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: