Rhonda Besaw with Three of Her Beaded Bags

Rhonda Besaw is an active member of the Abenaki Nation of New Hampshire, born in Littleton, New Hampshire. She lives in Whitefield, New Hampshire.  Her ancestors have lived along the Connecticut River valley for hundreds of years. Her tribal heritage is Eastern and Western Abenaki. She began doing beadwork in 1996.

Rhonda grew up knowing of her native history as Abenaki and Canadian Metis— but really started exploring the material culture of her heritage through beading.“…I started getting interested in that aspect of who we were. So I went to a Mi’kmaq woman to make clothing that honored my ancestors. And I had a picture of a skirt that I wanted to make. I had not done well in home economics, I couldn’t sew, all I could do was embroider. But she very much encouraged me to give it a try. She taught me the beading stitches, which were very simple. And I picked up on it quickly. And I learned very quickly too, it’s very labor intensive. But once I started doing it, …I just took to it. And that, that opened up a whole world of reading about the old designs and the old beadwork. And then developing my own designs.”

Petrogryphs Beaded Bag for Gerry Biron, 2009

“Beadwork itself is a solace and helps heal.  I have heard other beadworkers say they heal from beadworking as it removes you from sorrow, it puts your mind somewhere else, puts you in a prayerful state. The purse named “Petroglyphs” is one of my more spiritually-connected pieces, one of my favorites, because of the symbols in it. Gerry Biron specifically inspired that piece as he told me that he planned to go look at the petroglyphs in Bellows Falls, Vermont and find out more about who made them, and why. The purse is now in Gerry’s collection and on loan from him to the Abbe. Gerry’s book, collection and display “Made of Thunder, Made of Glass,” remains one of my main inspirations.”

“Another person, also a curator and collector, who is a primary mentor is Richard Green, of the United Kingdom. His collections are also published in book form; it was Green who told me that my work was important to carry on in part because no one else was doing it. I was so busy researching and actually doing the work that I didn’t understand what he meant, that my work is carrying on a nearly lost tradition.”

 “…when the Dutch traders showed up in the 1600s with beads,” she said, “we saw those beads and incorporated them into what we were already doing, so it was like the tools changed. And instead of using bone needles and sinew, we started trading for metal needles and thread. And then instead of hides, we started trading for hides for wool. But some of our designs that we still use today are designs that were used long ago. So a design that might have been used on painted clothing in the 1600s we still have those designs.”

With commissioned pieces, Besaw usually talks to the person buying the piece to get a sense of what they want. With their ideas in mind, she will then look for ways that she can bring a technique or design aspect from her culture into the piece. “I use a lot of medicine plant designs in my work because historically we would have put medicine plant designs on our clothing to give us the protection and the aid that we needed. And often what you need most is the thing that is most available to you,” she said. “For example, wild strawberry is a plant you see in very old beadwork designs. And fiddlehead ferns are one of the first plants that comes in in the spring. It comes first to feed us. …I use brain-tanned deer hide, as there are still people doing that, in Cornish, NH; I learned how to make the Abenaki style moccasin from an Abenaki man, but I don’t know anyone else who adds the beadwork. Parts of the work are so difficult that each time I make a pair I say I won’t make another. But someone asked me recently to bead a traditional Penobscot design and I thought, “Well, I have to do it because I want the designs out there.”

Rhoda explains how sometimes design begin, “Something you receive in a dream is a gift and you have to make it right away, otherwise you are not honoring that gift,” she said. “So sometimes when I dream of a design, I wake up and draw it out very quickly with all the colors. So in that way I’ve made it. Then, it’s all there already when I go to make the piece … the hard work is already done. You have to prepare yourself to be in a good frame of mind to do it,” she said. “The energy you put into it is like a prayer and it’s an energy and a prayer that the person who’s wearing the regalia is going to carry with them. They of course will add their own energy, but in the beginning, you have to be aware of your energy as you make it. It’s a spiritual endeavor and to me it’s such an honor. It means more to me than anything. It’s more precious.”

Milky Way Rebirth Bag

Rhonda graduated in 1977 from Keene State College with a BA in Psychology and a minor in English. She was employed by the State of New HampshireDepartment of Health and Human Services for 29 years. In the late 1990’s, Rhonda was a Board member and Secretary for the Dawnland CenterThe Dawnland Center was a Native based Red Road Treatment facility (for drug and alcohol abuse) in Montpelier, VT. (This center has closed.) Since October 2005, Rhonda has enjoyed serving as a Board Member and as the Secretary of Ndakinna, Inc., a 501-c3 non-profit organization, dedicated to serving the needs of Native Americans living in Northern New England. She has been a member of the NH Health Care Coalition, (through the State of New Hampshire Office of Minority Health) and the State of New Hampshire Cultural Diversity Task Force for many years. She is actively involved in working with schools in Vermont and New Hampshire to end their use of Native peoples as sports team mascots, and has used this issue to educate the public about the harmful effects of stereotyping. She is an active member of the W’Abenaki Dance group.

The story about the Milky Way Rebirth bag follows, “I did this piece when my husband’s sister was ill.  We were traveling back and forth to help out and it was a really hard time for everyone. The image was as a result of a dream I had during that hard time. The purse’s image symbolizes the Milky Way, and a line shows the ancestors traveling, to be reborn. My sister-in-law ultimately did pass over from her cancer.  So, this is a purse I won’t sell, but rather, I would gift it to someone. I would simply not take money for it. The purse touches many people, as seen by their reactions…In addition, I hope my outreach will inspire someone else to pick up this art, to get the bug. When I teach, I bring my own beads; I tell people to buy the best they can afford, so as not to get discouraged.  I didn’t have anyone to put it all together and teach the entire process to me, but now I can do that for others.”

“I take up the needle and I get from it a feeling of connection to the creator and the creative source,” said Besaw. “It’s not work, it’s a form of prayer or meditation for me. It’s a connection to my ancestors and a testament to the survival of our people. How we are still here. We’ve held on and are still doing the things my ancestors did. It’s very much my passion. But it’s not all about me; I can’t separate what I do from what my ancestors did. It’s all connected. In the Abenaki language, there is no word for time. There is no word for art, for it is just what we do,” she said. “I really can’t call what I do a career, it is just what I do. We all have our gifts. Some people have gifts for song or dance and they use those gifts to honor the creator. I was gifted with good hands and good eyes and ability, nothing more. Everyone has their gifts.”

Trillium Beaded Abenaki Moccasins

“My ancestors have lived in southern Quebec, Canada, and on both sides of the Kwinitekw (Connecticut) River in New Hampshire and Vermont for hundreds of years.  By doing beadwork in the same style and manner as my ancestors, I honor those who have gone before me and give to those in the future. Through beadwork, the reality of Abenaki survival can be shared and acknowledged.  Through beadwork, perhaps my brothers and sisters, my relatives, will recognize a piece of who they are and who they were.  Perhaps some will be inspired to learn more about their culture.  Perhaps others will be inspired to pick up a needle and thread and tell their own story of survival.”

“To me, beading is breathing. It is that natural and essential.  Just as breathing keeps the physical body alive, beadwork keeps my spirit alive.  Beadwork designs that are influenced by the world around me, such as mountains or medicine plants, keep me observant, grounded and grateful to Mother Earth.  Designs received from the dream world and visions are a most treasured gift.  I marvel at waking up in the morning with a beadwork design fully developed in my mind.  The colors, the patterns, the symbols and the meaning – it’s all there!  Every stitch becomes a prayer of thanksgiving to my ancestors and the Creator. My needle just flies when making such a project!  These designs are the most powerful – the physical manifestation of spirit captured in bits of glass and cloth.”

wool, silk ribbons, glass beads - appliqué stitch

Hands Purse





Biron, G. Made of Thunder, Made of Glass – American Indian Beadwork of the Northeast. Saxtons
River, Vermont. 2006.





Thinking about and maintaining a close relationship with the Natural World is something that every person can do each day. One way to maintain and grow a close relationship with the earth is to practice gratitude for all of the beauty, life, growth, and amazing interactions of nature that we see all around us. Learning about respect, love and honoring the forces of nature help our own lives to feel happier and calmer.

This Natural World is intended to be our home, is part of our family and is to be greeted with love. Getting outside and experiencing the changing seasons, the weather, the plants and animals, the sunrises and sunsets, clouds, trees, stream and lakes, and the love from all of these take us to a place of remembering how to be in relationship with nature. We can remember to say our loving gratitudes to thank all of life. This helps us and helps the Natural World.

Everything is family. Everything deserves to be respected and cared for as we would a beloved family member. We protect our family with a fierce love. We protect our Natural World with a fierce love.

And even though the snipe is small, the snipe is very enthusiastic about being in its environment. The snipe is close to the land. The snipe is “a good example of how we can all thrive in our environment” even when we feel too small to make a difference. Our love and our intent do make a difference.

