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Beadwork and the Iroquois

By the McCord Museum of Canadian History,
the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University, New York, in collaboration with the Kanien'kehaka Onkwawén:na Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center, Kahnawà:ke, the Tuscarora Nation community beadworkers within New York State, and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Throughout their long history, the Iroquois have used beads to express important spiritual beliefs, to inscribe political values and to preserve community and personal memories. Over time the materials of which beads have been made, and their shapes, sizes and colours, have varied. These shifts often mark periods of great social and political change, such as the arrival of European peoples in Iroquoia during the 16th century. Yet this influx, and the turbulent times that followed, were also characterized by remarkable cultural and artistic creativity.

Origins

In the 15th century, the ancestors of today's Iroquois lived in villages situated mainly in present-day New York State, Ontario and Quebec. These early Iroquois prized certain natural materials such as white shell, quartz crystal and copper, associating their colours and reflective qualities with the powers of life, enlightenment and wisdom.

In the early 17th century, newly arrived Europeans established colonies near Iroquois villages - the French in eastern Canada, and the Dutch and English in present-day New York State. The Iroquois, through their crucial role in the early fur trade, gained access to iron axes, copper kettles, cloth, glass beads and steel needles. Glass beads, brilliant and translucent, were quickly integrated into Iroquois belief systems and became a staple in gift exchanges linked to alliances and treaties.

The Iroquois adapted European materials to their traditional ways of making clothing and accessories, substituting cloth for hide, beads for quillwork and silk ribbon applique for painted designs. Their distinctive and vibrant clothing was an important way of affirming Iroquois identity and sovereignty during a period of repressive government policies.

Creating

Many Iroquois describe beadwork as a positive force that "keeps people going" during hard times. Traditionally, women family members and friends gathered in each other's homes to make beadwork. Iroquois artists working today explain that, as children, they learned much more than how to sew as they watched and listened to elder beadworkers. Even if too young to join the sewing circle, children were assigned other tasks, such as sorting beads, picking stray beads off the floor and preparing snacks and tea. Beadworkers recall their grandmothers talking about how families lived long ago.

Marketing

The Iroquois had been giving away and trading beautifully crafted items to curious European visitors since the late-16th century. In the mid-19th century, however, as their economic condition worsened, they turned to the large-scale production and sale of beaded souvenirs.

By the 1840s scheduled rail and steamship services, tourist hotels and resorts, guidebooks and organized tours had emerged at picturesque sites throughout the Northeast. The growth of tourism brought with it a regular seasonal clientele eager to acquire mementos of their travels. With great entrepreneurial energy, Iroquois beadworkers and their families went door to door, sold at train stations and markets, set up booths in their communities and travelled to tourist resorts, especially Niagara Falls.

In Kahnawà:ke beadwork vendors were well established by the mid-19th century. Both rail and ferry service to the island of Montreal channelled travellers through the community. Moreover, no visit to Montreal was considered complete without a thrilling boat ride with a Mohawk pilot over the nearby Lachine rapids. Beadwork souvenirs of the adventure were a must.

In recognition of their loyalty during the American Revolution, the Tuscarora secured the right to sell beadwork at the major tourist resort of Niagara Falls. This right continues to be honoured today. Tuscarora beadworkers compete in a lottery to have access to prime selling locations. Because of this favoured status, the Tuscarora have also acted as middlemen in the sale of beadwork made by other Iroquois nations from the early 1800s to the present day.

Months of advance work went into producing enough beaded items to supply the tourist market. Some individuals became middlemen, travelling throughout North America and abroad with baskets and trunks brimming with beaded souvenirs. Regional, national and international fairs were particularly good marketing venues.

Since 1794 Jay's Treaty has guaranteed free passage of Native peoples and their personal goods between Canada and the United States. However, it was not until 1873, in response to a petition from Iroquois in Canada to the U.S. government, that the beadwork they produced for sale was allowed to cross the international border free of duty. Through their travels - both local and international - Iroquois vendors gained a cosmopolitan experience of the world.

By the early 20th century, the heyday of selling beadwork was over. New tourism patterns, an influx of imported, mass-produced souvenirs and changes in styles of dress and interior decoration led to a rapid decline in the market. Moreover, consumers were swayed by the now-outdated view that Native arts influenced by western styles were somehow less "authentic." During the Great Depression of the 1930s, governments in Canada and the United States funded special cultural and economic projects to encourage the survival of Native arts.

Source: "Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life" Exhibition Text, 1999-2000.

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