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The Magic of Iroquois Beadwork

Fig. 1. 1903 Mohawk bird purchased by my grandmother. (In the collection of the Afton Historical Society. The others are all in the collection of the author.)

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Fig. 2. Two Tuscarora heart pincushions, the smaller I bought in 1958.
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Fig 3. Two sides of an early 19th century Seneca purse.
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Fig 4. Mid 19th century Seneca pincushion and mat set.
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Fig 5. Late 19th century Mohawk purple pillow pincushion top or mat.
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Fig 6. Large late 19th century Mohawk boot-shaped pincushions.
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Fig 7. A Mohawk boot with clear and red seed beads and sprengperlen in many colors.
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Fig 8. Three early 20th century Mohawk trilobe pincushions with animal figures.
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Fig 9. A 1926 Mohawk FOX on a BOX.
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Fig 10. 20th century Tuscarora shoe pincushions
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Fig 11. Mid 20th century Mohawk star pincushion with deer.
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Fig 12. Two 21st century pieces from the Tuscarora reservation. The heart pincushion was made by Rosie Hill and the picture frame was created by Dolly Printup Winden.
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Fig 13. Contemporary elaborate boot pincushion by Sam Thomas, Cayuga.
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Fig 14. Mohawk bird illustrating both the stuffed pincushion and covered cardboard techniques used in Iroquois beadwork.
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Fig 16. Mohawk stick match holder and whiskbroom holder.
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Fig 17. Two 19th century Tuscarora purses.
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Fig 18. 19th century beadwork sellers at Niagara Falls with purses similar to those in Figure 17.

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Fig 19. Two 19th century trifold needlecases. The one on the left is Mohawk while the one from Niagara Falls is probably Tuscarora. These are good examples of the differences in the Mohawk and Niagara beadwork styles.
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Fig 20. Pristine mid 20th century star pincushion that has beaded on it REMEMBER ME.
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In 1903, my grandmother went to the Afton Fair, a small agricultural fair in central New York State. Because her daughter, my aunt, was sick and couldn’t go to the fair, my grandmother brought a present for her from the fair. It was a pink satin beaded bird-shaped pincushion with the year 1903 beaded under the tail. (Figure 1.)

In 1958, when I was a 4-Her showing my cows at the New York State Fair, I bought for my mother a bright red heart-shaped pincushion at the Indian Village where traditional Iroquois arts are showcased. The pincushion had STATE FAIR 1958 beaded on it. (Figure 2.) I had shared something with my grandmother although she had died before I was born; we had both bought a beaded souvenir from an Iroquois beadworker.

Tens of thousands of people have shared the same experience. For over two centuries people have been fascinated by Iroquois beadwork and have bought beadwork to either keep as a souvenir, to give as a present, or to use.

The magic of Iroquois beadwork

Why does Iroquois beadwork intrigue people so? Iroquois beadwork sparkles and glitters like magic. It dazzles the viewer’s eyes with its artistry and creativity. It is beautiful, gaudy, fancy, simple, intricate, colorful, and amazing. It is all of this and more. The beadwork comes in over sixty forms: pincushions in various shapes, picture frames, whiskbroom holders, match holders, wall pockets, purses, urns, mats, dolls, canoes, glasses holders, photo album covers, strawberries, birds, and more. Perhaps some 200,000 pieces of beadwork have been created in the last two hundred years. And, it is still being created by the grandchildren of the historical beadworkers. That makes Iroquois beadwork a continuing tradition for over two centuries.

To the sixteenth century Haudenosaunee (members of the Iroquois or Six Nations Confederacy composed of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) who first traded for European glass beads, the beads must have seemed magical. They had never seen such colorful sparkling beads before. Prior to the introduction of glass beads, the Indians made beads out of bone, antler, stone, shell, quills, and pottery sherds. None of them exhibited the special qualities of those glittering glass beads that shone in a rainbow of brilliant colors. The beads sparkled like magic.

The earliest European glass beads to reach Iroquoia in what is now central New York State were probably traded up the Susquehanna River from Spanish trading posts further south. Of the three major river trade routes into Iroquoia (the Hudson, St. Lawrence, and Susquehanna rivers) it appears that the trade up the Susquehanna was the earliest. As the beads became more plentiful they were used not only as necklaces and earrings but also to decorate clothing.

By the end of the eighteenth century, skilled bead workers were sewing beads on simple utilitarian items such as pincushions and purses. The idea of constructing pincushions may have come from English travelers and settlers. The early nineteenth century saw the creation of bags and pincushions embellished with glass beads in simple geometric and stylized floral designs. (Figure 3.) It appears that these early styles were developed in the Seneca territory of western New York.

By mid-century many forms were made in the Niagara Falls area by nearby Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora sewers. Crystal clear and white beads were favored. (Figure 4.) This style of beadwork is often referred to as the western or Niagara tradition of Iroquois beadwork.

Pincushions become popular

By 1860 fancy pincushions were being created by Mohawks in the Montreal area. Pincushions, picture frames, and box purses were often beaded on purple velvet there. (Figure 5.) From the 1890s until about 1920, Mohawk beadworkers continued creating elaborate pieces featuring beads raised to form balls as much as two inches high. (Figure 6.) Mohawk beadwork is also known for its lavish use of shining glass tubular beads called sprengperlen. These tubular beads were featured on hanging loops and laid down for dramatic effect. (Figure 7.)