The Cornell Lab of Orinthology – Wilson’s Snipe – http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/wilsons_snipe/id


Double Medicine Bears, Block Print, 12"x12", July 2014

Double Medicine Bears, Block Print, 12″x12″, July 2014

What is it about bears that we all seem to respond towards? I see videos of bears waving hi and bye, and people just cracking up. I see pics of baby bears and pass them along myself. And my brother-in-law has been flat out slapped down and bit by a bear on his back shoulder – then flighted out to a hospital. We seem to all have a lot of varying attachments to and discussions about bears and how bears greet us.


In the Oneida Language Animation Series on YouTube (see OniedaProductions, “Charlie the Bear Personal Questions”), Charlie Doxtater becomes the animated “Charlie the Bear.” He teaches important basic Oneida language lessons and again his animated bear-self just cracks me up. (Good job on the animation to Michelle Danforth.) At the 1:25 minute mark, with Lesson 1, the Basic Greeting is asking about and telling if there is peace within you.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing the concept of noticing the health of our clan animals. The health of our clan animals also indicates the health of our clans. When we greet each other, we actually are saying, “I see the health/peace within you.” The answer in the “Charlie the Bear Personal Questions” video is “I have peace within me.” This everyday greeting is designed to remind all of us, with each relationship interaction, of the importance of recognizing our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health or peace that is within each of us. This overall health/peace is the strength of the individual and thus becomes the health/peace of the family, and then the health/peace of the community.

Similarly, below is a video in the Mohawk language, where the greeting refers back to the Peacemaker, “Do you have the Great Peace?”


“Double Medicine Bears” carries the greeting of health that makes for overall peace. This is one the of strongest forms of medicine available to each of us, each and every day. It reminds us to attend to our health and internal peace through our daily practice and greeting each other in health and peace.

Indiginesse Memes

06. Blue Gallery 2Indiginesse, a new gallery exhibition at the Aurora Cultural Centre, is a creative forum for native women to share their spirit with new communities through storytelling, music, workshops and fine art. This landmark art exhibition was conceived and developed by Newmarket-based Metis artist, Nathalie Bertin. Together with Aurora Cultural Centre gallery staff Clare Bolton and Stephanie Nicolo, the curation team has created a show for the community of Aurora and York Region that is filled with National award-winning artists and performers.

The gallery exhibition runs May 7-June 28, and presents a vibrant and luminous collection of paintings, fashion, photographs and mixes media pieces, along with artisan workshops, an artist talk and a special concert performance. Their work is breathtaking in scope and messaging. The 14 artists representing First Nations and metis cultures from across North America explore traditional imagery in contemporary ways. Artists included are: Kayeri Akweks, Christi Belcourt, Lee Claremont, Raven Davis, Lee Deranger, Lita Fontaine, LauraLee K. Harris, Maria Hupfield, Nadya Kwandibens, Tanya Lukin-Linklater, Shelley Niro, Janice Toulouse. Of particular note is Christi Belcourt’s 8-foot work “The Painting Is A Mirror”, on loan from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. In addition, compelling “Missing” posters have been placed throughout the Cultural Centre; the call-to-action is a powerful reminder of the pressing and dire circumstances faced by aboriginal women.

Aurora Cultural Centre Opening 2014 1

Checking out that all is in order upstairs in the Great Hall Gallery before the people start to arrive. — at Aurora Cultural Centre.

Aurora Cultural Centre Opening 2014 4

Nathalie Bertin, guest curator, doing her speech about the exhibition. — at Aurora Cultural Centre.

With a uniquely First Nation and Metis women’s perspective, the exhibition invites meaningful discussion on the true lives of native women. This project is a catalyst for conversation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities and is the story of the female native spirit that survived historical struggles and continues to thrive through Aurora Cultural Centre Opening 2014 3 modern challenges.

Bertin has included a number of enhancements to the gallery experience – read below for details!


May 15: 7-9PM Opening Reception
All welcome, light complimentary refreshments provided.
Opening prayer by Metis Nation of Ontario Senator Dr. Alis Kennedy
Welcoming Remarks from Mayor Geoffrey Dawe, Town of Aurora
Traditional music performance by Suzanne Smoke & Cedar Smoke
Poetry by Raven Davis

May 28: 10AM-2:30PM Traditional Metis Beading Registered Workshop with Nathalie Bertin
Limited space – pre-registration is required. No prior experience necessary. Course fee $50 plus HST, plus materials fee of $15

June 4: 2-3PM   “Concrete Indian” | An Art Talk with Anishinaabe artist Nadya Kwandibens

Free admission, all welcome

June 20: 8PM  “Memere le Colibri: A Fiddle Performance”
8pm, Featuring Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, Metis violinist
Tickets $10 plus HST; Family of 4 (2 adults and 2 children) $35 plus HST
Appropriate for ages 10 and up

Exhibition dates: May 7 to June 28, 2014
Gallery hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm, and during special events
Free admission

For further information, or to registers for workshops and purchase tickets, please drop by the Centre or call the office at 905-713-1818.

