Lakota life on a beaded suitcase

The surprising story of an artist, a wedding, and a people

Nellie Two Bear Gates, Suitcase, 1880-1910, beads, hide, metal, oilcloth, thread (Minneapolis Institute of Art). Speakers: Dr. Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Minneapolis Institute of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

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Gates, Suitcase

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Key points

  • The Lakota had a nomadic lifestyle, made possible by horses, which Spanish colonists had brought to North America in the 16th century. In the 19th century, the US government cut off their food supply by decimating the buffalo population, and then confined the Lakota to small reservations where they relied on cattle, as shown on this suitcase from the late 19th or early 20th century.
  • Nellie Two Bear Gates adorns this suitcase with detailed beaded imagery, blending the Lakota’s traditional beliefs about marriage and family with modern life on a reservation in the early 20th century. To these, she adds geometric abstractions and the name of the recipient of this gift, making it both a commemorative and useful object.
  • Although Gates uses glass beads, introduced to Plains Indians in the 17th or 18th century, her technique is based on quillwork Lakota women historically used to decorate clothing, regalia, and functional objects.

Go deeper

See this object in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Learn more about Nellie Two Bear Gates and her beadwork

View another beaded suitcase by Nellie Two Bear Gates

Learn more about the decimation of buffalo in the United States

View an online exhibition on the history of Native Americans in the upper midwest

Learn about Great Plains beadwork traditions

Find out more about art and cultural heritage of the Sioux Nation

More to think about

This object by Nellie Two Bear Gates reflects the historical blending of cultures that has contributed to modern society in the United States. Discuss the cultural origins of different elements in this suitcase and how they reflect a synthesis of different traditions and lifestyles. What are some examples of works of art, literature, music, dance styles, or other forms of popular culture that show the complexity of our society today?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.