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


  1. Thank you for sharing your wonderful blog. I appreciate it.

  2. Hope you're still around. In your research, have you ever come across a sketch or painting of an Eastern Woodland woman in the early 1700s wearing a bag? Thank you.


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