Aurora Cultural Centre Opening 2014 5

Group shot in front of Christi Belcourt’s painting before the people arrive. — at Aurora Cultural Centre.

DSCN8353sm DSCN8356sm DSCN8361sm DSCN8367sm DSCN8369sm DSCN8371sm

Pictures of the show opening on May 3rd, 2014 for 1 to 3 pm by Colette Lemmon.

See article at http://vantageartprojects.com/tomboloartmedia-wp/iroquoian-artists-demonstrate-why-they-must-stand-in-two-worlds-in-new-exhibit/

Artists participating are:

Gary Sundown, David Fadden, Elizabeth Doxtater, Peter Jones, Melanie Printup Hope, Awenheeyoh Powless, Shelia Escobar, Robert House, Eric Gansworth, Tom Huff, Linley
B. Logan, Babe Hemlock, Karen Ann Hoffman, Ken Metoxen, Brenda Hill, Michael
Jones, Shelley Niro, Carla Hemlock, Frank Buffalo Hyde, Peter Jemison,
Jordan Thompson, Natasha Smoke Santiago, Martin Loft, Brenda Mitten,
Brandon Lazore, Tammy Tarbell, Carson Waterman, Sue Ellen Herne, Richard
Glazer Danay, Terill O’Brien, Kayeri Akweks, Sherrill Givens, and poets Alex Jacobs,
Janet Rogers, and Maurice Kenny.

April 1 through November 30 –  Standing in Two Worlds: Iroquois in 2014  What contemporary concerns warrant our attention and creative comment? Works exploring boundaries and borders, environment, hydro-fracking, economy, gaming, the digital/disposable age, sports mascots, the impact of national/international events and decisions, the role of tradition and community, and the state of the Arts will be featured.
May 3: Opening Reception for Exhibit – Standing in Two Worlds: Iroquois in 2014   1 to 3pm

For more information see http://iroquoismuseum.org/ or visit the museum at Iroquois Indian Museum, 324 Caverns Road, P.O. Box 7, Howes Cave, NY 12092, (518) 296-8949, info@iroquoismuseum.org.

Bird Man Heals His Heart, 14"x16", watercolor on canvas with glue, November 2013

Bird Man Heals His Heart, 14″x16″, watercolor on canvas with glue, November 2013

Recently, I heard one of my relatives say “Native people are mean, [so I am mean.]” This is similar to “Natives are stoic – non-emotional, alcoholics – drunks, in gangs, violent, abusers, swear, mean teasers, bullies, poor – on commodities, uneducated, etc.” This thought practice is used where a young person chooses to define their Nativeness by the negative actions they see around them…actions affected by the disconnected behavior of other Native people. I, too, was mean for a long time and I thought it meant I was powerful. 

What I now know is that this disconnection is at the very core of Colonized thought and assimilation – behaviors that were NEVER viewed as traditional historically become community personality patterns that are then viewed as “how to be Indian.” It arises from not being connected to Creation. It comes from being taught not to respect oneself.

The late Audrey Lazore Shenandoah “Gonwaiani”, Eel Clan and life resident of the Onondaga Nation who cared for position of Deer Clan Mother, spoke about how to answer this dilemma in the book WisdomKeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders, 2006. She states, “My Creator, let me look at nature today and let me have the highest respect for all the things I see. All the two legged, the four legged, the winged ones, the plants, the water, the air, the Mother Earth. Let me have respect for myself.”

In this painting, Bird Man begins to heal his heart through gratitude and connection to Creation. Both of these behaviors allow him access back into the circle of life and teach him respect for himself, others and all of the Earth. This connection to Creation automatically begins to heal Bird Man. Over time, he loses interest in trying to access power through his meanness. He starts out as a young plant needing daily connection, daily gratitudes – thanks giving/gratitude and prayers morning and evening, daily respectful actions internally and externally. It appears to be a difficult path because of a lack of practice. Through gaining connection to Creation, Bird Man knows his own place and worth in the entire universe. Bird Man then becomes more aware of where real power resides.

Mike Tarbell, Mohawk, works at Iroquois Indian Museum as an Educator. He talks about taking a sketchbook out into nature as a way to start connection to Creation and to change one’s thinking in this Youtube.

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