Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Niagara Falls and Tuscarora Beadwork

     During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, in the years following General John Sullivan’s 1779 “scorched earth” campaign against the British Loyalists and a group of partisan Haudenosaunee, some two thousand Iroquois refugees were settled along an eight-mile stretch of the road from Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario. The Tuscarora Wars and colonial slave hunters in North Carolina forced the Tuscarora to take refuge under the protection of the Iroquois Confederacy earlier in the century. They were eventually settled on a reservation just a few miles from Niagara Falls. For the Haudenosaunee, the aftermath of the war resulted, among other things, in a loss of access to vast areas of their traditional hunting grounds. Those who had supported the defeated British followed Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant to Canada where they were granted a tract of land along the Grand River. The war compelled the curtailment of their traditional lifestyle and forced many Haudenosaunee communities to find new ways to subsist. We may never know exactly when they began producing souvenir beadwork but the dating of early tourist material suggests it began soon after they were removed to reservations.
Circa 1860 Ambrotype taken at Prospect Point,  Niagara Falls, NY

     Travelers to the area were confronted by the presence of the Haudenosaunee and many actually sought them out. The traditional arts that existed prior to the American Revolution changed, and in many cases disappeared, to be replaced by the emergence of distinct commoditized styles that were sold primarily at Niagara Falls.
1751 Engraving of Niagara Falls from the Canadian Side

     It was Niagara Falls that attracted travelers who would indirectly influence the production of souvenir material by creating a market for it. Ever since the first accounts of its majestic beauty and turbulent, untamed power, the Falls have captured the psyche of people from all over the world. The Catholic priest and Recollect missionary, Louis Hennepin, first published a description of the Falls in 1678.  Before 1790, few if any Euro/Americans had settled on the lands of western New York.  It wasn’t until after the Revolutionary War and the staggering loss of Haudenosaunee lands that inroads were made and settlements established. Niagara had long been used by the Indians as a center of trade and when commerce with non-Natives began, it emerged as the most significant trading center with the Great Lakes and points west.
19th Century trade card from the Prospect House hotel

     As early as 1796, there were two hotels in the burgeoning village of Chippewa, just above the Falls, on the Canadian side. Because of its strategic location, Niagara quickly became a venue of commercial importance and a coveted gateway to the rich fur lands in the west. Engravings of the Falls sold briskly in the first half of the eighteenth century and many of the early paintings of Niagara were done by artist-soldiers who had been stationed in Canada.
     By 1824, two more hotels had been built on the Canadian side so even at this early date, Niagara was a place bustling with visitors. Many of them were curious about the Indians they encountered and they were bringing home Indian-made souvenirs as mementoes of their trips.

Mohawks John Deer, his wife and daughter at the Falls - late 19th C.

     Accounts from some of the earliest journals indicate that travelers to the area were taking home Indian souvenirs as early as the eighteenth century.  For those making the journey, Niagara represented a pure and pristine environment, which was seen as healthful and invigorating but, just as the Falls became a symbol of America, the Indian became a symbol of the Falls and an icon of this untamed wilderness. To many, an authentic Indian souvenir had a romantic appeal. Christian Feest notes that some of the earliest souvenir items that were made by the Indians were models of cradleboards, toboggans, and canoes (Feest 2007-2:47-48). But not even the pristine natural beauty of the Falls could stop the developing commercialization of Niagara as an extravagant marvel for tourists.

     No vacation to the Falls was complete without the requisite trip to the Indian reservation. In 1839, DeVeaux describes “…those places which it has become fashionable to visit,  Old Fort Schlosser, up the river – the mineral spring – the Whirlpool, the next most interesting object, after the Falls – the Tuscarora Indian village” (DeVeaux 1839:53).
      DeVeaux’s 1839 guidebook listed the Tuscarora Reservation as one of the area attractions where one could purchase souvenirs directly from the Indians. “They number only, at this time, 283 individuals. Their present principal chief is Thomas Chew, the son of an Englishman. Our party having arrived at the village, look into their wigwams; make such observations, and take such notes of the customs and manners of the inhabitants, as a short and hasty visit affords; purchase some articles of Indian manufacture; or, perhaps, seek an introduction to the venerable chief Sacarissa, who was a commissioned officer in the American army, in the revolutionary war” (DeVeaux 1839:110).

