Celia Lebre visits Ottawa (118)

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Celia Lebre visits Ottawa (118)
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Iroquois beadwork Glengary cap on display in the halls of the Parliament Buildings. www.flickr.com/photos/21728045@N08/4722454135/in/photostr…



A Haudenosaunee Tradition and Art
Dolores Elliott
The Iroquois tradition of raised beadwork began in west- ern New York in the late eighteenth century. It is slightly older than the other great North American Indian bead- working tradition that the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other people of the Plains developed. Raised beadwork is unique to the Haudenosaunee; it is made nowhere else in the world. The Senecas, who decorated clothes, sashes, and small pincushions with small glass beads in the eigh- teenth century, probably invented the style of Iroquois beadwork that still exists today. They were making bead- ed pincushions by 1799 and purses by 1807. In the mid- nineteenth century, ethnohistorian Lewis H. Morgan noted in his League of the Ho-de’-no-sau-see, or Iroquois the “delicacy, even brilliancy of their bead-work embroidery” on women’s clothing (1851, Book 3:384), and he included illustrations of beadwork on a needle case, woman’s skirt, cradleboard, heart-shaped pincushion, and work bag, the forerunner of a modern purse. He reported that in 1849 he had purchased five varieties of work bags as well as three varieties of pin cushions and five varieties of needle books (Morgan 1850, 57).
(Figure 4.1). While they sold their goods at nearby Montreal, the Mohawks also traveled extensively throughout North America to sell at fairs, exhibitions, wild west shows, and Indian medicine shows. Some even sold their beadwork when they traveled to England to perform Indian dances at Earls Court, an exhibition ground in London. Photographs taken in 1905 show these performers attired in clothing decorated with Mohawk beadwork.
The Iroquois tradition of beadwork continued to evolve in the nineteenth century, and by 1860 Mohawks near Montreal and Tuscaroras near Niagara Falls were creating elaborate pincushions, purses, and wall hangings adorned with raised beadwork. Despite the similarity of items created, the two geographic areas developed different styles of beadwork (Table 4.1). Throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, at the height of beadwork production, the Tuscaroras sold their beadwork mostly at Niagara Falls, on their reservation, and at the New York State Fair. They preferred to use small clear and white beads. During this same period, the Mohawks used larger clear beads and also employed red, blue, green, and yellow beads on most of their early pieces
Figure 4.1. Two needle cases that illustrate differences in nineteenth- century Mohawk (left) and Niagara (right) beadwork.
My personal family experience illustrates typical Iroquois beadwork transactions in the twentieth century. My story starts in 1903 when my grandmother went to the Afton Fair, a small agricultural fair in central New York. She took my nine-year-old father, but his sister, then eleven, was sick and could not go. My grandmother brought her home a present from the fair. It was a beauti- ful pink satin-covered bird-shaped pincushion that sparkled with light green beads (Figure 4.2). My aunt treasured this bird throughout her long life and displayed it proudly in her china cabinet, where I saw it when I was a child. At her death this cherished heirloom was passed on to her daughter who later donated it to the Afton Historical Society in Chenango County, where it is presently on view.
My research indicates that this bird was made by a skilled Mohawk beadworker from a Mohawk community located near Montreal and several hundred miles from the Afton Fair. This pincushion probably got to the fair with a group of Mohawks who traveled by train or wagon to perform at fairs, medicine shows, and exhibi- tions. While at these venues, they also sold their hand- made baskets and beadwork.
In 1958 I bought a small red heart-shaped pincushion at a booth in the Indian Village at the New York State Fair, which is held near Syracuse (Figure 4.3). It was a present for my mother, who displayed it prominently on her bed- room dresser for the next twenty-five years until I inher- ited it. Mary Lou Printup, a leading Tuscarora sewer, later identified this pincushion as one she had made. She, like most Tuscarora beadworkers prefer to be called “sewers,” a term not popular with some other Iroquois beadwork- ers. In my research and writing, I use the word “bead- worker” to refer to all except those individuals who specifically prefer to be called “sewers.”
When I purchased the red heart I had no idea that this pincushion had anything in common with the bird that my grandmother acquired fifty-five years earlier. I knew that I wanted to get something special for my mother, and this pincushion was special because it was beautiful and made by a native artist. In buying it I shared something with my grandmother, who died before I was born, that is, the purchase of a piece of Iroquois beadwork. Most likely the purchase of the bird was my German-born grandmother’s only interaction with a Haudenosaunee woman, and my purchase at the State Fair was my first interaction with a Tuscarora sewer, the first of many.
In a similar manner Iroquois beadworkers and their non- Indian customers, often tourists or attendees at a public entertainment venue, have been brought together by bead-work for over two centuries. These transactions undoubtedly number in the tens of thousands.1 During honeymoon trips to Niagara Falls and visits to agricultural fairs, exhibitions, and other attractions, people purchased Iroquois beadwork as mementos to remember these places and experiences. The beads often form designs featuring birds and flowers, natural themes that appealed to the Victorian women who drove the market of souvenir sales in the nine- teenth century. Studies by Beverly Gordon (1984; 1986) and Ruth B. Phillips (1998) describe the souvenir trade and point out the importance of these items to the people on both sides of the transactions.
Souvenir beadwork was so treasured that the pieces were frequently kept in cedar chests or keepsake boxes. Therefore, when unwrapped one hundred or more years later, they are often in pristine condition. Ironically, few contemporary beadworkers have samples of their ancestors’ work because it was usually made for sale to strangers, although some beadwork was created as gifts for family and friends.
