Iroquois Beadwork

Today I just received my new copy of A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art by author Gerry Biron. The hardback book has 184 pages full of very interesting details and loads of photos primarily about the Haudenosaunee Native souvenir trade of the 19th and early 20th century, with a few comparisons of current Haudenosaunee raised beadwork. It is very well done!

Lots of good stories and sidebars of related historical information enhance the reader’s learning, but it is not written from the Native perspective.

Since I am such a visual person, I do love all of the old photographs, dauerreotypes, engravings, postcards, etc. This vast collection of images will be visually assistive to all NE Woodlands artists and especially to Haudenosaunee beadwork artists.

My favorites have always been the early bags – from 1800 to 1840s. These primarily utilize just line design that was transitioned from pre-contact quillwork designs. There is a magic within the rhythmic repetition of the early designs that continues to draw me. I prefer them to the more Victorian influenced later work and definitely appreciate all the images of these early bags. I plan to study these photos in-depth.

In Chapter Two – Design Motifs are listed as: 1) the double curve, 2) the celestial dome, 3) the diamond, 4) the sun/circle and four direction motif, 5) the tri-lobed strawberry, and 6) the heart motif. If there are no historic writings available from Native people about their designs, then I would have wanted to have current Haudenosunee beadworkers add their clarifications for each of these designs rather than only citing the interpretations of non-Indians, mostly anthropologist’s speculations from the time period. Comparing the two perspectives (Native and non-Native, historical and current) would have allowed the reader to examine a fuller story.

An example might have been to include Rosemary Richard Hill, Tuscarora, (page 128-132) and her family of beadworkers interpretations of their own designs, as well as their opinions about the old souvenir bags from the various time periods. I loved the short story of Rosemary Richard Hill being taught how to bead within her family:

By the time she was seven, her mother was teaching her the flat beading technique. Rosemary says that “about the time I was ten, I was learning to do raised beadwork with my mother Margaret Richard and my great aunt Gertrude Chew. I was also their pincushion stuffer and with a five gallon pail of sawdust between my knees and wooden sticks in my hands, all smooth and shiny from packing sawdust into the corners and rounds of the pincushions, I learned from them.”

By age twelve she was making small picture frames, pincushions, horseshoes, slippers, and children’s moccasins that were based on traditional patterns handed down through generations of her family.

The book acknowledges Rosemary Richard Hill as having exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the British Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Museum of the American Indian and that she exhibits annually at the Santa Fe Indian Market. I believe Rosemary’s following quote about her relatives as helpers speaks to the heart of the designs, “It’s as though my mother and aunts had been there to give me a helping hand.”

Of course, I enjoyed all of the photos in Chapter Five on Mohawk Beadwork. This chapter does talk about the star and birds designs. For me, the quote in this chapter about the comparison of the buyers and the makers intentions for the symbols of the souvenirs beadwork has merit.

While non-Native women privileged floral and bird motifs because of their associations with the Divine creation and the afterlife, for Hodenosaunee artists, these motifs express fundamental principles of the interdependence of human and natural worlds that are articulated, for example, in the Hodenosaunee Thanksgiving address. (see page 144)

And finally Jennifer Neptune, Penobscot artist, shares (page 15) some of my similar beliefs about the floral work on the bags:

I see medicine plants in the designs, and it’s obvious to me that people were beading designs of plants that were highly valued to themselves, their families, and their tribe. When I look at the floral designs I see plants that ease childbirth, break fevers, sooth coughs and colds, take away pain, heal cuts, burns, and bruises, and maintain general health….A hundred years ago plants were the main source of medicine for Natives as well as non-Natives. With the knowledge and importance of these plants in our culture beadworkers needed to look no further than their own backyards for their own floral designs. A hundred years later these plants are still in our backyards, are still being used for healing, and are still being used to inspire our beadwork designs.

I send Gerry Biron a huge heart-felt handshake of gratitude for collecting and presenting all of the information that is contained within his volume. Stitching together bits and pieces from the past is never easy, especially when perspectives are so diverse. It is obvious that A Cherished Curiosity has thousands of hours of detailed research, review, collecting and writing involved and that it is his labor of love. It is a great gift for all of us.

For examples of pages in A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art by author Gerry Biron also see:

The blog has had lots of hits and searches on the Spiral Series and additional searches for the search terms “sky domes and celestial tree.” I thought I’d add a post on these topics – below are 4 web references, and one picture of friend’s outfits. Enjoy!