Detail from a pictographic map of Niagara Falls published in 1882 illustrating some points of interest

Circa 1870 stereo view of Dean's Metamora Indian Depot.
Formally Fox's Curiosity Shop where Indian souvenirs could
be purchased.
     Nineteenth-century travelers were most likely to find the cherished Indian souvenirs they were seeking at Niagara Falls.  The best views of the cataract were from Goat Island, but to get there a visitor would first have to cross the bridge to Bath Island, then “. . . ascend the bank, enter the toll-house, and pay the charge of twenty-five cents each; which gives the individual the privilege of visiting the island during his stay at the Falls, or at any time thereafter for the current year. They register their names, and look at the Indian and other curiosities, [in the Bath House that was operated by a Mr. Jacob] which are kept there for sale; and generally make some purchases, as remembrances of the Falls, or for presents to friends or children (DeVeaux 1839:56). [He goes on to say that] Niagara Falls has also become a mart for Indian curiosities.  Of the same gentleman [Mr. Jacobs] may be obtained moccasins, worked with beads and porcupine quills. Indian work pockets, needle cases, war clubs, bark canoes, maple sugar in fancy boxes ornamented with quills, & c” (DeVeaux 1839:163).
One panel from a 1859 stereo view of Tuscarora women selling beadwork
at Niagara Falls.

     In 1859, the British photographer William England photographed this group of Indian women making fancy beaded items at Niagara Falls. The descriptive text that accompanied this stereo view indicated the subjects were a group of Seneca’s that made their living from the manufacture and sale of fancy articles which England described as purses, pincushions, needle-books, moccasins and caps. In all likelihood, they were Tuscaroras.
One panel from a circa 1870 stereo view of the bridge to Bath Island (view looking west). Dean's Metamora Indian Depot was located on the left, just beyond the end of the bridge.

This is the same site today, taken on a recent trip to Niagara Falls (view looking west).

One panel from a circa 1860 stereo view of Tugby & Walker's
variety store where Iroquois souvenirs could be purchased. 

     The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 brought more tourists to the Falls. By the 1840s the trade in Indian fancy beadwork was in full swing. Sometime before 1843, Theodore Hulett opened the The Old Curiosity Shop and his brother opened the Indian Shop to take advantage of the increased trade in Indian items. They published their first guidebook to the Falls in 1843 and it included the names of the tribes that were sending them beadwork to sell in their shops. In addition to the Tuscarora were the Seneca from the Tonawanda Reservation, near present day Akron, the Allegany Senecas from the Salamanca area, the Cattaraugus Seneca from present day Irving, New York as well as the Mohawks from the Montreal area.
Circa 1870 view of the same store after renovations.
     Access to Goat Island was from the bridge located directly in front of Tugby and Walkers variety store, emporium and curiosity shop where one could purchase Indian souvenirs. Tugby was a local businessman whose enterprise dominated the riverfront across from Goat Island.  The bridge first took you to Bath Island where you paid a toll of 25 cents to gain access to the larger Goat Island.  Fox’s Curiosity shop, which opened in 1843, and later became Dean’s Metamora Indian Depot, and the Bath House were two places on this small island where you could purchase Indian souvenirs.

This is the east end view of the Bath Island bridge looking at the former site of Tugby store. In 1885 the Niagara appropriations bill was signed into law and the area around the Falls was turned into a state park.

