Philosophically speaking, we have no choice about who we are at birth, including our ancestry, the color of our skin, hair, and eyes, or who our parents are.
It’s what we do with what we have that elicits blame or praise. For many people, including many artists, there is a deep motivation that drives them to follow a certain path and achieve a specific goal.
“Have you ever felt a call that you just had to follow?” asks Tamara Reily. For more than 40 years, this self-proclaimed “mountain woman at heart”, Reily has been creating beadwork and leather goods. Some might say that because the Dayton artist is Pawnee (Native Americans from the Oklahoma area), she makes this art because it’s in her blood. Others might argue that since she’s not a full-blooded Pawnee, her work can’t be authentic. Still others will observe that it is no one’s business to dissect the inner workings of an individual human soul. Reily does what she does because deep down she feels a connection to people from her past.
“My family line follows many paths – Native American, French and Dutch Pawnee. As a young adult, I found out that my grandfather was Pawnee but not a pureblood; it’s from my great-grandmother, it’s was a pure-blooded Pawnee,” she explains. “I always knew that, from deep within me.”
Since childhood, Reily has followed a path of being outdoors, learning from nature, studying the ways of the Pawnee, growing towards and into the person she feels in her heart that she is. meant to be. She raised her three children in the mountains of Montana, in an area called Yaak, where the family had no running water, electricity or telephones.
She moved to Alaska at age 40 to become a dog musher. While there, she was invited to be a drummer and traveled with other musicians at native celebrations and gatherings. Wherever she lived, she created a space for beadwork and leatherwork, focusing on both traditional techniques and design fusions representing both old and new.
“My bead work and my leather goods represent for me a proud people whose culture must be honored. For example, the many types of leather bags I make serve a different purpose in the daily lives of native people. There are picking bags, medicine bags, pipe bags, tobacco bags. I try to make each as traditional as possible and do so with respect and honor.
Reily sells her work at traditional gatherings and craft festivals in Montana, Alaska, Oregon and Washington. She’s noticed that in many of the places she sells, she’s one of the few to offer beadwork, which she considers a dying art.
“Beading is difficult and time-consuming, and it takes a lot of patience. Each work is time and history repeating itself, honoring my native culture,” she says.
The various designs she creates have individual histories with rich stories based on ancient legends that have been passed down from generation to generation. For example, his Mishibeshu Beadwork Pipe Bag design features the “underwater lynx” known to the ancient Ojibway as one of the great powers of Lake Superior. A representation of water and waves rests near his feet. Below is a shield with a portrait of two women, a symbol of strength and continuity. Seven feathers at the bottom represent Reily (whose nickname is Painted Feather) and her six siblings.
It is not tied to an inflexible interpretation of an animal or a symbol, she adds, because the American Indians were not so tied: “Consider the turtle, a sacred creature among the Native American tribes. Each tribe has a slightly different cultural view of the turtle. The deeper meaning, however, remains the same.
“For me, meaning means good health and long life. So when I offer or sell a turtle rattle, I am also offering good health and long life.
“The turtle also teaches us to walk our life paths in peace. I always teach this in ceremonies: walk in peace.
With an endless list of things she loves to do, Reily plans to create pearls forever. And it’s a path she chooses to follow. It’s part of her belief system, the one that defines the steps she takes:
“Follow a path no matter where it takes you. It’s your journey in life. You’ve been there before and you have a chance to find yourself again.
It’s the choices we make that shape who we are, she concludes.