Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Traditional Techniques:
Learning the Beauty and Skill of Native Handwork

Josephine Wapp (Comanche) was one of the first Native arts teachers at IAIA. She was hired as the Traditional Techniques instructor, and was well-known for her skills and talents in weaving, beadwork, and leatherwork. Wapp learned many of her clothing-making techniques from her maternal grandmother, and she passed on these skills to her students.

As one of IAIA’s more popular classes, the Traditional Techniques curriculum allowed students the opportunity to learn how to make tribal clothing styles and how to ‘Indianize’ popular fashion trends. In the IAIA course catalogues, the Traditional Techniques course was described as follows:

“This course is planned to provide knowledge and skills in traditional crafts with opportunities for modern adaptations. Through the making of dance costumes, clothing, shawls, through leather and beadwork as well as techniques with shells and feathers the student develops an appreciation of the beauty and skilled craftsmanship that went into the traditional handwork of his people. Continued work beyond the first unit leads to the ability to adapt Indian techniques to contemporary materials, styles and forms.”

The clothing made in these courses was worn by the students during important events or for fashion shows, and the garments were displayed widely as powerful affirmations of Indianness.


(Left to Right)
“Traditional & Contemporary Indian Fashions” display, ca. 1960s. IAIA Archives

IAIA students at the Solari Theatre, ca. 1978. These students probably made their outfits in the Traditional Techniques courses, and similar garments have been photographed in IAIA fashion shows. Courtesy of the Archives of IAIA.

(Left to Right)
Navajo Dress, ca. 1965. Wool fabric.  Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. N-427.

Two-piece vest and skirt by Priscilla Park (Jemez), ca. 1989. Part wore this outfit for her graduation ceremony. Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. J-69.