Beginning in the 19th century, American Indian tribes were forced to give up their native lands, and ultimately many of them were forced to live on reservations. Living conditions on the reservations were harsh; the infant mortality rate was extremely high, and other diseases also took their toll. While the U.S. government gave lip service to job creation, in reality there were few job opportunities on or near the isolated reservations.
Christian missionaries on the reservations were particularly aware of the horrific living conditions, and many of them encouraged the development of native American crafts such as basket-weaving (particularly among the Creeks and Cherokees) as well as the making of rugs and blankets (the Navahos are most well-known for this craft, but women from other tribes also practiced this craft). These were traditionally women’s work within the tribes. By the early 20th century, there was a growing market in the east for these craft products.
However, in 1890, a white missionary to the Ojibway Reservation in Minnesota began teaching the women there a craft that had deep European roots – lace-making. That missionary, Sybil Carter, had travelled extensively through the Far East, and had observed the skill with which Japanese women made lace; they had been taught this art by European missionaries. Carter believed that Native American women could also be taught to make lace, but first she had to teach herself how to make it! Then, in Minnesota, she trained a dozen Indian women how to make lace collars, bedspreads, tablecloths, and other items. She then arranged to sell those items to wealthy women back East. Her idea spread to at least a dozen other reservations through the Midwest, where eventually dozens of Native American women tatted lace or used bobbins.
In 1899, 18 women at the Onondaga Reservation in central New York were introduced to lace-making. They produced handkerchiefs embroidered with English point, Battenburg and Houton Lace, and their products were quickly snatched up by wealthy matrons such as Mrs. Pierpont Morgan and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt.
In 1904, Sybil Carter established the Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association, which distributed hand-made lace items to markets and retail stores in the eastern U.S. While the Association proudly marketed the work as that of Native Americans, Carter and others did not trust any leadership roles to Indian women; Carter, like many other white missionaries, saw Indians as being child-like and incapable of more than manual labor.
Her Association disbanded in 1926, largely because lace no longer was in demand by modern women. The government also changed its Indian policy after the 1920s, giving tribal governments more authority. Lace-making was not a traditional Native American craft, so few women were encouraged to continue producing items. However, the work they did produced was beautiful and today are collector’s items.