One item that was acquired at the Bath House is the pincushion to the left. The back of this early piece, with paper patterns beneath the central floral design, has the following inked inscription on the back: “Bought at the Bath House on Bath Island, Falls of Niagara, Sept. 27, 1850.” There is also a name after the date but it’s illegible.     
Bath Island was one of several islands in the Goat Island complex. The pincushion illustrated here was possibly made by Caroline Parker, her mother Elizabeth or someone else in their immediate beading group as a near identical example is illustrated in Lewis Henry Morgan’s Fifth Regsents Report to the state of New York, January 22, 1851. Caroline and her mother Elizabeth produced the majority of beadwork for Morgan and their work was illustrated in several of Lewis Henry Morgan’s reports to the State of New York. See: Tooker 1994: Fifth Regents Report, Plate 19 for a near identical example.
Two circa 1860 carte-de-visit's (CDVs) of tourist at Prospect Point.

     In 1863, a local newspaper announced that “[t]hose who pass over the bridge spanning the rapids – and what visitor to the Falls will omit to do this! – should pass at the Indian store of Mr. Fox, at the toll-gate, and examine the endless variety of exquisitely wrought Indian work which he offers for inspection and sale. He has some articles which are entirely new – perfect miracles in the ingenuity of their design and beauty of workmanship” (Niagara Falls Gazette. July 15, 1863).
     Another advertisement from the early 1860s announced the sale of beadwork at the Falls by the Six Nations Indians. They were the Haudenosaunee from the Grand River Reserve in nearby Brantford, Ontario and some of them sold directly at the Falls in the vicinity of Table Rock, on the Canadian side. They also had a retail outlet on the American side, located inside Tugby and Walker’s variety store. “Here Mr. Tugby has a full and complete collection of curiosities, articles representative of Indian life and manners, toys, bijouterie, fancy goods, and all similar products, such as visitors generally desire to select from in purchasing presents from Niagara Falls for friends at home” (Holder 1882:120).

Present day view of Luna Island where many Tuscaroras sold their
beadwork in the 19th century.
     Once onto Goat Island visitors could follow the pathway to the right which took them to the American Falls and the bridge that crossed onto Luna Island. This small outcropping of rock between the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls was once covered with white cedar trees which were well suited to withstand the harsh winter conditions at the Falls. In the summer, the trees were filled with the nest of bald eagles and cedar waxwings. Since the nineteenth century, when the Tuscarora actively sold their beadwork there, the trees either died off or were removed by human activity.
Present day view of the American Falls taken from Luna Island.
I couldn't resist having my picture taken on this historic spot.
One panel from a circa 1870 stereo view of
Tuscarora women selling beadwork on Luna Island.
 The name of prize-winning photographer George Barker (1844-1894) is synonymous with images of Niagara Falls.  Around 1870 he took a rare series of photographs of a group of Tuscarora women selling beadwork on Luna Island. The Island (formally called Prospect Island) was renamed for the beautiful moonlit rainbows that were produced by the mist of the Falls and were visible to visitors during or near the full moon. These rainbows are rarely visible today because of the artificial lighting and decrease in the flow of water over the Cataract.
     The lady on the left in this image is holding a small purse of the type that some collectors call a fist purse, because of its diminutive size and clenched fist shape. But contemporary Tuscarora beadworkers call them “barrel purses” and say that was what their ancestors called them as well. These are almost as prevalent in collections today as the Niagara floral style from the previous two decades and by 1870 the barrel purse had become one of several newly fashionable Indian bags.  Barrel purses, unlike the flat Niagara floral-style bags, were three-dimensional objects constructed over stiff paperboard to achieve their shape.
Circa 1870 Tuscarora barrel purse with animal motifs.
Floral designs covered the surface of many barrel purses though more desirable examples were decorated with bird and animal motifs like this example with the squirrel and owl.

Below are several circa 1870 stereo views of Tuscarora women selling beadwork at Niagara Falls. In some of the views, the American Falls can be seen in the background. Except where noted, all were taken by photographer George Barker.

It's not clear who took the following stereo view.  Printed on the front is Niagara Scenery by S. Davies. Saul Davies operated a shop on the Canadian side of the Falls where he sold souvenirs and Indian beadwork but it's not clear if he was also a photographer. The subject in this view is identified on the back as Satie Foote, and it's dated 1871. She may have been Tuscarora but this is a Canadian stereo view and there is no other identifying information.

