Date posted:  March 10, 2016

Within the last generation, the concept of “going green” has captivated the hearts, minds, and economies of nearly every developed nation in the world, but have you ever contemplated the root of the phrase? Have you ever thought about the origins of recycling and its place in American history — and I don’t just mean the history of the modern United States. Recycling or the reuse of objects dates back tens of thousands of years. Our earliest Native American communities practiced recycling and reuse through the reworking of stone, shell, and hide and, until the Industrial Revolution, so too did nearly every country and community on earth. The reason was simple: it was smart and often necessary. Without the use of modern machinery, using something until it died and then repurposing it into another tool was practical, efficient, and economical. Recycling may therefore be one of the oldest endeavors on earth — making the concept of “going green” not all that new.

Recycling has always had a place in America’s history, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression, then World War II, followed by the rapid growth of American commercialism in the 1950s and 1960s that it found a large, vocalized place in the daily lives of most Americans. Prior to this, most recycling was done within American households or by Native American communities. The large-scale recycling programs seen today were not necessary because the large-scale mass production of goods was not as readily available. However, our present ability to quickly and cheaply produce items has created societies where it is often cheaper to go out and acquire something new than to spend the time to fix or adapt an existing object. And when you are finished using an item and it has to go somewhere, that somewhere is usually a landfill or recycling bin. However, think for just a moment about what would happen if you could not simply go to the local department or hardware store to get towels, clothes, or tools? What would you do? How would you reuse the items littered throughout your home if they were all you had?

In the basement of Gilcrease Museum are objects that might help us answer these questions. The recycling and repurposing of objects was common in prehistoric and historic American communities. Some of the more common items and materials so treated were stone, leather, beads, metals, shell gorgets and cups, cradleboards, and bags, although this list barely begins to describe all the items that were at some point reworked to make new goods. Additionally, many of these items, such as leather, beads, and metals, were only one component of a larger object and therefore easily cut, sewn, and reworked into the pattern and structure of another item. Examples of this can be seen in jackets, moccasins, and beaded bags. But how can we tell that an object has been reworked or reused? And what does that say about the lives of the people who made the object and used it?

One of the museum’s oldest and most notable objects to show signs of reuse is a Mississippian Period engraved shell fragment from Oklahoma’s Spiro Mounds. A quick glance reveals that the shell is incised on both flanks, a significant clue that it served two very distinct purposes — a cup and then a gorget. Mississippian Period cultures used a variety of shells from across the Americas to make gorgets and cups. Nearly all their uses were ceremonial, and as far as it has been determined were not normally engraved or incised on both sides. Once carved, the objects became sacred and were used only in connection with certain rituals. Therefore, the Gilcrease piece is unique and was most likely broken, or repurposed, after being engraved or partially engraved, yet before being used in a specific ritualistic manner — in this instance, as a cup in a sacred ceremony. Sometimes cups and other objects were ritualistically shattered or “killed,” but typically when this occurred the object ceased to be used in any capacity. Perhaps an object of immense significance was a rare exception and allowed to be reused.[1]

The most prominent ritualistic shell pieces that originated during this period are large engraved cups with intricate exterior designs.[2] These whelk shells, Busycon perversum, are found only in the Gulf of Mexico and most likely come from the Florida Keys or the Veracruz coast.[3] The size and curvature of the shell made it an ideal vessel for incising. Yet its size, typically 6 to 15 inches in length, also meant that the curved top could be cut out and used as a gorget. When the shell was used as a cup, its exterior was incised with designs; when used as a gorget, it was the interior of the shell that was incised. When we look at the fragment numbered 9025.1684 we see clearly that the object was engraved with anthropomorphic (human) features on one side and possibly zoomorphic (animal) elements on the other leading to the conclusion that this particular item was almost certainly an object of reuse and recycling. Another example of reuse and recycling is the hair pipe breastplate. Although hair pipe beads have a history that may date back thousands of years, this particular style of breastplate design came from the Comanche in the mid-1800s.[4] The design is fairly simple and straightforward. It consists of two horizontal rows with somewhere between thirty and sixty hair pipes, or tubular beads, hung vertically, with an equal amount being displayed on either side. They are normally made from bone, but descriptions of hair pipe beads from the early to mid-1700s indicate they were also be made of shell or, through European trade, silver.[5] The beads are held together using strips of thick leather and sometimes accented with trade beads, a gorget in the upper center, and brass along the leather.