Because most pieces were made for sale to tourists, many people have dismissed Iroquois beadwork as “souvenir trinkets” not important enough to collect, study, or exhibit. In fact, they are often called whimsies, a term that I believe trivializes them and diminishes their artistic and cultural value. But within the last two decades Iroquois beadwork has become the subject of serious study and museum exhibitions. At least four traveling exhibits of Iroquois beadwork have been installed in over a dozen museums and seen by thousands of museum visitors in the United States and Canada since 1999.2 This scholarly recognition has resulted in an increased appreciation of these beadwork creations and the artists who made them. What were considered curious tourist souvenirs when they were made are now generating increased respect from both the general public and the Haudenosaunee.
ry pieces, the back is a colorful calico. Some pieces, mainly in the Niagara Tradition, have a silk or cotton binding around their perimeters to cover the cut edges and attach the front and back fabrics. Tight beadwork on the edging often binds Mohawk pieces together so a cloth binding is not necessary. Flat purses as well as fist and box purses are constructed in the same manner, with cardboard as the base.
Contemporary beadworkers see their work as a signif- icant part of Haudenosaunee culture and an important link to the past. In Haudenosaunee communities bead- workers are admired as continuing a revered tradition. Although there are a few male beadworkers, the majority are women, and in a matrilineal-society with powerful clan matrons, the economic benefit of beadwork sales increases the influence of the women even more.
Pincushions were usually stuffed with sawdust, but sweet grass, cotton, cattail fluff, newspapers, and poly- ester have also been used. Contemporary craftsmen remember that their mothers preferred pine sawdust because of the nice aroma.4 Small strawberry-shaped pin- cushions are traditionally filled with emery, used to sharpen and polish needles. Velvet and twill-covered pic- ture frames and other wall hangings on cardboard bases have polished cotton backs on earlier pieces and calico on more recent ones. European glass beads were often aug- mented with metal sequins on nineteenth-century pieces and with plastic sequins and other plastic novelty beads since the late twentieth century. Bone and shell beads and leather, which are often used in other American Indian beadwork, rarely occur in Iroquois beadwork.
Iroquois beadwork is still sold at Niagara Falls, the New York State Fair, and several pow wows and festivals in the northeast; the methods of beadwork distribution have changed little over two hundred years. The bead-work itself, however, has changed tremendously. Over the last two centuries the styles of beadwork have evolved from simple small pincushions and purses to highly elaborate shapes, becoming works of art in the tra- ditional sense. The beads selected have progressed from the very small seed beads used around 1800 to the larger seed beads of 1900 and finally, by 2000, to a wider variety of bead sizes and colors.
The most common form of Iroquois beadwork, and the form most easily recognizable by people who are not familiar with Iroquois beadwork, is the flat black purse or bag featuring identical colorful, beaded floral designs on both sides. Most flat bags have flaps on both sides, but the opening is across the top where the two sides meet. The face fabric is usually black or very dark brown velvet, and the interior is often a light-colored linen or polished cot- ton. A binding, usually red, is attached around the closed sides of the purses. A beaded fringe is sometimes added. The fringe is merely sewn to the binding and does not hold the two sides of the bag together; it is purely deco- rative. The flaps usually are edged with white beads that are larger than the beads that outline the flaps and body (Figure 4.4). The flaps and body are sometimes outlined with short parallel lines like a stockade. The faces of the flap and body are covered by stylized flowers in shades of blue, red, yellow, and white connected with green stems, which are sometimes striped in two shades of green. Some bags feature a small slit pocket under one of the flaps. It may have been meant to hold a comb or mirror.
Iroquois beadwork remains a unique art form distin- guished by several characteristics found only in work created by Haudenosaunee beadworkers. Iroquois beadwork features a design in glass beads that have been sewn on a fabric that is stretched over a backing of cardboard or cloth lining. The materials used in the beadwork are predominately small seed beads, cloth, cardboard, paper, and in pincushions, a stuffing. The beads are sewn onto the fabric in geometric or natural designs using waxed, doubled white thread.3 The beads are usually sewn over a paper pattern that remains in place under the beaded elements. Although not practiced at all times in the histo- ry of Iroquois beadwork, the most distinctive trait is that the beads are raised above the surface of the cloth face. Some pieces have raised beaded elements that are over an inch high. The beads are raised by putting more beads on the thread than is needed to span the pattern so that the beads form an arch above the pattern. The amount of extra beads determines how high the arches are, that is, how much the beadwork is raised. Various velvets were and still are the favored fabrics, but other fabrics such as wool, twills, silk, and satin are also used. Pincushions often have beaded velvet fronts and polished cotton backs. Polished cotton is a shiny stiff material that is also referred to as chintz or oilcloth. On the majority of late twentieth-century and contemporary twenty-first-century…

Preserving Tradition and Understanding the Past: Papers from the Conference on Iroquois Research, 2001–2005, Edited by Christine Sternberg Patrick, New York State Museum Record 1 © 2010, by The University of the State of New York, The State Education Department, Albany, New York 12230. All rights reserved. Click on top link for more.

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