For over 150 years, Tlingit women artists have beaded colorful, intricately beautiful designs on moccasins, dolls, octopus bags, tunics, and other garments. Painful Beauty suggests that at a time when Indigenous cultural practices were actively being repressed, beading supported cultural continuity, demonstrating Tlingit women’s resilience, strength, and power. Beadwork served many uses, from the ceremonial to the economic, as women created beaded pieces for community use and to sell to tourists. Like other Tlingit art, beadwork reflects rich artistic visions with deep connections to the environment, clan histories, and Tlingit worldviews. Contemporary Tlingit artists Alison Bremner, Chloe French, Shgen Doo Tan George, Lily Hudson Hope, Tanis S’eiltin, and Larry McNeil foreground the significance of historical beading practices in their diverse, boundary-pushing artworks.
Working with museum collection materials, photographs, archives, and interviews with artists and elders, Megan Smetzer reframes this often overlooked artform as a site of historical negotiations and contemporary inspirations. She shows how beading gave Tlingit women the freedom to innovate aesthetically, assert their clan crests and identities, support tribal sovereignty, and pass on cultural knowledge. Painful Beauty is the first dedicated study of Tlingit beadwork and contributes to the expanding literature addressing women’s artistic expressions on the Northwest Coast.