The Maker: Beaded Embroidered Bags

Artisan Katrina Mitten creates hand-beaded purses following a thread from her tribe’s past.

Tony Valainis

For Katrina Mitten—a member of the Miami tribe of Native Americans—reclaiming the craft of Great Lakes–style beadwork embroidery became a decades-long obsession. “I started looking into it when I was about 12,” the Huntington resident says. “There was no one left in Indiana who was doing the art of my people.”

During the Indian Removal of 1846, all but five Miami families were forced to leave the Hoosier state and relocate to Oklahoma. Families of chiefs—including Mitten’s—were permitted to stay. Because they were pressured to assimilate, though, they struggled to preserve their traditions. Still, by examining beadwork on family heirlooms and in museums, Mitten reverse-engineered the technique. “I saw how their stitches were done, how their colors were used, and how they interpreted the world around them,” she says.

Depicting local flora, family tribal stories, and even current events, Mitten’s own beadwork now resides in the collections of the Eiteljorg Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. She hand-beads jewelry and clothing, but is particularly drawn to the shapes of box-style purses. Her beaded clutches cost between $900 and $3,000, depending on their intricacy. One can take hundreds of hours to complete. “I embroider four beads at a time,” she says. “And it takes three stitches for every four beads.”

Mitten makes these elaborate purses using the same Czechoslovakian beads her ancestors would have traded for. Perfecting color combinations can take as long as the beading itself. “As you add one color, it may make other colors look totally different,” she says.

Having successfully reclaimed an ancient Miami tradition, Mitten is now perpetuating hand-beading by teaching her granddaughter the technique. “When there’s an art that’s traditional to our people,” she says, “it needs to survive.”

Buy It
This doctor’s bag–style purse features elk-hide trim and a floral motif that’s hand-embroidered with glass beads from Czechoslovakia. $4,500.