What follows are some of the latest designs I’ve been working on; something to occupy my time during the covid epidemic. For Native peoples around the world, shields served as a form of protection from both physical and spiritual harm. They were also strong symbols of good medicine. My intention is to create a series of shields, inspired by designs on old Northeast Woodland beaded bags. Many of the old beadwork designs had hidden meanings woven into them, cultural motifs to be preserved for future generations.
The earliest beadworkl has a spiritual quality about it that is akin to fine art. Inaugurated at a time when the Northeast Woodland nations were impoverished and struggling to continue under conditions of devastating cultural loss, not only was each piece the product of hard work, but it was also a stratagem of cultural resistance and continuance. It was an art of survival.
Historically, this work has been described as a family undertaking that was performed when beadworkers gathered. As they worked in a communal setting, they thoughtfully wove stories into their designs, which told of what it meant to be Haudenosaunee or Wabanaki.
Beadwork was a bridge that united the generations. As the younger beaders were learning their craft, their elders would relate the oral histories of their families. The process of making beadwork evokes memories and connects the Iroquois to their ancestors (From a text panel in the “Across Borders” travelling exhibit).
On the surface, the bags were the canvas upon which an artist displayed their technical skills and artistic vision. But below the surface, the power inherent in a beautiful object was a central feature of life. Beadwork was a language through which artists expressed their deepest beliefs about the universe. We may never know the full extent of their meanings, but embedded within the designs are stories of a people told in symbols and motifs that spoke of a sacred relationship with the natural world. The shields are my humble attempt to honor the creators of this original and unique form of art with my own work.
This early Haudenosaunee bag with the heart or "heart berry" motif was the inspiration for the design in figure 1. The bag dates to the first quarter of the 19th century.
Figure 2 – This design is based on an early Seneca bag with what might be interpreted as a whirling sun motif.
This is the bag that was the inspiration for the design in figure 2. The bag dates to the 1830-1840s period.
|This is the bag I used as my inspiration for figure 5. The design could be interpreted as an insect, possibly a spider. It's an early Seneca bag that dates to the first quarter of the 19th century.|
|Another early bag, likely Seneca, with what could be interpreted as an insect design. From the Maine State Museum collection. |
|Another early Seneca bag with what could be an insect motif on the flap. Possibly from the first quarter of the 19th century.|
|This is a mid-19th century Haudenosaunee watch pocket with a design that could represent a butterfly or a moth. |
Figure 6 - Many Native people consider the turtle a sacred symbol that represents Mother Earth. The turtle’s long life, and hard shell are symbolic of good health, perseverance and protection. As such it represents a powerful theme for a shield.
Morgan, Lewis Henry
1850 “Report to the Regents of the University, upon the Articles Furnished to the Indian Collection.” In The Third Annual Report of the Regents of the University on the Condition of the State Cabinet of Natural History and Antiquarian Collection, Annexed Thereto pp. 63 – 93. Revised Edition: Printed by Weed, Parsons and Company, Albany.
1852 “Report on the Fabrics, Inventions, Implements and Utensils of the Iroquois, Made to the Regents of the University, Jan. 22, 1851; Illustrative of the Collection Annexed to the State Cabinet of Natural History, with Illustrations.” In The Fifth Annual Report of the Regents of the University on the Condition of the State Cabinet of Natural History and the Historical and Antiquarian Collection, Annexed Thereto, pp 68 – 117. Printed by Richard H. Pease, Albany.
1998 Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700 – 1900. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston.