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.”
“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.”
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.”
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 Hampshire, Department of Health and Human Services for 29 years. In the late 1990’s, Rhonda was a Board member and Secretary for the Dawnland Center. The 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.”
“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.”
Biron, G. Made of Thunder, Made of Glass – American Indian Beadwork of the Northeast. Saxtons
River, Vermont. 2006.