The beads were made in Bohemia until 1917 when production stopped so they are a good time marker on Mohawk beadwork. Fanciful beaded animals on hot pink cloth were made in the first two decades of the twentieth century. (Figure 8.) This type of beadwork is often referred to as the eastern or Mohawk tradition.

The contemporary Niagara beadwork was much more restrained, featuring simple birds and flowers. Post WWI beadwork was simpler in both areas, and post WWII was even simpler, using fewer beads and less complicated design motifs. (Figures 9, 10,11.) Beadwork production was reduced significantly in both areas.

Recent recognition for Iroquois beadwork

Recent recognition of Iroquois beadwork as a legitimate art form has encouraged Iroquois beadworkers to create new and more elaborate pieces. (Figure 12.) The most prominent and prolific contemporary beadworkers are son and mother, Sam Thomas and Lorna Hill. Their beadwork combines Mohawk and Niagara style in a new tradition that is called Thomas-Hill. Their pieces are often dramatically flamboyant such as in the lavender boot. (Figure 13.)

In the last twenty-five years they have created perhaps ten percent of the total number of beadwork pieces ever made. In their numerous workshops they have taught their techniques of Iroquois beadwork to thousands of students, many who have continued on to become recognized beadwork artists.

The beadwork on much of the Iroquois beadwork is raised, a technique most likely invented by Haudenosaunee beadworkers in the early 1800s. The seed beads are placed over paper patterns that are attached on the front of a piece of fabric, often wool or velvet. More beads are threaded on the thread than are necessary to span the pattern so the beads are arched up over the pattern making the beads "raised". On stuffed pieces a back is attached to the front fabric and the pincushion is stuffed, often with pine sawdust or sweetgrass to make the pincushion smell good and more appealing to prospective customers. On pieces such as canoes, picture frames, match holders, whiskbroom holders, and the wings and tails of birds the beaded fabric is stretched over a cardboard base. (Figures 14, 15, 16.)

Victorian women loved Iroquois beadwork. Victorians and Indians shared a love and admiration of nature so much of the beadwork from the late 1800s features beaded flowers and birds. (Figure 17.) The elaborate flowers often overflow with multiple strands of beads while dozens of loops hang from the edges of pieces in Victorian excess. Beadwork sales to Victorian women were a major source of income for many Iroquois families.

Iroquois beadworkers, most living on reservations in New York, Ontario, and Quebec, made some beadwork as gifts for family and friends, but the majority was made to sell as souvenirs. Iroquois beadwork is often identified with Niagara Falls, which has been a major tourist destination for two centuries. Seneca and Tuscarora beadworkers living on nearby reservations set up tables of souvenirs to sell to the tourists. (Figure 18.) During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Mohawk beadwork often was sold by members of Mohawk entertainment groups that traveled from their communities near Montreal with Wild West and medicine shows.

Entertainment groups traveled throughout North America and even traveled to England where they entertained at Earl’s Court. Beadwork has also been sold at the New York State Fair, Saratoga, world fairs and many local fairs, festivals, and exhibitions. Although beadwork is more often identified with Niagara Falls, it appears that Mohawk beadwork sold elsewhere outnumbers Niagara beadwork by about ten to one. (Figure 19.)

Many museums have a few pieces of Iroquois beadwork in their collections. Most have been given by donors who inherited them from an ancestor with little information as to where they came from. Often the beadwork looks almost new because as treasured souvenirs they have been wrapped up and stored very carefully. (Figure 20.) Many people call them Victorian (meaning made by white ladies) and are not aware that Haudenosaunee women made the beaded masterpieces.

Beadwork workshops and collections

It has only been within the last few years that people have begun to appreciate the beauty and identity of these creations. With the recent resurgence of interest in Iroquois beadwork, museums have begun sponsoring workshops and adding contemporary pieces to their collections. Since 1999 three major traveling exhibits have been installed in fifteen U. S. and Canadian museums and several new beadwork exhibits are in the planning stage.

Haudenosaunee women, and a few men, continue to produce beautiful pieces of Iroquois beadwork. Although beadworkers live on all of the Iroquois reservations and reserves, the majority live on or near the Tuscarora Reservation near Niagara Falls and the Kahnawake Reserve near Montreal.

In the last few years beadwork classes and beading groups have been formed on Seneca, Mohawk, Tuscarora, and Oneida reservations to encourage younger people to learn beading. Often they use patterns passed down from their ancestors. An eighteenth century tradition continues into the twenty-first. The magic continues.

For Further Reading:

Elliott, Dolores N. 2002 Flights of Fancy: An Introduction to Iroquois Beadwork.Iroquois Studies Association. Johnson City, New York.

Elliott, Dolores N. 2006 (Vol 15) Two Centuries of Iroquois Beadwork in BEADS, Society of Bead Researchers, Ottawa, 3-22.

Elliott, Dolores N. 2007 The Magic of Beads in Iroquois Beadwork in Newsletter of the Bead Society of Great Britain 88, 19-22. (another version of this Worthpoint blog)

Elliott, Dolores N. 2007 Iroquois Dolls – A Haudenosaunee Tradition in Newsletter of the Bead Society of Great Britain 90, 20-22.

Green, Richard. 2001 "Iroquois Beaded Whimsies" Newsletter of the Bead Society of Great Britain 58, 11-15.

Green, Richard. 2006 "Animal Imagery in Native North American Beadwork – Part 2" Newsletter of the Bead Society of Great Britain 82, 11-14.

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