It belongs in a museum. Rubbed with blue pigment, the brain-tanned buckskin war shirt is decorated with trade beads from Italy and discs representing the four levels of the Northern Cheyenne universe. From its chest soars a thunderbird, power shooting from its talons.
Only the shirt doesn’t date from the 1860s, and a Cheyenne warrior didn’t make it.
It is the handmade creation of Santa Fe, N.M., artist Cathy A. Smith, who has been re-creating Indian and Old West works—often wearable art—since the 1980s. Smith made all of the Indian costumes for Kevin Costner’s award-winning 1990 film Dances With Wolves and took home her own Emmy as costume director for the 1991 miniseries Son of the Morning Star. And, yes, her work does wind up in museums, most recently as part of “The Reel West,” an exhibit of Western film costumes, props and other items, showing at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis through Feb. 3, 2019.
The “Northern Cheyenne” war shirt, a replica of one Smith admired years ago at the Detroit Institute of Arts, has also appeared on film. Last fall a Berlin production company used it in a documentary about the 1832–34 northern Plains expedition of German Prince Maximilian and Swiss-born painter Karl Bodmer.
Smith’s interest in the West stems from childhood. Born in 1950, she grew up on a ranch near the Lakota reservations in western South Dakota. “It was an old-timey horse and cattle ranch out there in the middle of nowhere,” she recalls. “My grandfather was one of the last cowboys on the open range before they opened it up for homesteading. He just loved to tell stories, so from the time I was little, I just wanted to hear the stories of the cowboys and the Indians. I made friends on the rez and went there all the time. They took me in. I built myself a buckskin dress and started doing beadwork so I could dance at the powwows. Ultimately, I was taken as a daughter by one of the last of the old-time medicine men up there.”
For years Smith traveled to Santa Fe for the annual Indian Market. Reasoning it was likely the only place she could make a living doing beadwork, she moved to Santa Fe in 1988. She initially struggled making beadwork and restoring artifacts for a gallery and other dealers. Then came the day the gallery recommended her to Costner’s costume designer Elsa Zamparelli. Impressed, Zamparelli gave Smith 10 weeks to make all of the Indian costumes—including copies for doubles and stunt doubles—for Dances With Wolves.
“I got my apprentice from South Dakota to come down with us, hired my daughter and her boyfriend and two people to do nothing but cut fringe,” Smith recalls. “I worked 20 hours a day—they worked probably 16—seven days a week, and we got it done. I was much younger then.”
When production started, Smith was brought up to South Dakota, where the movie was being filmed. “I spend five and a half months showing them how to put up tepees, how to paint the horses, do the hair—everything,” Smith says. “I dressed everybody every day and helped make costumes for the Pawnees.”
Her beautiful work, knowledge and reputation earned Smith the gig on Son of the Morning Star, again working on Indian costumes. “By then,” she says, “I knew enough. I was in charge. I could do what I wanted.”
Smith does what she wants these days, too.
This year marks her fifth season running the Nambe Trading Post, where she shows both her work and jewelry crafted by her silversmith daughter, Jennifer. She still makes costumes for and rents them to film and TV productions, including Hostiles and Longmire. Smith, who was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2013, has published a photo-intensive book, The Demise of Tonto or Hollywood Meets the Sioux, about her experiencing making movie costumes, and she’s working on a memoir titled Tales of a Double Woman Dreamer. Smith is also painting, including ledger drawings.
“[Ledger drawings] are what taught me how to paint a horse, what weapons different warrior societies were carrying and what insignia were on them,” Smith explains. “All the details are in those ledger drawings, if you know how to look at them. Mine are done on antique paper, and I just do the traditional. I’m not a contemporary artist.” WW