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An ‘unbroken chain of expression’

                                Native beadworker Teri Greeves works at her home studio in Santa Fe, N.M.
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Native beadworker Teri Greeves works at her home studio in Santa Fe, N.M.

SANTA FE, N.M. >> Teri Greeves was born into a world of beads.

“I was brought home in a fully beaded cradleboard,” she said at her home studio in Santa Fe, N.M. “I had a fully beaded diaper bag. I had beaded moccasins before I could walk.”

So it was only a matter of time before she started beading herself. As a Native beadworker enrolled in the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, Greeves, 54, stitches stories onto shoes, umbrellas and deer hide canvases. She has created portraits of her family under a Madonna-and-Child-inspired arch, given stereotypical Native imagery the Roy Lichtenstein treatment and shared Kiowa traditions on shoes. Her work builds on a legacy of artistry, rarely recognized by mainstream institutions, that stretches through generations of Native women — a legacy that includes her own grandmother, an award-winning beadworker, who never called herself an artist.

“For my grandma, it was like breathing: There was no separating that out from being who she is or who she was,” Greeves said, adding that previous generations “created our world. They created our very identity with glass beads that the colonizers thought they could win us over with.”

Even as her own work is now in the collections of museums such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Brooklyn Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, Greeves identifies as her grandmother did: as a beadworker, not as an artist.

Greeves grew up on the Shoshone side of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Her mother, Jeri Ah-be-hill, ran a trading post, which she filled with beaded moccasins, bags and other Native-made art from across the country that Greeves and her sister, jeweler Keri Ataumbi, helped sell to tourists.

“I didn’t realize until I was in college what an incredible arts education I had, because I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s Arapaho. Oh, that’s Ute. That’s Lakota,’” Greeves said.

Greeves beaded her first item, a baby moccasin, when she was 8. But she truly fell in love with beadwork as a college student, when her mother sent her a pair of Converse sneakers to bead for her shop. Greeves covered that first pair with an abstract design, in the Kiowa tradition. But inspiration struck when she started working on a second pair and added a pictorial design, which is more typical of the Shoshone.

“After I started putting pictures on them, that was it,” Greeves said. The shoes were transformed from everyday objects to “something sculptural.”

Soon after she graduated, Greeves beaded a deer hide umbrella with scenes of a local parade. She entered the piece in the Santa Fe Indian Market in 1999, where she won best of show.

Greeves starts each project by sketching the design on paper, which she later scales to fit large pieces of hide or small canvas shoes. She typically works on brain-tanned deer hide or silks that she dyes with natural pigments, including Osage orange sawdust and cochineal bugs.

“I would actually sew this piece of paper right down onto the hide and stitch it in, all the way around, and then I do the beadwork right over the paper,” Greeves said. “Then I tear all the paper away. That is the oldest way to do this beadwork; that is how I learned.”

She creates a color palette for each piece by pulling from a massive bead bank, typically working with beads as large as peas or as small as grains of sand. Greeves puts the beads on nylon beading thread, which she has doubled over, tied off at the end and dipped in beeswax to condition it and keep it tangle-free.

She alternates between two beading techniques as she works. Hump stitch — also known as lane or lazy stitch — stacks rows of beads next to each other with a single needle, which makes it easier to fill out the backgrounds of her designs.

“With that hump stitch, you can change shape and size,” Greeves said. “You can add patterns, you can go in a circle, you can go in a straight line: There’s just any number of things that you can do with it.”

The meaning of Greeves’ beadwork goes far beyond aesthetics. Many of her pieces reference Kiowa stories, with beads portraying ants from the Kiowa emergence story or the mythical tale of two Sun Boys.

Her most recent piece, “Sons of the Sun,” comprises five panels that stand 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide. There are beads on the canvas that were once her grandmother’s, and she dyed each panel of silk with intention.

“I’ve gathered materials from up north in Wyoming and down in Oklahoma on my grandma’s land,” Greeves said. “I got some black walnuts off her land and then I put a few of those in with that black dye.”

As she stitches her stories into each canvas, Greeves continues to pay homage to the artistry and power of the Native women who came before her.

“Our voice was never put down,” she said. “We never lost it; it’s not something I recovered. This has been an unbroken chain of expression.”

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