The sky domes symbols that are often seen in Haudenosuanee beadwork and design work are explained on the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin website:

Arched Domes

The arched domes are a series of semi circles in a row, usually with a small curlicue on the tops of the arches. These semi circles represent the sky world where Sky Woman once resided. The two curved lines or curlicues are the celestial tree. In the Creation Story, Sky Woman fell through the hole created when the celestial tree was uprooted.

The arched domes appear in several variations, some where the celestial tree is quite large and very elaborate. The arched domes are often seen around the border of skirts and leggings, sometimes around the band of the kustoweh.

Still documented online, the 2001-2002 show ”Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life” at the George Gustav Heye Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the New York Times article “Design Review; How Iroquois Artists Turned Trespassers Into Tourist” describe the sky dome and celestial tree beadwork designs.

Significant tribal symbols relating to the Iroquois cosmology are also prevalent in the works. Among them is the Sky Dome, a half circle resting on two parallel lines, with a pair of simplified plant forms springing from the dome’s top. The dome signifies the arc of the sky, the parallel lines the earth. The plant forms represent the celestial tree of life that stands at the center of the world, bearing the sun and the moon aloft in its branches.

The Celestial Tree, a tree of many fruits and flowers, stood at the center of the Sky World. When it was uprooted, Sky Woman fell through the hole. As she fell she grabbed at the roots of the tree, bringing the gifts of tobacco and the wild strawberry to earth. At the burial of Sky Woman’s daughter, corn, beans and squash grew from her body. Tobacco grew from her chest and wild strawberries at her feet. In beadwork, flowers or circles may represent these gifts.

As seen at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester, New York, the famous Seneca beaded skirt made by Caroline G. Parker (Ga-ha-no), Seneca Iroquois, of Tonowanda, New York was made by her in 1849 of glass beads and silk ribbon on wool broadcloth. The skirt shows the border of sky world domes and trees of life on top of each dome, as well as the larger central flowering celestial tree beaded in the corner on the front of the skirt. Caroline was 19 at the time.

Here’s the beautiful work of Jeanifer King for both outfits (photo by Love Richardson). The bordering sky domes and celestial trees are so well done!

And from the and the Post Standard in October of 2009 (photo by Gary Walts), Awenheeyoh Powless, Onondaga, has a lovely portrait that includes sky domes and celestial trees on her skirt.

I have always told my children, “You have to know the old designs, patterns, symbols before you can interpret to the new – otherwise the work has no old soul behind it and you end up looking like you got it at Target.” I believe that you have to really study, pay attention, always learning, listening to the next story and this is what fills you up, which in turn fills up your art making.

I found these probably Seneca (attributed); formerly identified as Mohawk men’s leggings,  circa 1850, a couple of days ago at the National Museum of the American Indian Collection Search. They are about 160 years old and I feel a reverence for just how beautiful they are everytime I look at them.

I was taught that this type of design with spirals is all about creation. Starting at the bottom is creation at the bottom of the ocean or the bottom of water. Then creation through all levels of water to creation on land. Then to the creation that is happening upon all types and levels of land. At the top of the edging design is creation in the celestial or sky world realms. In other words – that the spiral is about the constant creation of the universe at all levels, on earth and in sky, from the micro to the macrocosm. Wearing this bead work is to be a visual reminder that we are all always in the middle of a huge, constantly creating process.

Dr. Louis Montour, presenting at the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Native Physician Association in Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, August 23-25, 1996 defined how the spiral is the symbol of power as energy in motion. He stated his own thoughts and quoted from the book “The Sacred Tree“:

I am a full-blooded Mohawk of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. Before joining the medical staff of Kaiser Permanente, I lived and practiced medicine in the Native American community where I was born and raised–Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada.

In Native American language, “medicine” meant power, a vital energy force that was within all forms of nature. It also meant “knowledge” because knowing gave the “knower” power to do, to achieve, and to attain. Because a wheel is accurately thought of as a spiral or vortex of energy in motion, “Medicine Wheel” means a circle or spiral of generated power under the control of Mind. “It is a physical, mental, and spiritual device that can enable its users to come into attunement with the cosmic and natural forces in which they are immersed and have their being, and find harmony with their environment and within themselves.”