Among the Tuscarora there are many beadworkers, or sewers as they prefer to call themselves, who are active today. Notable among them is Rosemary Rickard Hill. Rosemary grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation. As a child she learned to do beadwork at her mother’s side and they often sold their creations at the State Fair in Syracuse, and at Prospect Park, in Niagara Falls.
Her work was featured in Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life exhibit that toured several major museums in the northeast several years ago. She has since received numerous blue ribbons and other prestigious awards for her exceptional beadwork. Her work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the British Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian and she exhibits annually at the Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico and at other important venues.
Cabinet card dated August 9, 1873.

     In 1906 Peter Porter, a wealthy land owner at the Falls reminisced:“For many years, Indian beadwork was one of the main attractions offered in the bazaars there. And the elder generation of visitors will recall the familiar sight of aged Indian squaws, and dusky Indian maidens, who daily, during the season of travel, sat at the various points along the route of the tourist on the steep banks of the road leading up to the rapids, on Luna Island, to old Terrapin Tower, and at various points around the Ferry House, and what is now Prospect Park, offering for sale, ... beadwork, pin cushions, moccasins, etc.
Often a papoose strapped to the board which formed the back of its picturesque but doubtless uncomfortable cradle leant up against the foot of a tree, or swung suspended from some low hanging branch, gazed stolidly at the pale faced visitor. The “Braves” at home then made the toy canoes, the bows and arrows, the quivers, the war clubs and tomahawks, which the squaws also disposed of to the tourist as souvenirs of Niagara.
Those “Squaw Traders” were a most picturesque feature of Niagara, and the fact that those descendants of a passing Race now seldom or never sit by the roadside and offer their wares directly to the visitor is a distinct loss to the artistic environment of the Cataract” (Porter 1906:71-73).
If you have an interest in Northeast Woodland beadwork you might find my book of interest. Titled: A Cherished Curiosity: TheSouvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art by GerryBiron. 
Published in 2012. This is a brand new, hard cover book with dust jacket. 184 pages and profusely illustrated. 8.5 x 11 inches. ISBN 978-0-9785414-1-5.
Since the early nineteenth century, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beaded bags have been admired and cherished by travelers to Niagara Falls and other tourist destinations for their aesthetic beauty, detailed artistry, and the creative spirit of their makers.  A long neglected and misunderstood area of American Indian artistry, "souvenir" art as it's come to be called, played a crucial role in the subsistence of many Indian families during the nineteenth century. This lavishly illustrated history examines these bags – the most extensively produced dress accessory made by the Haudenosaunee – along with the historical development of beadworking both as an art form and as a subsistence practice for Native women.
In this book, the beadwork is considered in the context of art, fashion, and the tourist economy of the nineteenth century. Illustrated with over one hundred and fifty of the most important – and exquisite – examples of these bags, along with a unique collection of historical photographs of the bags in their original context, this book provides essential reading for collectors and researchers of this little understood area of American Indian art.

References Cited
DeVeaux, S.
1839   The Falls of Niagara or Tourist’s Guide to this Wonder of Nature, William B. Hayden, Buffalo. The Press of Thomas & Co.

Feest, Christian F
2007   German Collections from the American Revolution. In Three Centuries of Woodlands Indian Art, edited by J.C.H. King and Christian F. Feest.ZFK Publishers, Altenstadt, Germany

Holder, Thos
1882   A Complete Record of Niagara Falls and Vicinage Being Descriptive, Historical and Industrial; Containing a Complete Guide Book, Local History, Manufacturing Facilities, Biographical Sketches, Business Firms, etc. Niagara Falls: Published for the Author.
Porter, Peter A.
1906   Niagara: An Aboriginal Center of Trade. Niagara Falls: Peter Porter.

Tooker, Elizabeth
1994   Lewis H. Morgan on Iroquois Material Culture. University of Arizona Press, Tuscon and London.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

19th Century Pictographic and Figurative Iroquois Beaded Bags

     Another important group of nineteenth century Haudenosaunee beaded bags are those that incorporate figurative or pictographic motifs.  Arguably, they are some of the rarest examples of Northeast Woodland beaded bags. 

