Reawakening the Great Basin
“This is size 11s—that’s as low as I go,” said Charlotte Frye, referring to the thousands of tiny colored beads on the work tray on her kitchen table in Hungry Valley. A size 11 is a 2.3 millimeter bead, and—though Frye is a long-retired Washoe elder who wears thick glasses and leans in to see her work—she seems undaunted by the prospect of handling such tiny materials.
Frye held up a three-inch piece of dowel topped with a swatch of buckskin and covered entirely in zigzags of color made of what must have been a thousand or more beads. She had a few hundred more to go, then she’d have a fringed key chain.
The works piling up on an adjacent table include ordinary objects—hairbands, decorated plastic pill bottles, salt and pepper shakers—rendered out of the ordinary by the care and craftsmanship she applies to them, stringing on one size 11 bead at a time with a long, thin needle.
“My mother used to bead,” said Frye. “My mother’s Washoe. She taught me how to bead.” She grew up in Nixon and on the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, where her dad built his own house. To her, craft is a part of everyday life, and beading is the natural way to spend her time.
She regularly sells out her wares at holiday fairs, and she expects a crowd on July 14, when she’ll be among 23 vendors at Reawakening the Great Basin, a day-long festival featuring Washoe and Paiute crafts, music, dancing, stories, hands-on workshops and Indian tacos.
The event has been held for the last two years at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Now, it’s moving to a venue with a brighter limelight, the Nevada Museum of Art. The venue shift is part of what NMA curator Ann Wolfe called an ongoing effort to cultivate relationships with the region’s Native American artists and craftspeople.
“The Great Basin as a region has been historically one of the most neglected regions in terms of understanding native visual art,” said Wolfe. She mentioned that Native artwork of the Southwest and the Great Plains, for example, is more widely known, and she attributes the lack of visibility here to the fact that Nevada is such a rural state.
The museum has been working to help make Native artwork more visible for years. In 2012, curators commissioned new work by the region’s Native artists for a survey exhibition. For that show, Wolfe visited the studio of every Native artist she could find. The project yielded some momentum. Wolfe formed relationships with a lot of artists—and, after the exhibition, Melissa Melero, a local artist who is Northern Paiute, along with a few colleagues, formed a group called Great Basin Native Artists.
Native artwork has also appeared in some of the NMA’s major exhibitions over the last few years. In 2015, the Tahoe exhibition presented the largest collection anywhere of Washoe baskets, and the Unsettled exhibition of 2017 showcased artwork from what the musuem deemed “The Greater West,” which could be loosely defined as regions of the world that have been colonized in somewhat recent memory, where the visibility of indigenous people and artwork is still under negotiation in some way or another.
“We try to put it into a broader context,” said Wolfe. “We’re interested in indigenous voices"—whether they’re from internationally known Aboriginal artists in Australia or grandmas from Hungry Valley.