In 1994, Steven James a collector of Hopi and Navajo Kachinas, chanced upon a Navajo Medecine Man’s kilt and two rattles in an antique dealors shop in Tucson.
But no amount of further research yielded any information about similar looking kilts. In fact, Curators and American Indian friends told him that it was not Navajo at all. They seemed to think it was South American.
Dr William Merrill, Curator for Central and South American Ethnology at the Anthropology department of the National Museum of Natural History, agreed that it wasn’t Navajo but could not ID it and suggested to contact the Textile Museum and/or any of their associates. Gradually, his search led to Jeff Krauss, the president of the IHBS, who in turn passed the buck to me!
Several things about the piece struck me: the central bird motif, the pompoms, the use of color, the wide floats and the ric-rac.
I began by searching for bird motifs in Latin America and ruled it out. Next I thought it might be Uzbek- bold, graphic. Then, I decided to be audacious and say that it was actually from my country – Kutch, in India. I own a piece with similar aesthetic. But… upon further research I found that bird motifs were not similar. I had already ruled out South East Asia, and was almost giving up.
And then it clicked – It was Naga!
Long story short, the King of Manipur(1598-1652) ordered the Khoisnam family to pay their tribute in the form of this shawl, which he then gifted to the Nagas, known to be head hunters.
This is a Sasangasaba or Elephant shawl.
So how does a Sasangasaba from remote , dangerous and inaccessible North East India land up in Navajo land?
That is the story of my next blog!