Native American dolls have a common appearance. Many observers who do not view indigenous crafts as interesting are often still attracted by the appearance and curious features on the dolls. Some modern examples are quite Indian in their features.
When created, these dolls were equal in employment: a learning tool and a play thing.
Similar to their games, dolls were originated to instruct the young members of the tribe in adult ways of life.
A girl thereby learned how to tend to women’s chores, a boy was taught hunting skills via bow and arrow.
Ancient custom. The custom of doll making is quite ancient among American aborigines. Early examples are quite plain in appearance, a roughly carved stick or bone attired in deerskin or buffalo hide.
By late 1800 crafts made by American Indians had advanced to a better state of development, possibly due to tourists and traders coming into contact with Indian settlements containing suppressed inhabitants.
Their desires for more attractively carved and clothed dolls either showed the native dress and appearance or were made to suit the purchasers concept of the Indian.
Finding them today. Today it is quite possible to locate dolls representing most of the renown Native Americans from the Plains tribes to the mesa dwellers.
Regional style. Each group developed a distinct regional style. Most often found and quite popular with the general public are the buckskin dolls of the Plains tribes, the Sioux and Cheyenne.
Buckskin qualities of softness and the ability to shape it by easy cutting, helped to shape and sew into a quite real body. Details were painted, and either human or horse hair were added to complete a very realistic form.
Clothing completion. The clothing, as in most dolls, makes the doll quite complete.
Fringed buckskin leggings or dresses were many times decorated with quite simple variations of the unique beadwork styles that were used by adults on their attire.
Minute detail was used on full-sized costumes, and was also emulated on small dolls also.
Era identification. Thread used on Plains dolls aids in era identification. Before 1850, animal sinews were used, and thereafter, cotton thread was employed. Also aiding in era identification were the beads used in decoration.
The earliest outfits had large pony beads that the Indians received in trading around 1800. About 1840 quite small seed beads were used.
The use was introduced to other tribes and was used for several decades. They were replaced to some extent by 1870 with metallic beads.
Changing styles. Upon being imprisoned at Fort Sumner around 1870 many Navajo women adopted the long calico skirts worn by the soldiers’ wives. These were worn along with velveteen blouses and their traditional wearing blanket and woven sashes. This costume was shortly thereafter placed on tribal dolls.
Early Navajo dolls had stuffed leather bodies, later ones had cotton.
These later types had finely painted features and hair of thread or worked wool. These later types also can be distinguished by miniature silver and turquoise jewelry and concho belts.
They also had more elaborate hair styles.
‘Not so soothing.’ The dolls made in the northwest areas were not so soothing in character. Quite course in carving, they had open mouths and large lower lips due to emulating the use of labrets, regarded as a mask of beauty among the local tribes.
There appearance is also due to the carving by the local men who also make the sometimes harsh dance masks and totem poles.
Although not as fine featured as other tribal dolls, these are true works of art with their abstract features and painted eyes and eyebrows.
Other details. These doll makers still employ human or animal hair.
Hands and feet also are quite detailed, however the body is not made of plain trade cotton.
Compared to Navajo dolls, accessories are quite minimal, sometimes merely a plain necklace or bracelet of shells.
The earliest dolls located are from the Northwest Coast dating around 1840. These are quite rare, already in museums and collectors possessions.
Dolls made after 1900 are commonly found and more modeled to suit the tourist trade desires for a more decorated and attractive doll.