“Qwasqwi, Storm, Five Friends & the Canoe” earns 1st place at the Heard Museum’s 63rd Annual Indian Fair & Market
Char-Koosta News staff
Over one hundred hours of beadwork and craftsmanship produced an intricately designed miniature cradleboard that would elevate Salisha Old Bull’s artistry to a new level of recognition. At just 19 inches tall, the beadwork resembles a perfectly proportional traditional baby-carrier, and it just won a major award.
“It was an idea waiting,” Old Bull said of the piece. “It was something that was waiting to be produced.”
The Heard Museum’s 63rd Annual Indian Fair & Market hosted its first-ever hybrid fair earlier this month. The annual event was forced to transition this season, due to the coronavirus pandemic. This allowed artists to enter the competitions remotely, and price of entry was greatly reduced. This year’s event featured Native American art from more than 300 artists from more than 75 tribal affiliations.
Old Bull has been beading her whole life, initially being taught by her grandmother in childhood, to spending copious time dedicated to mastering the craft. She, at the encouragement of a friend, decided to enter the competition at the last minute, never having considered it before.
Old Bull said she told herself, “I guess I’ll just try it out and see what happens.”
Even though it was her first time entering the renowned competition, “Qwasqwi, Storm, Five Friends & the Canoe” earned her a 1st place award in Division-D: Functional objects such as bows and arrows, musical instruments, of course, cradleboards.
The expertly composed beadwork depicts the Qwasqwi (Blue Jay) with elements of wind and storm. The piece also includes a constellation. The star assembly resembles what’s known today as Orion, but actually depicts a traditional Salish constellation. All imagery on the cradleboard resembles elements of that constellation’s story.
“We used to call that constellation the ‘five friends in the canoe,’” Old Bull explained. “There were different versions of the shape of the stars. That was one we used to use in pictographs or on hides.”
The inspiration for the piece came from Old Bull’s desire to incorporate the seasons into an artistic concept - and she decided to begin with winter.
“I really respect our traditional ways and one of the things I wanted to capture is the Qwasqwi, and my husband recalled stories about it and told me,” Old Bull explained. “I wanted to bring some of that traditional imagery and the idea of that story which is not written out of respect for the season.”
Old Bull said her work is an undertaking of capturing traditional designs and artistry, with incorporated imagery and colors from both her Bitterroot Salish and Absáalooke (Crow) heritages.
The winning piece encapsulates her belief about keepsaking traditional stories.
“For our people we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, we don’t stop and focus on those stories that are important to our values and ways of life,” Old Bull said. “So, I wanted to incorporate the imagery on purpose.”
Old Bull made her piece perfectly proportional, so that in theory it could be made bigger to fit a real baby inside.
“I enjoy the cradleboard because it’s something people don’t really use anymore. I think it’s important to still do something that was valuable to us and it had a purpose,” explained Old Bull, who along with her husband, crafted two life-sized versions to fit their two children when they were born.
“That’s something we enjoy is studying some of those craftsmanship,” Old Bull said.
Old Bull said she is honored and humbled to be recognized by such a prestigious juried art show for her work.
“I look up to a lot of artists in Indian Country. I didn’t realize my artwork was the same,” Old Bull said. “It’s validating to have my work recognized. Even though I’m following my heart, I’m going in the right direction.”
Old Bull has words of encouragement and insight for other budding artists.
“Don’t be scared to pursue something that you love with all your heart and put 100 percent of your commitment for it,” Old Bull said. “If I had known this as a younger person, I think I would have fought harder for what I wanted. And I’m thankful for what I have now, but the ones I look up to as artists are younger than me, so don’t be scared to follow your dreams.”