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Dress Owner: Viola Risling (Hupa, Karuk, Yurok)
Dress Maker: SuWorhrom Maggie Charley
About This Dress -
SuWorhrom Maggie Charley (Charlie) lived on the upper Klamath River at the village of SuWorhrom. She had a son, SuWorhrom David who was born in 1887. They lived with her father SuWorhrom Charlie and his Uncle Upgraph (who the white men called Chet-Gus) who was a medicine man.
Life for this family was not easy, but it was fullfilling. By 1887 settlers had been in the Klamath River area for close to 30 years. SuWorhrom David (David Risling, Sr.) would write of his Uncle Upgraph:
I saw many bullet wounds on his body from the white soldier's guns. He was about fifty years old when he saw the first white man that came to his area, and about 1895 he was then almost one hundred years old and I was about seven years old, we both could not speak one word of the English language. (1971)
In Karuk Country, Native people had to contend with miners raiding their villages, committing violence against women and children, and mining their homes into the river. Many of them were killed. Despite this the Karuk people worked tirelessly to continue their religious ceremonial dances. Maggie's family were and still are dance leaders and medicine people. She worked along side them to maintain these cultural ties.
Around 1890 Maggie married George Simpson, a Hupa Indian, and moved with him to Hoopa. George Simpson adopted her son David in the American and Indian way and treated him as his own.
Maggie would have two daughters with Simpson, one who died at a very young age and the other who died in 1911 at the Phoenix Indian School.
As Maggie left to be married she brought with her a number of valuable items. One of them was this dress. Her son (David Risling, Sr.) wrote:
Many Indian helpers took part getting things together and ready to travel by boat. She took her ceremonial dress which was also used by her Mother during the preparations for the religious ceremonial dances and also used in the dances, and she took along with her many more ceremonial Indian things. (1969)
Maggie lived in Hoopa for a number of years. When she became fatally ill with tuburculosis she returned with her son back to the village of SuWorhrom in Karuk Country where she died around 1897.
This dress, affectionately referred to as her "wedding dress" was passed to David Risling, Sr. from the time he was very young. It was passed to his daughter, Viola Risling after his death.
Since the mid 1800s this dress has been worn by generation after generation of young Indian women as they participate in and perpetuate a culture that has existed since time immemorial.
During the 1960's - 2000's this dress was used as part of public demonstrations of Native American Culture throughout the world. The dress was worn at the opening of DQ-University, the first tribal college in California. The dress has also been worn in numerous ceremonies including the brush dance and jump dance.
I remember wearing this dress seventeen years ago (or so) in the Jump Dance, which is one of our world renewal ceremonies in Hoopa. It was heavier than I thought it would be, all of that bear grass in the apron really adds up, but it was also very easy to dance in. I can especially remember the special sound it makes, the swish, swish of the grass and the ting, ting of the shells. I kept thinking about how many other women, for many, many generations had heard those sounds as well. It was like we were connected. -Cutcha Risling Baldy
Dress Owner: Joy Sundberg (Yurok)
Dress Maker: Nellie HIll
About This Dress - (as told by Joy Sundberg)
It’s a dress that’s made the old way...not many [dresses like this] around anymore that are still in the community and actively dancing. It takes a lot of work to put a dress together in this way. It was made by Nellie (Bullhead) Hill sometime in the early 1920’s. Nellie was quite an artist and an excellent boat woman. She could out-paddle anyone on the river. ...she commanded a high bride price because she was so multi-talented.
She was Grandpa Natt’s (Robert Natt Sr.) first cousin. She made this dress as payment to Grandma Crutchfield (Susie Donnelly Crutchfield) because she owed her in the Indian way. Grandma had gathered most of the materials for the dress and she had tanned the hide herself. Grandma was noted for her tanning skills. So she gave the materials to Nellie to put together. Those abalone for instance, were hand cut and polished by my Uncle (Frank Douglas), he cut them out with a hack saw and polished them in the sand.
Grandma Crutchfield was way ahead of her time, she traveled throughout California. She was owner and caretaker of a lot of regalia, along with S’regon George who was her relation. He took care of her men’s things. Grandma had 6 dresses and this one she gifted to my sister (Mary “Jackie” Birchfield) who took care of her. Jackie didn’t have any daughters so she asked me to buy it from her to keep it in our family.
Since I have owned it and been responsible to it, it has danced many places, it has had a full and busy life. It has packed medicine in brush dances, it has danced in jump dances, and it was worn by my granddaughter Kayla in her flower dance. That was the first coastal Yurok flower dance to be done in 140 years. It was created to dance and I have taken it all over to dance just like Grandma Crutchfield did. She sent her stuff everywhere to dance in all types of dances.
In the 60’s, I started doing educational talks in the schools in all 6 counties of Northern California because I was coordinator for the Indian Ed. program in the six counties. I would take that dress and baskets and all kinds of cultural items and give talks to school kids to educate them on the true history of Indian people in California. I gave presentations throughout the state at elementary schools, high schools and universities. The dress went out to Oklahoma and danced with the Comanche’s and Shoshone’s in a pow wow. It has truly been all over.
The dress continues to be used to educate the public about our culture and about dance protocol and traditional values. It clearly demonstrates the value of resource management and traditional stewardship in looking at the different materials that it took to create it. At the time it was made you couldn’t go down to the store and buy commercial made beads or tanned hides... That reminds of a story about Nellie, she was gathering materials up somewhere in Del Norte County, in one of the state or national parks and the park ranger tried to tell her she was trespassing and that she couldn’t gather there, that it was against the law. She said she had been gathering there for years, since before the park existed, she said she wasn’t leaving. If you want me to leave, she said, you will have to shoot me. She stood her ground for her rights. The same thing happened to Elsie Allen, famed basket maker from Pomo country, they threatened her too but she stood her ground. Same thing for Grandma Crutchfield...
I want to give to credit to these ladies and the many other ladies who were my elders that fought for our rights as Indian people. They were the original activists and maybe that’s where I get my activist blood from, people always want to know what kind of trouble I’m starting today..(laughs). I’m telling you this because I think it’s important to illustrate that this dress is strong, like the women who made it. And as it continues to dance in our ceremonies that strength can be found in the young women who dance it.