When 14 South Artists member Pat Seidel asked neighbor Mike Schmudlach to exhibit his collection of vintage and antique Native American beaded shoulder bags, Seidel thought he would only exhibit a few bags.
Little did she realize that this display of bags, which are now on display at the Firefly Coffeehouse, 114 N. Main St. through the end of April, would total more than two dozen.
This collection of bags comes from three tribes of the Great Lakes region – Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe.
Schmudlach, a resident of the town of Rutland, has collected the bags over the years from trade shows and auctions in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He still collects bags, although he has slowed down his purchases over the years.
Also known as pony bags or friendship bags, some were made for carrying things, but for the most part these bags weren’t made for everyday wear. Rather, they were more for ceremonies, special occasions, commerce and gifts, Schmudlach said.
Native Americans wore the bags as part of their best or finest clothing as they would with jewelry and have their picture taken. These photos showed a family’s wealth and could be mounted on postcards and sent to help find a good match for an eligible bachelor or bride-to-be.
Being photographed carrying the bags helped show that a family could afford a dowry, Schmudlach said, although they were often not wealthy people – still living in wigwams.
There are a few of these photos included as part of the exhibit at the Firefly.
Each bag could take about a year to complete and was created primarily by women, Schmudlach said.
When not used as gifts or for ceremonies, the bags were used for trade to generate income — especially among the Ojibwe, Schmudlach said. The tribe made the bags to sell to other tribes for horses – and a bag was worth as much as a horse, hence the nickname “pony bags”.
Although he said Native Americans still make the bags today, they are of lesser value in trade and more made to be worn at powwows.
Most of his bags are over 100 years old, from around 1880 to 1900. The most recent ones he has are from the 1920s.
The beads used on the bags are made of glass and come from Native Americans trading furs with the French and British for pots, knives and beads. Glass beads were made in Czechoslovakia, Italy and France. The silk ribbon is French.
Although the newest bags in this show are around a century old, some still look like new, while others look like they’ve been used a lot but still hold up, and a few are too old and fragile to display.
“These heirlooms are real museum pieces,” Schmudlach said.
Schmudlach’s interest in bags stems from his youth, growing up with Ho-Chunk friends.
“I’ve been running with Native Americans since I was a kid — mostly Ho-Chunks — and I’ve been involved in Native American stuff all my life, not just the stuff I collect,” he said. “I’ve always loved shoulder bags, they’re big, beaded, beautiful.”
People can buy them at meetings and exchanges, where many of them were acquired. Some bags eventually reached him from people who contacted him knowing he was a collector.
Much of what Schmudlach and other collectors know about bags comes from first-hand knowledge, he said. There’s not a lot of information on Google or Wikipedia about these bags, and what’s out there isn’t always accurate, he said.
Collectors pass on their knowledge of how different designs or how the beads are set is one way to tell which tribe a bag belongs to.
Although there are books on sacks, even when Schmudlach reads them, he doesn’t always agree with which tribes a book assigns different sacks to.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the Ho-Chunk, Potowatomi, Menominee, and a few other tribes sometimes lived together, intermarried, and shared their culture and designs. One such community from the 1870s to the 1930s at a place called Tah-qua-kik, or Skunk Hill, in Wood County, Wisconsin.
As such, friendship bead or pony bag designs were shared among different tribes, which may lead some historians to incorrectly assign which tribe a bag originated from.
Besides the floral or geometric designs, some bags also feature the beaded American flag.
“What people don’t understand is that most of these groups are warrior societies,” Schmudlach said. “And since the War of 1812, there have been no Native American wars for men to gain warrior status, so all of these natives joined the American armed forces. They also felt honored by the American flag, even if they weren’t yet citizens – they were still very proud to be veterans.Native Americans serve in the armed forces in higher percentages than any other ethnic group.
Between the three tribes represented in his collection, Schmudlach is fond of Ho-Chunk designs.
“These are the people I grew up with and they have a different type of bag,” he said.
Schmudlach said he had always thought of putting on a shoulder bag exhibit, which is why he accepted the 14 South Artists exhibit, which is a bit of a break from a norm for the group, which typically displays an artist’s art, not a collector’s collection.
“These bags are historically and culturally significant in addition to being beautiful,” 14 South marketing director Karen Callahan told the Observer. “We are so excited.”
“I collected these bags, but it’s not about me, it’s about the bags,” Schmudlach said. “I think 14 South is trying to branch out to be educational as well – showing people that art is also something to learn. There’s something special about art that serves a purpose, not just art to be seen, but functional art.