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A Generation of Beadwork: San Carlos Apache couple excels

San Carlos Apache artisans; Dale and Claire Gilbert. Photo by LCGross

San Carlos Apache Beadwork is renowned for its detail and two of the best craftsmen are a husband/wife duo who have been beading and sewing Sunrise Dresses for two decades.

His earliest memories of beading trace back to his grandmother.

The elder woman would spread her blanket on the ground and tell stories in Apache to her grandchildren while she beaded. Dale remembers the stories, although he spoke little Apache as a child.

Instead, it was her presence he remembers. “She sold little miniature items to the Peridot Trading Post, where she would trade her work for groceries. It was her way of supporting the family. Later on, it was his mother who beaded buckskin dresses and moccasins. “Even Dad picked up beading to help her during the busy times, “says Dale.

Dale Gilbert & wife, Claire are master beaders whose work is recognized by many serious collectors and museums. Working for the Artists-in-Residence program at the Heard Museum, their pieces have been purchased by the museum as part of the permanent collection. They are well known dress makers among the San Carlos Apache – and like their parents before them, are teaching their sons the cultural art of beading. The necklace worn by Claire here, was recently completed by her oldest son. Photo By: LCGross
Dale Gilbert and his wife, Claire are master beaders whose work is recognized by many serious collectors and museums. Working for the Artists-in-Residence program at the Heard Museum, their pieces have been purchased by the museum as part of the permanent collection. They are well known dress makers among the San Carlos Apache – and like their parents before them, are teaching their sons the cultural art of beading. The necklace worn by Claire here, was recently completed by her oldest son. Photo By: LCGross

Today, Dale Gilbert, a San Carlos Apache, remembers few words of Apache, but the lessons learned of tradition and beading stuck.

Turns out, he did not need to speak the language to absorb his grandmothers’ and mothers’ lessons: 

The Sharing of culture.

The Value of craft

The Security of family.

The Strength of tradition. 

When he turned 9 or 10, his mother suggested he could make some of his own money by beading simple coin purses to sell at the Trading post.

”She showed me how to do rosettes; just a circle, how you make two sides, sew them together and you have a coin purse. I remember the store was run by Joyce Montgomery and her husband, and they had this huge selection of 501 Levis. So my first thought was “Hey, I can buy myself a pair of those 501’s!”

Soon, he was making coin purses and sold his first one for fifteen or twenty dollars. It didn’t take long to make enough money to buy as many 501 jeans as he want, plus toys and candy along the way.

Around the same time, his mother started getting busy with beading dresses and she offered Dale and his sister twenty dollars every two weeks to help.  Setting up two looms, she would start several rows of a design and then ask both kids to complete two or three yards.

“That was a lot of money back then,” said Dale, and soon he and his sister would routinely do several hours of loom work each day after they got home from school.

“Mostly it was working with the whirlwind design – a design which uses simple colors,” Dale explains.  “ The blue and the white signify Yin and Yang; masculinity and femininity. It shows that you will have harmony within yourself.”

Later the he and his sister learned to work with more colors, including yellow and red. The four colors; red, white, blue and yellow are some of the first colors their Apache ancestors had to work with and these came to represent traditional elements.

When he married his wife, Claire the two began to design and bead dresses for Sunrise Dances; a sacred three day ceremony in which a young girl transitions to womanhood.

Known for their intricate beadwork and fine details which go into each dress, the Gilberts are sought after for their work.

The details on a sunrise dress which distinguishes Gilbert's work.
The details on a sunrise dress distinguishes Gilbert’s work. Photo by LCGross

Following tradition, Claire explains that she always cuts the dresses. “I never use a pattern. If Dale is going to do the dress, he may show me a sketch of the design, but then I just look at the hide and begin cutting.”

After it has been cut take the dress and proceed to work on the design involving dyeing parts of the hide, bead work, attaching cones and silver spots and applying fringe.

Unlike newer dressmakers who may stitch different colored hides together for a two tone dress, Dale and Claire like to work with the entire hide. Like their ancestors before them who tanned their own hides, they work the leather until it is supple and has turned white in the tanning process.

At this point they may hand dye the various parts of the dress which are to be yellow or tan.

