Miridith Morgan’s striking geometric Kiowa bead work is on display through Saturday, Sept. 28, at the Old Post Office Museum and Art Center in honor of Western Heritage Days.
Several of her Native American paintings are also featured in an exhibit which includes embellished leather dresses, parfleches, moccasins, weapons and even a decorated cavalry uniform.
“I stick to Southern Plains bead work using the geometric designs of the Kiowa,” she said. “The colors and beads I use are specific to a particular era in Kiowa history.”
Morgan is most fascinated by her people’s history in the latter 1900s, when the Kiowas were forced to make a transition from free-roaming Southern Plains warriors to people captive in the boundaries set by the federal government.
Morgan said that her favorite era is up until the end of what she calls the free days, right before the implementation of the reservations.
“I love my culture and history, and I stick to that time and period,” she said.
The colors of beads she uses for those years in Kiowa history are called greasy blue and greasy yellows, colors signifying her people’s tragic history.
Ordinarily, Kiowa women used glass, seed or trade beads bartered from French traders or trading companies from the East Coast. They also used bone, stone, shells, mescal seeds or whatever was available to decorate everything they used and wore.
“We call them art pieces now, but they’re the relics of things gone and used 150 years ago,” Morgan said. “Even utilitarian items for food storage and clothing — used on a daily basis — are all still functional.”
Typically, bead work techniques were passed on, beginning early in childhood as girls watched and learnedbeading with their mothers and grandmothers, but Morgan was at a disadvantage. She lived in Europe and Asia until she was a junior in high school. It wasn’t until her father retired from his career in the U.S. Navy in 1996 that she returned with her family to Oklahoma.
She thought her maternal grandmothers would be eager to teach her the traditional art, and she wasn’t prepared for their advice.
“My grandmothers said, ‘Just do it,” she said. “They never sat down with me to demonstrate anything, which turned out to be a gift in itself. It fueled my interest. It motivated me to do my own research and learn from other bead workers by watching. It was actually a blessing in disguise.”
Morgan found that the art came naturally to her. The first year, she attempted a fully beaded cradle board, the most difficult piece she could have chosen.
“I used the smallest beads available, and it took me six months to finish it,” Morgan said.
She placed first in her category at a prestigious show and has made five more since then.
There is a blue wool broadcloth cradle board on display at OPOMAC.
“It’s for little girls to play with, but it’s fully functional as a cradle board,” she said. “It was traditional for Kiowa mothers and grandmothers to give these to girls.
“Each art piece that I do is one of a kind and special,” Morgan said. “I love the work that I do, whatever I do. I love each and every one of them. It’s really difficult to part with them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Morgan’s Kiowa mother had a strong connection to her family in Anadarko, Okla., which included many tribal leaders and artists of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.
She said her most famous relative was Stephen Mopope, who was one of the Kiowa Five.
“The Kiowa Five were the first of our artists who brought Kiowa Indian Art to international attention,” she said.
Early Kiowa artists depicted wars, dance ceremonies and ordinary tribal life by painting on animal hides. Later, when Kiowa were imprisoned as the Indian wars ended, artists painted on paper and canvas.
The Kiowa Five created a new style of painting that portrayed ceremonial scenes of Kiowa life and stories from their oral history.
Today, many of their themes and techniques are used by contemporary Native artists.
“My mother told me lots of Kiowa stories growing up,” she said. “But it wasn’t until I had my own children that I’ve become so passionate about seeing that my oral history stays alive.
“There does come a period when the people who still lived in free days will be gone,” Morgan said. “There is no written language for the Kiowa. Each generation must see that our stories and our oral history is passed along.”
That’s her hope, that her rich Kiowa heritage will stay alive.
“As a traditional Kiowa bead worker and artisan, my work is a reflection of all those who came before me and saw beauty in the world they lived in,” Morgan said. “In turn, they created the beauty in the things they used, to give to their children. It gives me great joy to know that the work I do to will be the cherished gifts my daughters receive.”