In this blog posting we will examine some of the variations in historic 18th and 19th century Iroquois regalia through old paintings, photographs and examples of early material culture. Since first contact with Europeans, artists have depicted the Haudenosaunee wearing diverse attire; the images below are by no means a complete visual record of those that exist but should suffice in this brief review.The dictionary defines “traditional” as “existing in or as part of a tradition; long established, customary, time-honored, classic, accustomed, etc.” Today, what is generally considered “traditional” Haudenosaunee regalia can trace its origins to early examples from the 18th century, culminating with the work of Caroline Parker in the mid-19th century (figures 1 & 2).
Fig 1 – Circa 1850 daguerreotype of Caroline Parker, a Seneca from the Tonawanda Reservation in western New York. Private collection.
Fig 2 – Circa 1850 daguerreotype of Caroline Parker, a Seneca from the Tonawanda Reservation in western New York. Private collection.
Caroline’s outfit has had a major influence on the design of Seneca regalia and it has also been adopted by other Six Nation peoples; it came about from a synthesis of European and Haudenosaunee attire. Deborah Holler, in writing about Caroline’s outfit, said “The navy blue skirt, with the striking ‘celestial tree’ design in the corner and luminous beaded border, incorporates the bold color aesthetic of the Iroquois in design motifs that are traditionally representative of the feminine forces associated with Skywoman, the first woman to inhabit earth in Iroquois culture. These two images of Caroline can be seen as a formal statement of cultural identity that became a prototype for the Seneca Women’s national costume. By incorporating the highest fashion styles of the times into a bold statement of Seneca womanhood, Caroline set a standard for fashion that has had lasting appeal for Haudenosaunee artisans. The combination of Victorian and Native elements shows her inventive adaptation of the Native aesthetic to European fashion goods, and is a demonstration of Caroline’s adaptability in both worlds” (Holler 2011:15-16)
Some of the earliest depictions we have of American Indians are allegorical representations that served to symbolize concepts or ideas. That changed in 1710 when the Mohawks sent a delegation to England on a diplomatic audience with Queen Anne (figures 3 & 4).
Fig 5 – Oil on canvass painting titled The Indian Family, by Benjamin West. 1761. From a private collection in England.
The artist Benjamin West was in Italy in 1761 where he took on a commission to produce a painting for John Murray, a British aristocrat living in Venice (figure 5). Although scholars consider this image to be a generic piece, and the historical accuracy of his paintings is disputed by others, the cultural artifacts depicted are accurate representations of Northeast Woodland material from the period. Some of the items depicted are illustrated in another of West’s paintings, notably General Johnson Saving a Wounded French Officer from the Tomahawk of a North American Indian, in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery in Derby, United Kingdom where the male subject’s bag, the moosehair decorated knife sheath that hangs from his neck and his tomahawk, are identical. Although the items themselves are authentic, the fact that they appear in more than one of West’s paintings suggests that they did not necessarily belong to the subjects portrayed but were rather used by West as studio props for his paintings. The decorations along the bottom of the woman’s dress in figure 5, which were likely done in a combination of ribbon work and moosehair or porcupine quill embroidery, as well as the style of her dress, are an incipient form of what would later emerge as the “traditional” Haudenosaunee woman’s outfit. Like the mid-19th century portraits of Caroline Parker, the woman in this image wears decorated leggings, a blue overdress, skirt, blanket and decorated moccasins in a dress style that is very similar to Caroline Parker’s outfit. During the 18th century, American Indians were often depicted with a blanket draped over their shoulder. This practice likely originated with the use of bear, moose or deer skins robes long before the introduction of the European blanket. The adoption of ready-made, European trade goods was a practical consideration for Native people because these items offered a perceived advantage over traditional items.
Fig 6 – Portrait of Joseph Brant, Thayendanegea, by George Romney, 1776 – the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
Fig 7 – Portrait of Joseph Brant by Gilbert Stuart, 1786. From the collection of the Duke of Northumberland, London.
In another portrait of Brant (figure 7) he is similarly dressed in a combination of European and Native attire. Old images are also found in which individuals are wearing less formal (more traditional?) attire but the older symbolic and allegorical representations were never far from the surface (figure 8). In this book illustration the subject is holding a wampum belt in his extended hand and his plucked scalp and feather top knot of hair could be an early version of the gustaweh, an Iroquois man’s headdress. I’ve seen similar 18th century illustrations where the subject was identified as Iroquois. He is standing next to a large waterfall (possibly Niagara). His attire could be made from animal skins or it could be a European trade textile. Although the image may have been a fanciful depiction of an Iroquois warrior, it appears that the artist got some of the details right. He doesn't appear to be wearing leggings.
Fig. 9 – 18th century leggings from the St. Lawrence Valley, possibly Iroquois. They are decorated with porcupine quills and moosehair on black dyed buckskin. Collection history unknown.