The word breastplate and the appearance of the object may give the impression that such items were used as armor. In fact they offered no protection in battle. They were, however, coveted by warriors as indicators of wealth and stature. It is not surprising then to see that this item has two distinct recycled features: a reflector, affixed near the top of the piece, and coins, hung from the lower portion. Both items were taken from other objects and sewn onto this piece to enhance and accentuate it. These items would have likely been difficult to acquire and that rarity added to the level of prestige associated with them. Also, the reflector, depending on who added it, may have functioned similarly to that of a mirror — an object that held great ritualistic and symbolic meaning for Native American people.

The elements added to this particular piece are obvious when compared to the previously discussed shell and show an intriguing way to display secondary objects as part of a larger whole. They also show how even everyday items, when a culture or individual is so inclined, can be used for a purpose much different from the original one. In all likelihood, this object may have lived two very different lives and acquired decorative details gradually as they were added by successive generations of family members. The coins, which date between 1887 and 1919, are significantly newer than the breastplate itself, leading to the conclusion that they were most likely not added to the breastplate by the original owner. Auxiliary elements such as these increase the difficulty of accurately dating a given object.

Another item that has indications of repeated and substantial recycling is the Crow beaded saddle blanket numbered 8426.658. To anyone who is carefully looking, this item communicates the history of the Crow people and the changes that took place on the Great Plains during the latter half of the 19th century. At first glance, this object appears to be a typical Crow beaded saddle blanket — an item designed to fit comfortably on the back of a horse with the beaded side exposed and draped over the horse’s hindquarters. A quick examination shows that the blanket is made of canvas and has printed lettering. This is not uncommon, but a more detailed inspection of the canvas shows smoke staining and stitching similar to that seen on tipi coverings. What does this tell us about the history of the object and the Crow people?

Almost everyone knows what tipis are. They were the standard living quarters for most nomadic or semi-nomadic Native American cultures on the North American Great Plains and were constructed using cone-shaped wood frames covered in buffalo hides. Due to daily wear and tear, the exteriors of tipis had to be replaced yearly. However, the near eradication of the buffalo in the late 1800s cost Native Americans one of their greatest resources, forcing them to trade or use government-issued canvas to construct their tipis.[6] This fabric, like buffalo hide, gradually wore out and needed to be replaced. Today we could, and usually would, simply throw away the canvas before replacing it with something new. However, this was not possible for Native Americans who were forced onto reservations and relegated to using government annuities. Therefore, we are looking at a saddle blanket that most likely came from canvas acquired via the U.S. government or by traders on the reservation. Rather than throw away the canvas, someone reused it. Following at least a year’s use as the lining of a tipi, where it was blackened by soot from fires, the canvas was stripped down and used as a saddle blanket. This one piece indicates a great many things if you are willing to look. First, it shows the gradual transition from animal hides to more commercial goods and, second, it highlights the lack of resources that gradually became the norm for most Native American communities living on the plains.[7]

One of the most unique items in the museum’s collection is a western styled beaded jacket. It is approximately one hundred years old and is heavily beaded and fringed. When I first came upon this jacket in the storage vaults I was a little confused. It is unlike any other piece of clothing that I had previously seen or studied. Although it is constructed like a typical jacket, it contains a wide variety of beaded pieces that simply do not belong. However, my momentary confusion quickly abated as I noticed that this item was one of the greatest examples of reuse and recycling in the museum. This jacket came into the Gilcrease collection in the late 1940s or early 1950s. It is extensively beaded on the back, around the collar, at the base, and on the front pockets. All of these beads worked perfectly to create what I believe was a Wild West Show jacket, and, although it is difficult to tell at first glance, every beaded piece was originally part of an entirely different object.

The easiest items to identify are the pockets. There or four — two located on the chest and two more several inches below. Each pocket is beaded in a unique pattern and each of these pockets were once small beaded bags. Whoever made this jacket cut the bags in half and sewed them to the front of the jacket. This technique was very effective and created perfect pockets, but it is far from the most noteworthy aspect of the jacket’s construction. The sleeves, which appear as if they belong on arms, are in fact made from a Lakota woman’s leggings. You can tell by the green strip at the bottom of the “sleeve.” The beaded green strip is thick at one end before subtly shrinking in size — a common feature of Lakota women’s leggings.

The most elaborate parts of the jacket are the beaded fragments on the shoulders, back midsection, and around the base. Each section is intricately beaded with geometric forms, crosses, lodge designs, etc., which fall against a solid dark blue beaded background. If you know what to look for, the shoulder and midsection become readily identifiable, but identifying the beadwork on the base of the jacket can be much more baffling. The shoulders and midsection are from a Lakota girl’s dress yoke. When the jacket’s sleeves are fully laid out, the dress’s design becomes obvious. It should also be noted that the beaded element commonly referred to as a turtle design is highlighted by yellow and green U-shaped beaded bands in the middle of the shoulders.[8] This turtle design became common after the 1870s and was only used on women’s dresses. The turtle was seen as a protective element and was displayed either below or in place of the deer tail design that was common in earlier dresses. The upper shoulder piece was the front of the yoke with the jacket’s midsection the dress’s reverse.

