After his cradleboard won first place for beadwork at the Heard Museum’s art market, Elias Jade NotAfraid got a phone call that would change his life.
A curator from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art was on the other end of the call and wanted to purchase his creation for the museum’s permanent collection.
“When I hung up, I was like, ‘Oh my God!” NotAfraid said, adding that it took a while for reality to set in.
NotAfraid, a 32-year-old Crow artist, had been working on the cradleboard, called “Life after Death,” for years. When he first had the idea to create it in 2018, he immediately started collecting materials. NotAfraid visited taxidermists, butchers and pawnshops to collect 200 ivory elk teeth. Every bull elk has two teeth made of ivory.
“Elk teeth are like diamonds in Crow culture,” NotAfraid said. “Once an elk decays, the only thing left are the ivory teeth.”
People are also reading…
He visited vintage doll stores, trading posts and antique shops to purchase vintage glass beads, including some that were made in the 1800s, and he collected 85 ermine tails from white weasels. It took NotAfraid two years just to collect materials for the project. He used smoked deer and elk hides to support the board, which stands 48 inches tall.
Native Americans used cradleboards to swaddle and protect their newborns. NotAfraid said most boards had a leather strap, so babies, wrapped in blankets, could lie in the cradleboard while hanging from a horse as their tribe traveled.
NotAfraid’s completed board invokes traditional patterns but with a modern twist. The beaded headboard features bright orange, red and yellow flowers inspired by a drawing NotAfraid found in his great-grandmother’s home. The bottom flower has a skull in the center, which NotAfraid said symbolizes death and rebirth.
“When we die, we go into the ground,” he said. “And the cycle of life continues again. This board is honoring these animals that died to make it.”
NotAfraid said the Met wasn’t the only museum interested in the cradleboard. The Art Institute of Chicago wanted to purchase it, but there were complications regarding the use of ivory. The Smithsonian also contacted him after he showed the board at the Santa Fe Indian Market last year. But because the Smithsonian is a federal institution, NotAfraid said the process involved a lot of paperwork and personal information that he couldn’t provide.
“I live in Lodge Grass on the rez,” NotAfraid said, referencing the Crow Reservation. “I’m in the mountains and work out of my house, and I tried to register my business, and the system didn’t recognize my address on the rez. It was just difficult.”
NotAfraid said he’d always hoped the piece would end up in a museum. In the Met’s permanent collection, his cradleboard will be accompanied by ancient artifacts and paintings and sculptures from major artists. It will be on display in 2023.
“For me, it just shows anybody can come from a really dark place and do something great,” NotAfraid said, adding that he struggled with opioid addiction for years. “I used beading as a tool to cope.”
NotAfraid said he hopes this accomplishment will inspire others.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I’m from Lodge Grass — the middle of nowhere. And my work is in the Met! For my peers and anyone in my tribe, it shows the opportunities are there, and you just have to be passionate about it and go for it.”