     This first bag is from a private collection and it was exhibited in the Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life exhibit that travelled to several museums a few  years ago. The figures no doubt represent the twins from the Iroquois creation story. Private collection.

     Another particularly significant example (illustrated below) is also decorated with two identical figures that may represent the good and mischievous twins from the Haudenosaunee creation story. Arthur Parker characterizes some representations of the double-curve motif, in Iroquoian decorative arts, as the “celestial tree” that was created by the Good Twin (Parker 1912:613).  Between the figures on this bag are two large, inward turning curves with sun-like symbols at their centers. They may be artistic expressions of the “celestial tree” and the “world tree” that Parker speaks of.
     The ambiguous design on the back of the bag is somewhat reminiscent of the carved faces seen on Haudenosaunee masks. In writing about the relationship between the Faces and the “world tree,” Parker says that
[t]his tree is mentioned in various ceremonial rites of the Iroquois. With the False Face Company. . .  for example, the “Great Face,” chief of all the False Faces, is said to be the invisible giant that guards the world tree (Parker 1912:611).

     Perhaps the design elements on this side are arranged to represent the “Great Face” that guards the world tree on the other side of the bag. The shape of the mouth, formed by the lower two diamonds, is flattened like spoons, for blowing ashes, and this is how the “Great Face” is sometimes depicted (see: Fenton 1987: plate 6-1).
     This bag is a classic design that incorporates numerous elements of Haudenosaunee cosmology. It also has a Pop Art component to it, reminiscent of the work of contemporary artist Keith Haring. The subtle and intricate designs, the limited use of motifs that are thoroughly filled with beads, the silk inlays, and the large areas of negative space suggest a 1820s to 1830 date for this rare and exceptional piece. Private collection.

     Dogs were the only domesticated animals that were traditionally kept by Woodland Indians and many images exist of them with their dogs.  However, no mention is made in the literature about the indigenous practice of using a leash. Although depictions of Indians with their dogs appear in other souvenir art pieces, (a nineteenth century Tuscarora double wall pocked with three figures also depicts two off-leash dogs. See: American Indian Art Magazine, Vol. 24, Number 1, Winter 1998, page 39, figure 10),  this may have been done to appeal to the Victorians’ fondness for pets.  Additionally, one of the subjects on the  bag below appears to be holding a basket or perhaps a lantern.
     The design on the back is somewhat cryptic. Without the four birds, this motif could be interpreted as a flowering plant. The addition of the birds leaves little doubt that it was intended to represent a tree. However, it’s not the classic celestial or world tree with the single flower/sun surmounted on the crown. Possibly the maker intended it to be an interpretation of the “Great Tree of Peace.” Traditionally, the white pine, with its five needles, was the symbol of the Five Iroquois Nations, joined together as one confederacy. It was also the proverbial tree beneath which the Iroquois buried their weapons as a symbol of their growth in consciousness; as a people seeking peace and not war. But this tree has six branches. Perhaps the maker was indicating with her design that since the Tuscaroras was adopted into the confederacy that they were now the Six Iroquois Nations.  The shape of the bag, with a scalloped flap and lower edge, is suggestive of the work of Caroline Parker. Circa 1840s. Private collection. 

Another intriguing bag has what appear to be two figures holding hands. The negative space between them forms the shape of a heart.  Adding to the mystery is the design inside the outline of the right-hand figure. The back of the bag has a representation of a large, daisy-like flower. Perhaps someone commission this bag for a spouse or a lover. Circa 1820s. Private collection.     

Another intriguing bag was also displayed in the Across Borders exhibit. It depicts two figures dancing in a style that is quite similar to those on a coat of an Iroquois man portrayed in a late nineteenth century cabinet card (see below). The style of the bag indicates it is from the mid-nineteenth century. Private collection.
Late 19th century cabinet card depicting an Iroquois family group, likely Mohawks.

