Colorful beads are stitched together to form images of patriotic eagles, feathered headdresses and even roosters in a new bird-themed exhibit opening Friday at Nez Perce National Historical Park museum in Spalding.
The beadwork exhibit highlights the role of birds in Nez Perce culture in conjunction with “The Year of the Bird.” This year was identified as such by the National Geographic Society, Audubon Society and other birding groups in honor of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which protects more than 800 migratory bird species. The park is celebrating with several bird-related events, talks and activities that will take place throughout the year.
Many of the beaded items in the exhibit feature not only birds, but their feathers — especially those from eagles. These feathers appear independently and in headdresses.
“Eagles are the most sacred and honored bird of the Nez Perce culture,” said Kristine Leier, museum curator.
Because of that, feathers from eagles could not be worn by just anyone. A person had to be shown worthy of wearing a eagle feathers, Leier said. The feathers would be worn in a headdress, hair, regalia or in weapons and were sometimes bestowed on someone who had performed honorable or heroic deeds. Feathers from golden eagles were more highly prized; the tail feathers have a white base and black tip that is commonly seen in headdresses.
Eagle feathers were mostly worn by men, but beginning in the early 20th century, women wore them as well, Leier said. Modern cultural practices have shifted somewhat, but even today eagle feathers are given high honor. For example, if an eagle feather falls to the ground during a powwow, it is like a warrior falling on the battlefield, Leier explained. The entire powwow stops and a ceremony is performed to retrieve and bless the feather before the powwow resumes.
Though Nez Perce and other American Indians are exempt from US laws that prohibit acquiring eagle feathers, they don’t often collect them from nests and the ground as their ancestors did. Instead, they are more typically traded or passed on.
Several of the beaded items on exhibit feature eagles and US flags. The exact year these designs were made isn’t known, but Leier said it is assumed they were made around WWI or WWII. One design made in the 1940s appears on a buckskin vest and features an intricate beadwork pattern thought to be created as a gift for a Nez Perce veteran.
The beadwork exhibit also features chickens. Though chickens were not native, they became a part of everyday culture and were a source of readily available feathers. Because it was acceptable for these to fall on the ground, feathers of domesticated birds were worn by children and those not yet mature enough to wear the feathers of more highly respected birds.
In addition to beadwork, the exhibit contains other historical bird-related cultural items, some of which are being displayed for the first time. It will also highlight a number of traditional Nez Perce coyote stories that feature various types of birds, including hummingbirds and magpies.
UPCOMING “YEAR OF THE BIRD” EVENTS:
WHAT & WHEN:
“Year of the Bird” historical cultural exhibit opens Friday.
At 10 a.m. March 3 Eamon Harrity of Moscow will present a talk about the “Great Blue Heron.”
WHERE: Nez Perce National Historical Park, 39063 US 95, Spalding
OF NOTE: Daily hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.