In Native American wisdom, the entire manifested world was vitalized by four primary forces: the Vibratory Force, a power with oscillatory elliptical movement like that of a planet; an intermolecular Binding Force, a power with centripetal movement like gravity; an electromagnetic Light Force, a power with wave movement; and a Life Force, whose presence can be experienced but can never be seen or measured. The Life Force is the power that makes a great oak tree from a tiny acorn or a gigantic grizzly bear from a single egg and sperm. It is the power that makes each of us aware of our own uniqueness that gives us our consciousness and awareness.

I added the bolding to his definition of spiral and to his quotes -  and I’d say he’s talking about creation…

So what’s with the spiral motif across NE Woodlands art? This post will throw out a few references, one poem and multiple diagrams. If you have knowledge or references about NE Native spiral symbols, I’d love to see you post them in the comments section below.

I Make Spirals by Kayeri Akweks:

The spiral tender bright-green new bean plant growing

Up counter-clockwise-reaching

Baby tendrils know where to go

Haudenosuanee dance direction of bean plant growing

Spiral of the earth time

Sky world we spiral clockwise

And so we see both are necessary

And so we see we know how where when to go

Spirals back, forth, in, out, pulsating, pushing, pulling, radiating

IN the belly directing

Self spirals courageously into life spirals

Self coming courageously  – waves all sorts of spiral algae

All sort of waves, all sorts of rays

That Y place where the 2 spirals connect

That sacred moment where spirals ground into domes

Loving every particle, every paddle wide deep journeying

All of the above ideas are part of the spiral symbolism seen throughout NE Woodlands arts. Below are several references to NE historic use of spirals.

In Iroquoia: The Development of a Native World, by William Engelbrecht, page 136:

Some native-made metal objects, like brass spiral, have a wide distribution in the Northeast during the last half of the 16th century (see fig54.). These spirals may have symbolized the tail of the mythical underwater panther, a source of supernatural power and healing. (Bradley and Childs 1991, 16; Hammell 1998).

According to Wikipedia, wampum white beads are cut from center spiral of conch shell. The term initially referred to only the white beads, which are made of the inner spiral, or columella, of the Channeled whelk shell, Busycotypus canaliculatusSewant orsuckauhock beads are the black or purple shell beads made from the quahog or poquahock clamshell, Mercenaria mercenaria. Common terms for the dark and white beads, often confused, are wampi(white) and saki (dark).

At SAR’s Familiar Webs: An Exploration of Collecting Practices at the Indian Arts Research Center and Beyond shows the spiral beaded details of a Northern Ontario jacket, c 1900s, from the collection of Denise Tremblay. 

From Iroquois Crafts by Carrie A. Lyford, page 78:

The scroll, helix, or tendril designs were called violets by the Tuscarora, literally “bowing the head.” The Tuscarora regarded them as a sign of good luck, deriving the idea from a children’s game of locking flower heads together. The Mohawks called the scroll designs “fern heads” and “horn” trimmings.

Parker, in Iroquois Tree Myths and Symbols, pages 613-614, states:

In examining samples of Iroquois decorative art one is immediately impressed with the repeated use of a pattern consisting of a semicircle resting upon two parallel, horizontal lines, having at the top two divergent curved lines, each springing from the same point and curving outward like the end of a split dandelion stalk (see fig. 62, b).

This design, or symbol, with the Iroquois represents the celestial tree growing from the top of the sky, or, more properly, from the bottom of the “above-sky-world’’ (gu’oilyd’gb‘’). The two parallel lines represent the earth. This symbol is found with the same meaning among the Delawares.

On page 615, Parker delineates sky dome and tendril spiral designs further:

The celestial-tree symbol also appears as a trefoil. The third tendril, or branch, unfolds from the center of the tree (see fig. 62, c). A fourth branch is often used, when it appears as a double tree (see fig. 62, d). In figure 62, e, the night sun is represented above the world tree, and this sign is found to be the same in meaning as that shown in figure 62, h. In figure 62, f, the day sun is represented as shining at zenith above the world tree. In figure 62, g, the sun-above-the-sky is awake and perching in the celestial tree.

Below is a photo of my skirt and leggings, made by Jeanifer King in 2009. I am always just so, so very naturally curious about spirals!!

KayeriAkweksSkirtand Leggings


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