Adorned in Spirit

Cathy A. Smith and Jennifer Jesse Smith

WHEN KEVIN COSTNER met Cathy Smith, he struck gold. He wanted his new film, Dances with Wolves, to be something different: an authentic western, with actual Natives Americans playing Natives Americans, with all the sets and all of the costumes historically accurate.

Cathy Smith grew up with the Lakota, and learned beadwork and quillwork from Lakota masters. She traveled to museums around the country with the goal of designing truly authentic clothing, rich in detail, steeped in history.

When Costner’s crew saw what she had done, they immediately hired her. And if you’ve seen Dark Winds, Longmire, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Geronimo, Comanche Moon, or the Son of the Morning Star, you’ve seen her handiwork.

Her daughter, Jennifer Jesse, also grew up with the Lakotas, and she too designs jewelry that is frequently used in films.

We spoke to them at the Nambe Trading Post, which they run as a shop and museum as well as a venue for displaying their creations.

How did growing up on a reservation affect your clothing design?

Cathy: Jennifer and I were both born in Deadwood, a crazy old western town. Our ranch was in the sacred Black Hills, in the shadow of Bear Butte, the sacred center of the Lakota and the Cheyenne.

My grandfather was one of the original cowboys in South Dakota. He came out there and homesteaded in 1911.

But I’m half Lakota – my great-grandmother was a medicine woman. Her name was Maza Win, or Iron Woman. Her grandson, I call him Father, trained me for 20 years. He gave me a powerful spirituality, which you need as a single mother raising a daughter alone out on a ranch. You gotta get some help from the spirits.

Jennifer: Yeah, help from the ancestors. And we did.

Cathy: When I was young, my grannies and my aunties helped me master beadwork. I really wanted to do quillwork, but you have to be a Double Woman Dreamer to do it, so I went through a whole series of ceremonies and was lucky enough to learn from the last living Double Woman Dreamer. She was 86 years old and was the granddaughter of Crazy Horse’s mentor. Quillwork is all done with awl and sinew, not needle and thread. When she passed, she gave me her awl.

Then I moved to Santa Fe, the one city in the world where I could make a living doing beadwork and quillwork. I also restored artifacts for museums and collectors. Every year I would save all my money and Jennifer and I would go to museums that curated Great Plains Indians collections. We would go into the vaults and photograph all of this amazing stuff.

Jennifer, how did you start with jewelry?

Jennifer: With my medicine bag. When I was tiny, my grandma gave me a medicine bag to keep all of my sacred stuff in. No one could see in it. Since then, I’ve felt this deep connection between a wearer and an adornment, like the adornments in that bag. I think jewelry somehow speaks to the essence of the person who wears it.

Cathy, how did you get into costume design?

Cathy: I was restoring artifacts and I got a call from one of the galleries who said, We’ve got some movie people in here. They’re doing research for a movie about the Sioux in 1860, and they need to find somebody who could make costumes and you’re the only one we know, would you like to come meet up? It was Kevin Costner’s production designer. They came out and saw my studio … I was working by the next night.

Dances with Wolves was an iconic film because it set the standard for all the Westerns to follow. It was the first time ever Native American costumes were correct – ever. It was filmed in a real Lakota location with real Lakotas – my mom and my aunties, my brothers and sisters were all in the movie.

Yeah, before that Indians were always played by…

Cathy: Italians.


I guess you did a pretty good job since you’ve worked on a lot of major Westerns since.

Cathy: When we were finishing up, the producers of Son of Morning Star called. When they saw what I had done, they hired me immediately. Because the costumes are not really costumes, they’re authentic clothing. They are regalia.

I won an Emmy for that, the only time Native American costumes have won an Emmy. Now I’m working with Dark Winds and with Kevin on his new movie, Horizon. He called all of us who worked on Dances with Wolves 32 years ago. All of us who are still alive anyway.

And Jennifer is making earrings for the western series Walker Independence.

Do you have the same focus on historical accuracy in the jewelry?

Jennifer: Yes, everything has a creation story behind it. My split-tail swallow pieces have the essence of the Ghost Dance in it. I read creation stories and design my pieces, inspired by them.

For my Woman’s Coin piece, I wanted it to be archetypal, so I morphed faces of Sacagawea and Joan of Arc. I made that one in honor of the First Women’s March. My work has meaning, myth and beauty. It connects with the essence of the wearer. And then the story continues.

Cathy: Our art is wearable, it is adornment. It gives power and connects with Spirit.

Cathy, you talk about magic: I grew up in the stories of Crazy Horse and Old Man Afraid of His Horse, and when they told me medicine men could turn a bullet or make the sun leave the sky, it was magical. You say making movies is another kind of magic. Talk about magic.

Cathy: Magic. I have to say, there were times when I was working on Dances with Wolves , times where I thought I had gone back in time and was seeing a vision. When the right elements come together, you can actually make magic in a film. You can transport people to another place and leave them with something valuable that they didn’t have before. And that’s what we both try to do in all of our work. I’ve been in search of magic my whole life.

Jennifer: Me too.


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Photo Peter Weidenfeller