     The beaver pelt top hat was part of the formal dress of many Northeast Woodland people during the mid-nineteenth century.  The engraving below, published by M. Elias Regnault in 1849, depicts five Native people from the vicinity of Quebec. The two individuals on the far left are wearing beaver pelt top hats. Private collection.

     There are several other nineteenth century prints and paintings that depict Native people wearing these hats but extant examples of bags with figures wearing a top hat are exceptionally rare.  The figures in this piece typify the dress of two Natives from the period. In the enclosed space, between the stylized yellow-beaded pine tree motifs in the upper corners of this bag, is a central sun design.  The solidly beaded figures suggest that this piece is from the 1840s. It may have originated in one of the Mohawk Reserves near Montreal, as similar pine tree motifs appear on other pieces attributed to the Mohawk.  Private collection.

Animal motifs are seen on early Haudenosaunee beaded bags about as often as depictions of people. Although an elephant motif on a mid-nineteenth-century souvenir bag would appear incongruous, the Haudenosaunee beadworkers were, after all, savvy entrepreneurs. This is aptly demonstrated in this example, which was likely a commissioned piece.  The design is a representation of the insignia for the 74th Regiment of Foot, the Argyll Highlanders, which fought in the Battle of Assaye, in western India, in 1803.  The design on the right is the regiment’s official insignia and below it is a listing of the battles they fought in. On the bag, the number 74 can be seen stitched in beads above the elephant, as can the name of the historic battle they fought in. In the mid - to late 1830s, the 74th Regiment of Foot was stationed throughout the Caribbean, in Antigua, Granada, Barbados and St. Lucia. The regiment moved about these islands until 1841 when it proceeded to Quebec. They remained there until 1844, removing to Nova Scotia and embarking at Halifax for England, in March of 1845. A Haudenosaunee artist was likely retained to produce this piece for someone in that regiment, perhaps while on a trip to Montreal or Niagara Falls, and conceivably as a souvenir for a wife or loved one back home.  The reverse side of the bag is virtually identical to the front. Likely made between 1841 and 1844, it’s a fine example that underscores the heavy use of solid bead fill on pieces from the early 1840s. From the collection of Richard Green.

The imagery in souvenir arts can have more than one meaning. To the Haudenosaunee, the eagle is a messenger from the Creator and as such is considered sacred. In Iroquois art, it’s often depicted perched over the great tree of peace, keeping a watchful eye on the Haudenosaunee homeland, prepared to warn people of any approaching danger. To some nationalistic Americans the eagle can symbolize their martial or hawkish nature. In each culture it denotes notions of power. In one culture that power is materialistic; in the other it’s spiritual.  The intended message of the maker is unknown but certainly the imagery on this bag would appeal to both, albeit for different reasons. This rare bag is beaded on hide. The extended top is made of silk. The solidly beaded thunderbird and large floral motif on the reverse suggests a 1830s to 1840s date. The triangles along the perimeter of the bag may be an Iroquois identity marker as I have seen these on other pieces that were attributed to them. Private collection.

     Another intriguing bag with a bird motif has what could be a representation of a snipe. The Iroquois Confederacy is composed of six nations with a total of nine clans. The clans, defined by specific animals, represent the land, the sky and the water. Both the Seneca and Tuscarora, prolific producers of early souvenir beadwork, had a Snipe Clan so there may be some intended cultural symbolism in the design of this piece. The beading style indicates an early date; likely pre-1830. Private collection.

Unfortunately, only a black and white image was available of this bag which is from the Eugene Thaw collection at the Fennimore Art Museum, in Cooperstown, NY. This very early bag (possibly from the first quarter of the nineteenth century) depicts what could be an eagle on one side and linear-zigzag and curvilinear motifs on the other. The design in the central panel on the side without the bird appears to have silk inlays. This is another rare design treatment on early Haudenosaunee beadwork.

     This early nineteenth century beaded bag with a bird motif has linear designs and sun and diamond motifs which suggest it is from the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Private collection.