Fig. 10 – 18th century Iroquois leggings on dyed deerskin, decorated with either porcupine quills or moosehair embroidery, trade beads and silk ribbon work. National Museum of the American Indian.
Although not specifically part of someone’s regalia, other 18th century items that were made by Iroquois artisans, such as burden straps (figures 11 & 12), aptly demonstrate some of the bold and colorful geometric design motifs that were prevalent during this period. In an 18th century watercolor of a Mohawk woman and child, she is wearing a burden strap across her forehead that is holding her cradleboard (figure 13). She is dressed almost completely in European trade goods. The lower border of her dress appears to be decorated with silver brooches and silk ribbon appliqué.
Fig. 12 – Three Iroquois burden straps . Circa 1780. Decorated with dyed moosehair in false embroidery. Most surviving burden straps are of Iroquois origin although they were also made by the Huron and neighboring Algonkians. Private collection.
Fig. 13 – Mohawk woman with child – 18th century watercolor by an unknown artist. Her attire is almost completely made from European trade material. Collection history unknown.
Fig. 15 – A watercolor over graphite illustration titled: A View near Point Levy Opposite Quebec with an Indian Encampment by Thomas Davies, 1788. From the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Possibly Mohawks or Hurons from Lorette.
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Fig. 16 – Tuscarora village, 1822. Watercolor signed “Dennis Cusick, son of the chief. Fecit.” Private collection.
I am aware of at least one of these peaked caps/hoods that has survived (figure 17) and it does have similarities to the Wabanaki examples. These caps are quite rare but their appearance in both the Quebec painting and the one from Tuscarora suggests that they were made and used by more than one Haudenosaunee community and this was no doubt a piece of “traditional” attire during this period.
Fig. 17 – Seneca headdress – late 18th early 19th century. From the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.
The standing woman’s dress in figure 18 is also similar in style to the Caroline Parker example in figures 1 & 2, and the edge of the dress could be decorated with beadwork.
Fig. 18 – Christening of the Tuscarora Asa Thompson – Watercolor attributed to Dennis Cusick, August 21, 1821. From the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC.
As we get into the early 19th century, we find a number of realist paintings, done by Iroquois artists that give us a glimpse into the “traditional” dress styles from the period. In a watercolor painting by Denis Cusick (figure 18) we see examples of both men’s and women’s dress styles from the early 1820s. The bottom edge of the woman’s dress, which appears to be decorated in silk ribbon work, might also be edged in beadwork. Unlike the man who is wearing pants, she appears to be wearing leggings and both wear moccasins. The man has a frock coat that is held closed by a hand-woven sash. In a more defined image from this period (figure 19) we can see a lot more detail in the men’s outfits. It’s hard to say from the image if their leggings are beaded or simply decorated in ribbon work but it may well be a combination of the two.
In 1833, the young Laura M. Sheldon of Barnet, Vermont, married the Reverend Asher Wright, a preacher to the Seneca at the Buffalo Creek Reservation, and she devoted the rest of her life to the Christian well-being of the Iroquois. Very clever in devising ways to get them to listen to her moralizing and religious instructions, she would invite them to what we might now call a “tea meeting.”
They were at the liberty to bring their needlework, which consisted in ornamenting their deerskin moccasins with porcupine quills, or their broadcloth skirts and leggings with beads, or perhaps fastening a quantity of silver brooches upon their short gowns or hats. While thus occupied, she read and explained the gospel truths in their own language, sang hymns with them, and frequently encouraged them to tell her some story of old times. The simple repast, which had really brought them there and held them through the afternoon, was then served, and they went away to think of the “good words” that had been spoken to them about the “new way” (Caswell 1892:65).Two Seneca ladies are depicted wearing an ample amount of silver broaches on their collars in a circa 1860 tintype (figure 20).
Fig. 20 – Circa 1860 tintype of two Seneca women in their traditional dress. Their collars are decorated with silver brooches. Private collection.
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Caroline Parker’s outfit in figures 1 and 2 is also decorated in silver brooches. Although none of the brooches depicted in these images are in the shape of a heart, many 18th and early 19th century Iroquois brooches were.
The heart shaped brooch has been called the national badge of the Iroquois because of its popularity among them. It is found in both single and double forms, often surmounted by a crown. The design is thought to have come to North America from Scotland, where it was a popular love token and betrothal symbol. The “Luckenbooth” brooch, as it was known in Scotland, may have been introduced by British-trained silversmiths such as Robert Cruickshank or James Hanna. Another possibility is that the Indians requested the brooch after seeing it worn by Scottish traders and settlers (Fredrickson and Gibb 1980:53).
The earliest heart-shaped brooches were manufactured in Europe as early as the seventeenth century. “They were mostly used as luck tokens, or betrothal gifts, and the choice of the heart shape … is sufficiently obvious (Parker 1910:354).” Many were later made by Iroquois silversmiths who found their inspiration in European models, and historically, the Iroquois continued fabricating them until at least the 1860s.
