Judy Half - We held an interpretive discussion of the dew claw bag (1954.9.22) at the Pitt Rivers Museum on April 13, 2015. Though not much is known about the bag, it is most likely associated with the people of the Great Lakes in the United States. It was part of the collection of Harry Geoffrey Beasley (and his wife Irene Marguerite Beasley) who donated the bag to the Pitt Rivers Museum. The bag is made of white-tail deer skin with the dew claws attached, brass thimbles and pellet beads, decorative porcupine quill work in red and white, and a woven strap. It’s unclear if the sash was originally part of the bag or added later.
Laura Peers - There is also a preciousness to the bag, reflected in the beauty and quality of the materials and craftsmanship.
Judy Half - Yes, it was not intended to be used everyday. This bag may have an important ceremonial and spiritual aspect, since dew claw bags have an association with ceremonies. Whoever wore it had to be delicate with the bag, and careful about dancing with it to ensure that the claws did not chip. The deer hair on the bag lays flat and is not very disturbed, so it was not likely worn often, only for ceremony.
Sara Komarnisky - Remember how the group leaned in to look closer at the bag, at the deer hair and its construction?
Judy Half - This bag also represents the way that people maintained a ceremonial practice during colonization. Before colonization, a bag like this would have belonged to either men or women. However, after an intense period of colonization in North America many Indigenous ceremonial practices were outlawed and people began to change the order of the ownership and use of bags like this to be able to keep their ceremonial object alive. For example, the bag used in contemporary gourd dances reflects how the object maintained the cultural scheme since people were still practicing ceremony, but the order of ownership changed. Now only men hold the bags because they were seen by Indian Agents as holding the title of ceremony.
Sara Komarnisky - I really like what you said about how although the ownership or practice changes, the cultural scheme stays the same and the ceremonial object is kept alive. I wonder what this bag represents today?
Judy Half - Nowadays men and women carry woven bags which are similar in shape to this one. They carry it like a purse, using a strap around the neck that rests on the shoulder. This bag is also very similar to those worn by tribes who practice the Gourd Dances. In Iowa the Gourd Dance is a part of the Veteran’s Dances to honour the war veterans, whereas in the northern states the bags are used as a part of the pow-wow tradition by both men and women.
Beverly Lemire - The shape and materials also represent some of the global exchange and flow of influence at the time: local deer skin and quills, a variety of metal thimbles, and bright red dye.
Cynthia Cooper - Looking at the bag, many of the thimbles are different. They may have come from different sources, collected over many years. Indeed, thimbles were coming to North America in huge quantities at that time.
Beverly Lemire - Once you sew with a thimble, you don’t want to use anything else.
Judy Half - John Heckewelder, a 18th century missionary who worked among different groups in the Great Lakes regions, described the clothing of the Delawares in History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations as “highly decorated with such a number of gewgaws and trinkets that it is impossible to give a precise description…The women have thimbles and little bells at their anklets and the men have deer claws fixed to their braced garters or knee bands and shoes…for they consider the jingling and rattling as indispensably necessary to their performances in the way of dancing.” A bag like this is meant to jingle as its wearer moves: walking, riding, or dancing. A jingle dance is not a fast moving dance, it is slow, with pauses to hear the jingles.
Sara Kormarnisky - The sound of the bag is important to our understanding of it then?
Laura Peers - Can we hear the bag jingle? Would that be all right?
A member of the Pitt Rivers Museum staff gently lifted the bag and shook it for us. The sound of the thimbles and copper jingles twinkled through the room.