I posted briefly before about Angela Swedberg, an artist who makes beautiful Plains and Plateau Indian clothing, horse gear, and other items using historically accurate methods and materials. To my delight, Angela is featured in the September 2010 issue of Cowboys & Indians, one of my favorite magazines. The article is from an interview I did with her about her work. Copies are in the stores now: get one if you can, it's a beautiful 2-page spread with lots of photos!
In talking to her for that article I discovered that she is not only an artist, but also a horsewoman. I asked her to tell me about her personal experience with horses, and more about the meaning and function of the fantastic horse masks, such as the horse in the photo above is wearing.
"I started as a Western rider, but have also studied dressage, and eventually hope to know enough to make a full up bridle horse [in the vaquero tradition]. I love the Mexican vaquero bridle horses of old. I did a lot of team penning and did pretty well with it. I have also done some different types of showing but hate the politics of it, so even though I have some really good horses under me right now, I only do a few shows a year, and only if I just want to do it for fun. I also trail ride quite a bit."
Her homebred Appaloosa, Cappy (photo, left, courtesy Angela Swedberg), "was started as a reined cow horse, and also was taught to cut cattle. But, he grew up so big (he is now 16 1/2 hands tall) and moves more like a warmblood, so was switched to dressage. Man did he excel in that. He has never lost a class he has been in in any show. I have used him for special needs kids, trail ride him even in the mountains, and he loves to play dress up. When I am working on artwork and need to do a fitting, I can just walk out to the pasture, and he will come running. I can put all this gear on him, no halter or restraints and he thinks it is so cool."
She still owns Cappy's dam, who was a rescue, and also has a cutting horse named Josey (photo, below, courtesy Angela Swedberg). She said: "[Josey] has taught me more about just plain good horsemanship than anything else I have ever owned. She is a highly bred mare, and was the personal futurity horse of a big cutting horse trainer in the area. What I didn't know about her when I purchased her was her explosive bucking habit. Found out the hard way she had launched 3 professional trainers, and they were considering taking a huge loss and selling her as a rodeo bucking horse. She would have made a good one too! Well, I got hurt the first week I had her, but somehow I knew she was a troubled but not a mean horse. So she sent me on a incredible journey to learn about the mind of a horse. It took a few years to totally figure out why she behaved the way she did (physical issues and disposition) but I do things with her that absolutely shock those who knew her as a young cutting horse. I won quite a few buckles with her, but now mostly just trail ride her.
A few years ago, I took her to a practice cutting with the same trainer that owned her. They were shocked at how well she was working, and when I told them about all the things I do with her, including a parade, the barn went quiet and the comment was, 'and you're still alive?' They just needed to understand her. She is a great horse."
Angela has had a passion for horses all her life, in parallel with her passion for art.
"For some reason," she says, " you could just never beat the art and horses out of me. I was told how many time growing up the impractical nature of my interests. So, I eventually got a job working in a bank, I worked very hard... But I am not sure I have hated a occupation quite so much." She had always done art on the side, and it was at that point she decided to try making it her full time occupation.
Beadwork was one art form Angela got into early and was very skilled at. Even before quitting banking, she started getting requests to repair antique Indian beaded items for collectors and dealers. By working closely on so many antique pieces, she began to see just how they were made, and she began making her own original pieces using the same methods and historically accurate materials.
For me, the horse masks hold the most fascination. I've only seen a few in person, at a museum exhibit. Full masks as elaborate as the Plains and Plateau ones are rare in any horse culture. It's more common (though still relatively rare) to find face coverings made simply of fabric (as some Medieval caparisons have), or in the form of armor. The Native American masks are something unique - spooky, powerful, elaborate and surprising. Angela explained something about their history and style in more detail:
"Most of what I know about horse masks relates to the people here (The Plateau Tribes) although there are others like the Sioux and Blackfeet and Cree who also used them (historic photo, right, by Morehouse). While masks are thought to possibly relate back to some of the Spanish horse gear and armor, they have quite a bit to do with creation stories and how horses came to be with the people. Often they have horns on them, and one of the reasons is it relates horses to the place where they came from." I asked her to clarify that, and she explained that horns are a reminder of sacredness, because they suggest the horns of the Horned Serpent, a sacred being of the water, where living creatures are said to come from. Angela added: "When a horse is wearing a mask it transforms them into a spiritual or sacred being in the present time. Some of the masks the Plateau people used also have to do with specific religious beliefs like the Washat or Dreamer ways, which came to be in the 1860's from a prophet by the name of Smohalla. These ones have the north star on the forehead, which is the center of the world and never changes."
I asked Angela to describe the form and construction of the masks. She said: "The most typical form of a mask is one that covers the face and maybe has ear holes. That would be for the Plateau type anyway (all tribes have their own ways). Most of the Plateau ones are made from beaded trade wool with cotton lining and further ornamentation like bells, feathers, etc. The choices of how it is decorated has to do with some of the personal vision or medicine of the maker or the one who it is intended for. The Sioux ones tend to be fully beaded hide (and are very heavy). The Blackfeet and Cree ones are also fully beaded, but often on a canvas backing and a different type of beadwork (overlay or lane stitch which is much more time-intensive than the lazy stitched Sioux ones)."
Angela explained in more detail how and when the masks were and are used: "Masking tradition goes hand in hand with the parading of horses on the Plateau. Other tribes also had horse parades during sacred ceremonies, like the Blackfeet who have their annual sun dances. Part of the ritual is to find the tree and bring it back to the sacred dance site, with warriors going out [and] striking the tree [while] relating their war honors. Those who had a mask may wear it then."
"Or the Sioux tribes whose many ceremonies had been consolidated or in reality forbidden, so were held under the guise of July 4th celebrations. [They] would parade their horses, too, wearing these heavy fully beaded masks. Many of the Sioux ones have US flag images on them which correspond to the patriotic holiday."
The masks were not just ceremonial, but were important in other ways, she said. "Horses were the measure of wealth and affluence out here. And the making of horse gear was part of that, too. [Horse parading has been an important activity for a long time.] Now, most of the horse parades with the Indians go hand in hand with the big rodeos, like the Pendleton Round Up or the Omak Stampede. The Crows have a huge parade at the annual Crow fair. They are a way to hang onto the horse culture that these people are from. I also have such a affinity for horses, that when they are wearing these masks and become sacred beings in the present tense, it really hits home with me."
Visit Angela's blog to read more about her work and see more photos.