The jacket’s beaded base took longer to recognize but was determined to be a Lakota cradleboard cover.[9] Nearly all Native American cultures used swaddling and cradleboards to secure infants, and this need created a multitude of differing cradleboard styles. The most common style is found on the North American plains and was constructed using two wooden pieces tied in the shape of a V. Next, the cradleboards are enclosed with rawhide, cloth, and covered in elaborate beading. The beaded coverings typically have a uniform width throughout and are approximately 54 inches in length. Before the introduction of the horse, cradleboards were worn similarly to a backpack; however, as the horse made its way onto the plains and into the daily life of Native Americans, the cradleboard was tied to the saddle of the horse or added to the travois, which trailed behind it.[10] When not tied to a horse, the cradleboard was leaned against a tree or against the post of a tipi. The V-shaped design of the wood planks prevented the cradleboard from falling.

The final object to be discussed is perhaps the most underappreciated, yet possibly the most versatile object made by Native Americans. It is the parfleche. Parfleche is not a Native American word, but comes from the French Canadian parer, to ward off, and flèche, meaning arrow. Introduced by trappers and traders in the 1700s, this term originally referred to shields, and only gradually came to represent any untanned hide or painted rawhide container used for storage.[11] Prior to 1880, parfleche containers were made from the dried hide of buffalo, making each envelope, bag, tube, or box, strong, flexible, and waterproof. However, with the destruction of the massive buffalo herds on the American plains, different hides, such as elk, deer, moose, and cow, became more common.[12]

Parfleche is a perfect material for recycling, and when studying the multitude of items in the Gilcrease collection the large volume of salvaged parfleche becomes readily apparent. This is due to the strength and longevity of the hide as well as the variety of painted geometric forms typically seen on the exterior of the pieces. Take for example the eagle feather headdress (GM8426.261). This flared bonnet is constructed in the classical fashion with thirty feathers tied in a circular manner onto a felt skullcap. In order for the feathers to flare, the feathers are individually encased in small strips of rawhide, then covered in what is typically red trade cloth. This technique secures the feathers in place and adds an enhanced decorative element to the piece. When looking closely at this bonnet, it is apparent that not every piece of rawhide was made new. Some of the pieces are from a used parfleche envelope, as evidenced by the painted design on the rawhide.

In two other items in the Gilcrease collection that were constructed using secondhand parfleche — a pair of beaded moccasins and a pipe bag — the salvaged parfleche was evident only to the maker or the user. The parfleche on the moccasins is located on the soles of the shoes with the painted design only seen on the inside. In the tobacco bag, the used strips of parfleche were hidden under quillwork which was designed as the bag’s fringe. This was an ingenious reuse of an item that no longer functioned as a storage container and, until today, it was not visible to anyone.

When we consider today what it means to recycle — and how that concept has itself been recycled, it would benefit us to understand how common a practice recycling and repurposing was and how advantageous it can still be. In a world caught between commercialism and conservation, it is easy to think of recycling as a modern trend, but the roots of “going green” are far, far older. Rather than embrace the idea as something new, we should see it as something much broader and much older. Regardless of what it means to us today or how practical, efficient, and cheap it is, if we are willing to look at its history, it can also reveal how connected we are with the past and the values, resources, and lives of those who came before us.



1. F. Kent Reilly, Jr. , Texas State University, refers to this as antiquing. An example of this is the reworking of the Spear of Destiny or the breaking of copper at the potlatch, gift-giving, ceremony on the North American northwest coast.

2. Phillips, Philip and James Allison Brown. PreColumbian Shell Engravings from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma, Part 1: From the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma. Cambridge, Mass: Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, Harvard University, Publications Department, 1984.

3. ibid.

4. Jones, David E. Native North American Armor, Shields, and Fortifications. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

5. Ewers, John C. “Hair Pipes in Plains Indian Adornment: A Study in Indian and White Ingenuity.” Anthropological Papers, No. 50. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology, 1957.

6. Holley, Linda. Tipis, Tepees, and Teepees. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2007.

7. Laubin, Gladys and Reginald Laubin. The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction, and Use. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957.

8. Grafe, Steven L. American Indian Traditional Arts in A Western Legacy: The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.

9. This base section was identified by one of my colleagues, the noted beadworker Molly MurphyAdams.

10. Keoke, Emory Dean, and Kay Marie Porterfield. Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations. New York: Checkmark Books, 2003.

11. Torrence, Gaylord. The American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

12. ibid.