Any brooch pinned to the garment of a child was regarded by the Scotch as an efficient charm against witches.…When the Iroquois silversmiths copied the Scotch patterns they left off many things that were common in the original patterns and interpreted the design as their own education, environment, or customs dictated … (Parker 1911:285).
The use of silver brooches as charms to ward off evil spirits was an early component of many Native peoples’ traditional beliefs.
Silver was a gift from the underworld with a natural luminosity – a quality much revered by native people. They believed that the luminosity, especially in ornaments of personal adornment, constituted a power that reflected or blocked evil spirits and radiated the good powers of the sun and moon in the Upper World. Reflective silver ornaments were placed at strategic locations on the body by adults and children, the living, and the dead. Luminosity represented knowledge and wisdom and gave life to inanimate objects. Iroquois ceremonial masks have reflective surfaces at the eyes to give them life and the Naskapi word for mirror translates as “see soul metal” (Hamilton 1995:49).
About the same time that Caroline Parker was photographed in the famous daguerreotypes of her
(figures 1 & 2), the artist Thomas Jacobs produced a watercolor illustration of three Iroquois women in traditional attire (figure 21).
(figures 1 & 2), the artist Thomas Jacobs produced a watercolor illustration of three Iroquois women in traditional attire (figure 21).
Their outfits appear to be embellished almost exclusively with silver brooches. In another watercolor from the same period (figure 22) the women’s outfits are also decorated with silver brooches and additionally their leggings and dress appear to be beaded. One of the unusual features of their outfits are the scarves/shawls they are wearing. Some early 19th century observers mention these scarves but to the best of my knowledge, none exist in either museum or private collections.
Fig. 22 – Watercolor of four Iroquois women, artist and date unknown. Looks to be from the mid-nineteenth century. Private collection.
Caroline Parker’s mid-19th century outfit in figures 1 and 2 is clearly decorated with curvilinear designs and floral motifs. None of the other outfits in the early images we have examined in this posting, as well as others I have seen, are decorated this way. By the mid-19th century, floral beadwork replaced the abstract and geometrical designs that had been the accepted art form among Iroquois traditionalist for centuries. Why this happened may have its origins in Euro/American reasoning. In the early nineteenth century non-Native girls were schooled to be pious, chaste, submissive, patient, and adept at “every variety of needlework,” and to “have a special affinity for flowers” (Welter 1966:165). During the same period, the Haudenosaunee incorporated symbolic and representational floral imagery in their work and this development came about rather suddenly. Although scholars have demonstrated eloquently that flowers were related to Victorian ideals of womanhood (Phillips 1998), the sudden emergence of this type of ornamentation is a fundamental question that has yet to be fully explained.
Ted Brasser also points out that there is only scant evidence that representational floral motifs, in Iroquois decorative arts, were in use prior to the Revolutionary War.
Aboriginal decorative designs were originally abstract and geometrical, but a curvilinear art style became popular in the 1750s. This new art style was adopted by all native peoples around French Quebec, suggesting that it was inspired by some form of French art (Brasser 2009:71).
Others have argued that the complex foliate designs arrived in North America with the French missionaries and fur traders and that they originate in European decorative arts, introduced, in the French convents, by the Ursuline nuns to their Indian students. The course of instruction that was taught to young women in Europe and America that Welter described above was no doubt adopted in the French convents as part of the curriculum for their Indian students. These decorative ideas were subsequently dispersed across the region as their Native students returned to their scattered homes through the northeast (Barbeau 1930). Perhaps, as a partial concession to ministerial educational programs, some Indian artists modified their traditional iconography and adopted the floral imagery. The inspiration may have been European floral designs, but Native aesthetics and cultural meaning were incorporated into the final works of art. Ruth Phillips has suggested that “the Western and Victorian association of flowers with ideal ‘feminine’ qualities of fragility, beauty, and godliness converged with traditional Haudenosaunee associations of plants and the crops cultivated by women with the sustenance of human life to create a shared visual artistic language” (Phillips 1998).
Flowers and plants did have a place in Iroquois ceremonial life, although not necessarily in the forms depicted on clothing.
The fact that floral designs were adopted for ceremonial clothing indicates that there had to be more to their use than mere imitation and commercial motives. They had become an accepted part of the art style, and a source of group identity (Harding 1994:26).
In summary, many believed that the shimmering patterns, fashioned by the beads, attracted the spirits that inhabited the woodlands of the Northeast. Richly decorated clothing was, after all, intended to please benevolent spirits and to protect the wearer against harm from malevolent ones. Clothing styles and fashion accessories change over time; this is true in most cultures. The reasons for the change are varied and sometimes complex. Jennifer Neptune, a contemporary Penobscot artist, aptly points out that the floral motifs that appear in Northeast Woodland beadwork were meant to convey a message about the individual or group identity of those who created them.
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, soothe 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 same plants are still in our backyards, are still being used for healing, and are still being used to inspire our beadwork designs (Faulkner, Prince & Neptune 1998:41).
Barbeau, C. Marius
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