered, but I am very pleased with the results. 

In this picture I am wrapped in a 1 1/2 point Hudson Bay match coat in Hudson Bay colors of Red & Black. The white blankets shown in the painting represent the American Fur Company, which took over from Hudson's Bay around this time.

I later created the blue wool dress shown above and below that more closely resembles the historic garment. I am still working on the bead work for this garment and hope to have it finished soon. My proudest moment was wearing it to the Grand Portage Powwow in 2006, and showing it to my Grandmother Lorraine.

My latest project is to recreate the leather strap dress I discovered in the Chicago Field History Museum as well as the create the dress that my good friend Mia let me borrow and make a patten from. I am currently waiting for genuine Elk and Deer brain tan hides to be completed in order to make these garments correctly.
Mia's Dress

Strap Dress
Here are some other pictures of me wearing the blue wool regalia at various times. You can see I have almost finished most of the bead work, I am told by many reliable sources that I never will be done, it's part of the process.

I Meet a Canadian Micmac Cousin in Florida!
Both of us are dressed Traditionally
Showing off our Leggings Bead Work
We Both Hand Sewed  and Beaded our Regalia
Sister Jackie and I in Grand Portage

Doyle and I in Grand Portage

Jackie and I on Hat Point Dock

Jackie and I a GP Monument Village

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