Some time ago my friend Yuriy sent me digital files of Narragansett and Mohegan language documents in which the strawberry was referred to as the “heart berry.” That made me curious about the heart motif which is prominently featured on some early pieces of Haudenosaunee beadwork and I wondered if the Iroquois also called the strawberry a "heart berry" and if those heart motifs were also a representation of the “heart berry.”
Among the Haudenosaunee, strawberries are an important part of the Gaiwiio, the “good word” or the gospel of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. As the first seasonal berry to blossom, it holds cultural, spiritual and medicinal importance for Iroquois people. It’s a link to the Sky World and some believe the significance of strawberries also stems from Handsome Lake’s first revelations during the strawberry season and afterwards.
The sacred quality of strawberries is certainly older than Handsome Lake. The earliest of the wild strawberries are traditionally believed to have medicinal value and are searched out and devoured. Strawberries are said to sprout along the road to heaven, and … in all probability, the fact that Handsome Lake’s angels spoke to him of strawberries reflects the influence of the strawberry season on the content of his dream, and his subsequent endorsement of the Strawberry Festival probably emphasized a custom already old (See: The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony Wallace, Vantage Books 1972, page 13).
My friend Rosemary Rickard Hill, a Tuscarora elder and longtime beadworker, told me that the strawberry is also called the “heart berry” among the Haudenosaunee but the term has not been used in a while, although its heart shape has long been recognized by them.
In looking over a selection of old Iroquois beaded bags, I noticed that several of the ones that had a prominent heart motif also included tri-lobed strawberry leaves in the design. Given the importance and sacred value of strawberries in Iroquois culture, I have come to the understanding that some of the heart motifs were likely a stylistic representation of the strawberry. It’s very likely that the old souvenir bags functioned as a non-verbal medium for historic beadworkers to weave key cultural concepts into their work and also served as a conduit to communicate those ideas to future generations. When used in a covert way these traditional motifs allowed an artist to include important cultural themes in their work that were non-threatening to a 19th century patron. Although made for sale to outsiders, the themes recorded in the beadwork were a way to keep a tradition alive and a form of resistance to assimilation pressures. It was a method of preserving key aspects of Haudenosaunee beliefs and traditions for both present and future generations.
Artists have long been the culture bearers of their respective Nations and the people best suited to record their story. It’s a Native perspective that adds to our understanding of the material and how the beadwork affects them as artists and as a community.
Rosie Hill also said that the strawberry, along with tobacco, were the medicines that Sky Woman brought to earth with her and, since the strawberry is the first annual plant to bear fruit, it begins the life cycle.
What we know of Sky Woman comes to us from the Iroquois origin story. There are some forty known versions of this account, the earliest dating back to 1632, and although the details vary somewhat from version to version, the main themes are unchanged. In the currently accepted version of the origin story, Sky Woman gives birth to a daughter who then gives birth to twin sons. I believe the accepted or current version of the origin story is much later than the one I referenced for this article. The earliest reference to the Sky Woman giving birth to a daughter who then gave birth to the twins that I’m familiar with is from the 3rd quarter of the 19th century. Most of the bags in this article are from the 1st and 2nd quarters of the 19th century. So I used a version of the origin story that was written during that period, believing it would more accurately reflect the meanings of the designs that artists were using on their bags at that time. The version I used was by David Cusick, the first Native writer to record the origin story. He was Haudenosaunee (Tuscarora) and no doubt recorded the version that was the accepted version at the time his account was published (1827). So what is important here is that the account of Sky Woman dying while giving birth to twins, not her daughter, was written during the period when the bags depicted were produced. So I believe that gives credibility to my interpretation of the designs. The accepted version of the origin story may have changed over time but when the bags were created, the version recorded by David Cusick was no doubt the accepted view.
In the Cusick version, Sky Woman descended from the sky world into the darkness of the earth realm. She landed on what would become turtle island (North America) and shortly thereafter gave birth to twin boys, dying in the process. One of her sons, the good twin, brought light into the world by creating the “tree of light,” on the top of which he affixed a great ball of light that he made from his deceased mother’s face. This is certainly a metaphor for the sun and on some bags the circle/sun motif likely represents the embodiment of Sky Woman. This version of the origin story also relates that the moon and stars were created from Sky Woman’s breast. Several early bags include a central sun surrounded by stars, which might be a depiction of good twin’s creation (figure 1).
During the early-to mid-nineteenth century, a number of Iroquois artists featured a heart motif in the designs of their beaded bags. Non-Native patrons may have interpreted this representation simply as a symbol of love. As early as 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published and it was full of sentimental verses for the young lover who was unable to compose his own. Paper valentines, many of which were decorated with a flaming heart that was similar to those on graven images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, became so popular in the early nineteenth century that they were assembled in factories. Some of these Valentine cards even depicted Niagara Falls in the center of the heart.
Many of the old Haudenosaunee beaded bags were sold in Niagara Falls, which was a popular honeymoon destination, and were likely seen by visitors as a charming gift for themselves or a loved one. Even though this was a form of commoditized beadwork, the older artistic traditions regarding the overt display of symbolic imagery did not disappear when souvenir items emerged but rather their forms changed so that the symbolism was not as visible.
It’s very likely that many of the very earliest Haudenosaunee beaded bags incorporated designs that were linked to the origin story and other cultural beliefs. Motifs such as the sun, heart and tri-lobed strawberry motifs in particular, when used together, are related to Sky Woman and these themes are prevalent in many of the pre-1830 bags.
The traditional double-curve, diamond, heart, sun/circle, four-directional and other organic motifs were often used in combination with one another and so the complete story woven into an old design may never be fully known or understood. Most of the old bags that incorporated a heart were made by the Seneca, considered the most traditional of the Iroquois nations. They had a strong belief in dreams and understood them to be a guide into their waking lives. In all probability, some designs relate to a particular dream experience known only to the artist, enhancing its transcendent nature to the maker. Since revealing the precise meaning of a vision was to forfeit some of the powers it conferred, our understanding of the significance of many traditional designs may forever be clouded in mystery.
Below is a small collection of beaded items that incorporate a heart (or heart berry) motif. They advance the notion that their makers were consciously incorporating cultural themes in their work. I’m not suggesting that every depiction of a sun or circle on a piece of early Haudenosaunee beadwork is a metaphorical representation of Sky Woman but I think in those designs that include the heart and accompanying strawberry-leaf motifs that it is a very possible interpretation. This may also be the case in some designs that do not incorporate a heart but this suggestion requires further study.
Figure 3 – An illustration of a strawberry plant with tri-lobed leafs, roots, berries, runners and a daughter plant. A single plant could have multiple runners connecting it to numerous daughter plants.
Figure 5 – Seneca type beaded bag, 1800-1830. This early bag has a central heart motif as well as some tri-lobed strawberry-leaf devices along the inside border.
Figure 6 – Tonawanda Seneca type beaded bag, 1840s-1850s. Beaded bag with connected hearts and tri-lobed strawberry-leaf motifs on the flap.
Figure 9 – Beaded Bag by contemporary Mohawk Bear Clan artist Jacqueline Clause-Bazinet. 2013. Contemporary Iroquois beadworkers continue to use the strawberry motif in their designs.
Figure 10 – Beaded heart-shaped pincushion, circa 1850. Numerous Iroquois heart-shaped pincushions are found. This particular example also has the tri-lobed strawberry-leaf motif incorporated into the design.