“If the dress is to be all yellow, the dyeing process will take place before the beading. If it is a two tone dress (or more), the dyeing process takes place after the beading,” explains Dale.

The distinctive style of beadwork reflects the influences each experienced growing up. Claires’ own experience in traveling with her father’s ministry as a young girl introduced her to many tribal influences including Plains Indians and East Coast tribes. Dale was heavily influenced by the designs and the traditions passed on to him through his grandmother and mother.

Yet, he explains he is also drawn to the patterns he sees in other cultures and what he experiences in his own life.

In a vest he beaded after 9/11, he shows the skyscrapers against a black sky and the gathering of people from all nations coming together and talking.

When it comes to designing for Sunrise dresses Dale and Claire will meet with the girl and her family and listen to what they would like for the dress.

“We are often asked to use certain colors in a dress and we may start out with that,” explains Claire, “but as we work on a dress it takes on a life of its own.”

In the end, she says, they both follow their own voices, which many times come to them in a dream.

“These dreams…they often guide us in a design which is true for that girl.”

Dale added that some have requested a hummingbird or butterfly,”…and while those images might be really beautiful, we were taught that these were a strict NO in our tradition. For these represent aspects you don’t want your daughter to have as a woman.”

The beaded vest
An award winning beaded vest by San Carlos artisan, Dale Gilbert. Photo by LCGross

 According to Claire, the making of each Sunrise dress is a spiritual journey and is imbued with the intent of the dress maker. The energy and intentions of the dress maker is passed on to the girl. Which is why Claire explains, if she is sick she would never want to work on the dress until she is feeling better.

“When I cut the dress I want a good future for her,” Claire says.

The Gilberts believe they can tell if the girl is going to have an easy or hard time through the process of making the dress.  “If it is a struggle to finish, the dance will be difficult. And if the dress just comes together. We know then that the dance will be good.”

Trinity and Anna in their Sunrise Dresses which were made for this last year by the Gilberts. Tiffany’s dress was completed by Dale and Anna’s dress was completed by Claire. You can see remnants of the white paste on Anna’s dress, left over from her Dance. Trinity’s dress was recently cleaned, by the Gilberts, a process which upwards of a day. Photo by: LCGross
Trinity and Anna in their Sunrise Dresses which were made for this last year by the Gilberts. Tiffany’s dress was completed by Dale and Anna’s dress was completed by Claire. You can see remnants of the white paste on Anna’s dress, left over from her Dance. Trinity’s dress was recently cleaned, by the Gilberts, a process which upwards of a day. Photo by: LCGross

Pulling a hank of brilliant green beads from his satchel and holding them up to the light, Dale explains. “Right now, I have at least 3 to 4 shades of green, so even though a family may bring us 5 colors of beads to use, in the end Claire and I may use 15 or more colors on the dress.”

Claire goes on to explain that taking on a dress project means less time with her family, and, an all-consuming process which involves the girl, her family and others in completing a dress which will help carry her through this all-important ceremony.

Claire adds, “When I deliver a dress, I feel a person is missing. I can feel the absence.”

The Gilberts produce five or six dresses a year which are worn for the Sunrise ceremony and later may be kept for a lifetime or passed down to a younger family member.

In Apache culture, stories are part of the culture and tradition passed on from generation to generation. Like Elders spreading their blankets on the ground to talk to youngsters, Dale and Claire are preserving tradition through the stories they tell in their bead work.

 

 

Tia Jones 2537
Tia Jones, and her daughter Trinity and sister, Anna, agreed to let us photograph their Gilbert-inspired dresses for this article. The one worn by Anna was completed by Dale and the one worn by Trinity was completed by Claire. You can see the distinctive differences from the cut of the dress, the use of color and pattern, and the items which adorn the dresses. Each design intended to represent the girl. They say that every line of beadwork has special meaning as does the selection of colors, the pattern of beadwork, the placement of cones and silver spots, the application of specialty items like quills and abalone shells, and the color of the dress. Each element tells a story. Photo By: LCGross

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About Linda Gross

Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.

One comment

  1. hello, i have been trying to find a website or contact info for dale and Claire. I have been searching for an Apache buckskin for 2 years. If you have this information i would greatly appreciate this. Thank you Donna Padilla

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