     The League of the Five Nations was symbolically represented as a longhouse, with the Seneca at the western door and the Mohawks at the east. Besides functioning as a domicile, the longhouse was also emblematic of the Haudenosaunee political system, and the Nation chiefs were the posts which supported it. This rare bag could be a representation of a lodge or longhouse.  In conceiving the formation of the Iroquois confederacy, the Peacemaker told the Five Nations that he envisioned them coming together as “one longhouse.”  Pre-1830. Private collection.

Talismans and objects of personal power were no doubt common among the Iroquois, but it’s not known if insects had more than a cursory significance to them tribally.  It’s intriguing how the Haudenosaunee artist who created this early bag configured the design elements into the shape of a wingless bug. Even the diamond design on the other side, with the double curve extensions at the corners, has an anthropomorphic feel to it. Pre-1830. From the collection of the Maine State Museum.

     The design of this bag, perhaps inspired by a dream or an encounter with an arachnid, shows the clever use of the familiar diamond and double curve motifs to express something beyond the obvious, conceivably a personal connection to an animistic spirit or a spirit helper. Here, the familiar diamond and double curve motifs are arranged into the shape of what could be an insect and possibly a spider. Though many people in western culture have a fear of spiders they are culturally significant to many tribal people around the world. The Bhil and Mat people of central India have a great sense of connection between the living and the dead. They believe that spiders are the spirits of their ancestors. The Chibchas from the northeast highlands of Columbia and present day Panama are culturally similar to the Inca and central to their beliefs is that a departed soul uses the webs of spiders to cross the divide from the physical to the spirit world. In America, the Pueblo and Navajo people have a great tradition about Spider Woman, who was the first being in the world. She brought all life into existence and connected herself to each of her creations through the threads of her web. Circa 1820s. Private collection.     

Portrait of Spider Woman by the author.

     This very unusual figurative bag has a horse motif on one side. Likely Iroquois, it looks to be from the 1830s-1840s period. Private collection.

     Another unusual bag with cryptic designs on both sides also has the addition of a deer. 1830s - 1840s.  Private collection.

     This early bag, likely from the first quarter of the nineteenth century, is from the Thaw collection at the Fennimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York. One side has a turtle motif in the center. Likely Seneca.

     Perhaps the most novel example of a figurative Northeast Woodland bag is one made in the shape of a house.  Here again, the impetus may have been the entrepreneurial spirit of the artist or it could have been a commissioned piece. Part of the mystery is the late nineteenth-century Chinese silk lining, which is decorated with an embroidered bird. The beading style, and the bead colors used are atypical.

If you have an interest in Northeast Woodland beadwork you might find my book of interest. Titled: A Cherished Curiosity: TheSouvenir Beaded Bag in Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art by GerryBiron. 
Published in 2012. This is a brand new, hard cover book with dust jacket. 184 pages and profusely illustrated. 8.5 x 11 inches. ISBN 978-0-9785414-1-5.
Since the early nineteenth century, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beaded bags have been admired and cherished by travelers to Niagara Falls and other tourist destinations for their aesthetic beauty, detailed artistry, and the creative spirit of their makers.  A long neglected and misunderstood area of American Indian artistry, "souvenir" art as it's come to be called, played a crucial role in the subsistence of many Indian families during the nineteenth century. This lavishly illustrated history examines these bags – the most extensively produced dress accessory made by the Haudenosaunee – along with the historical development of beadworking both as an art form and as a subsistence practice for Native women.
In this book, the beadwork is considered in the context of art, fashion, and the tourist economy of the nineteenth century. Illustrated with over one hundred and fifty of the most important – and exquisite – examples of these bags, along with a unique collection of historical photographs of the bags in their original context, this book provides essential reading for collectors and researchers of this little understood area of American Indian art.


Fenton, William N.
1987    The False Faces of the Iroquois – The University of Oklahoma Press – Norman, Publishing Division of the University.

Parker, Arthur C.
1912    Certain Iroquois Tree Myths and Symbols in the American Anthropologist, Vol. 14