Thursday, January 3, 2013

Wabanaki Beadwork - Part 2

Follow this link to Part 1

      Wabanaki beaded bags from the mid-nineteenth century often employed bilaterally symmetrical designs that are relatively linear in their execution and incorporated limited areas of solid bead fill (figure 18). The inverted keyhole shape is occasionally encountered during this period and examples often include the double-curve motif.  Early bags that were beaded over paper patterns are not known to exist. Empirical studies indicate that like the Haudenosaunee, the earliest Wabanaki bags had linear designs and no areas of solid bead fill. The paper patterns appear to be a feature found on later bags and for the most part on the vase or inverted keyhole-shaped examples.
Figure 18 – Beaded bags, Wabanaki type. Glass beads, black velvet fabric, silk ribbon edge binding. Approximately 6 inches high by 5.4 inches wide.  1840s – 1860s. Maritime area bags from this period usually had bilaterally symmetrical designs and they rarely had paper patterns beneath the beads. Bag (c) is from the collection of Naomi Smith.
      A beaded stitch along the outside edge binding is uncommon on Wabanaki bags. Earlier examples are similar to the hexagonal shape found on early Iroquois work (figure 19). As a general rule, the earliest inverted keyhole-shaped bags have bilaterally symmetrical designs while those on later examples are asymmetrical. Virtually all the inverted keyhole-shaped bags I’ve seen incorporated motifs that were solidly filled with beads, suggesting their construction postdates the hexagonal-shaped examples.
Figure 19 – Beaded bags, Wabanaki type. Glass beads, black velvet fabric, silk ribbon edge binding. Approximately 6.3 inches high by 6.2 inches wide.  Circa 1840s. None of these incorporate the use of paper patterns beneath the beads. Bag (b) is from the collection of Naomi Smith.

     A very early Wabanaki bag is illustrated in figure 20.  The double-curve figures on this piece consist of both inward and outward turning curves that are in symmetrical opposition. This bag is hard to date because it’s such a rare example, but the overall symmetry and linearity of the design points to an early date, certainly no later than 1840 and possibly a decade or two earlier.  The scallop-shell motif is very unusual. The beautiful symmetry of this piece is more typical of Wabanaki work than that of the Haudenosaunee and the beaded fringe along the bottom is a very rare treatment.
Figure 20 – Beaded bag, early Wabanaki type. Glass beads, red wool broadcloth, silk ribbon edge binding (both sides shown), cotton lining. 8.2 inches high (not counting fringe) by 7 inches wide.  Pre-1840. An early bilaterally symmetrical bag with a scallop shell design. The fringe along the bottom is a rare treatment.
      Interpreting the designs in the beadwork is difficult as they were often very personal. The neighboring Naskapi and Montagnais often attributed a design inspiration to a specific dream. As one Penobscot artist remarked to the anthropologist Frank Speck, in the early twentieth century, “The idea of a design comes into the mind by itself and if you do not make it, you lose it, and it never comes back again” (Speck 1927:59).
Figure 21 – Beaded Bag, Wabanaki type, possibly Penobscot or Passamaquoddy. Glass beads, red wool broadcloth, silk ribbon edge binding. 6 inches in height by 5.9 inches in width.  Mid-nineteenth century. The bag outline is a variation of the inverted keyhole shape. From the collection of the Maine State Museum.

     Figure 21 illustrates a variation of the inverted keyhole shape on an unusual bag from the Maine State Museum. Donald Scotomah, the tribal historian for the Passamaquoddy in Maine, attributes it to either the Penobscot or Passamaquoddy. 

Figure 22 The Basketmaker. My portrait of Mamie Joseph. Colored and graphite pencils, acrylic, watercolor and ink. 28 inches high by 27 inches wide. Completed in 2003. Mamie was a Penobscot artist and basketmaker from Indian Island in Old Town, Maine. In this piece I’ve endeavored to capture the indelible spirit of one Penobscot artist. Though she is no longer with us, her art survives as a testament to the beauty of the human spirit, exemplified by her craft.
     A similar bag is depicted in my portrait of Mamie Joseph (figure 22), a nineteenth-century Penobscot artist and basketmaker from Indian Island, in Old Town, Maine. There is a long tradition of basket making among the Penobscot (figure 23a and b). While continuing to make utilitarian baskets, late nineteenth-century basket weavers began producing forms that were smaller, more portable, and highly decorated. They recognized the Victorian fondness for elaboration and produced baskets that were embellished with decorative weaves, dyed splints and sweetgrass and these forms have become known as “fancy baskets.”
Figure 23a – Real Photo Post Card of Maime Joseph in her home on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine. 3.5 inches high by 5.5 inches wide.  Circa 1907.

Figure 23b – Real Photo Post Card of two Penobscot women from Indian Island, in Old Town, Maine. One is splitting ash for baskets, the other is weaving sweetgrass. 3.5 inches high by 5.5 inches wide.  Circa 1920.
      During the nineteenth century, Bar Harbor, Maine, was one of the largest resort communities on the east coast and it was also a primary summer market where the Wabanaki sold their crafts (figure 24). Both the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy had encampments there. Others sold souvenirs to tourists on Indian Island in Old Town, Maine, while some travelled to resort areas along the coast to market their work.  Like the Haudenosaunee, Wabanaki artists were savvy entrepreneurs and took advantage of every opportunity to sell their imaginative creations. 

Figure 24 – One panel of a stereo view depicting a Wabanaki encampment titled: “Indian Tents, Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert, Me.” The detail view depicts several Wabanakis with examples of their baskets. Circa 1870. Photographer: M.B. Bradley, Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert, Maine.
     Several old photographs suggest that some Wabanakis were loosely connected with the spiritualist movement. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a wealthy woman by the name of Mary Colburn Weston organized a spiritualist group in Onset, Massachusetts. In the summer, she travelled from her home on Cape Cod to Skowhegan, Maine, where she befriended many of the local Indians. She also had contacts with the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia and arranged for some of them to come to Onset where they set up camp, sold their baskets and participated in the activities of the spiritualist church (figure 25a and b).
Figure 25a – Printed postcard of Mrs. Mary Colburn Weston, the head of a spiritualist group at Onset, Massachusetts. 3.5 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. The card is titled: “Mrs. Weston, President of the Wigwam, and Indian friends, Onset, Mass.”  The Indians were Wabanaki either from Maine or Nova Scotia. The church building can be seen in the inset. Copyright 1906 by Samuel J. Smith, Onset, Massachusetts.
Figure 25b – 1879 albumen photograph of a group of Wabanakis at the Spiritualist Camp in Onset, Massachusetts. Although Mrs. Weston had Wabanaki friends from the Skowhegan, Maine area who attended her Spiritualist Group in Onset, these individuals were Mi’kmaq from the Annapolis Royal area of Nova Scotia. Two Mi’kmaq women, Mary Tony and Mary Paul, were among this group and are believed to be the women depicted in this image. Photographer: Burrell, of Brockton, MA.
     Though the Penobscot decorated their personal attire with beads, in none of the many old photographs I've studied are beaded souvenirs seen offered for sale (figure 26a & 26b). Though the beadwork that decorated traditional Penobscot clothing and accoutrements was as skillfully done and as aesthetically pleasing as that of any of the Wabanaki beadworkers, Speck noted that most of the area tribes regarded the Penobscot more for their wood-carving abilities.

Their work manifests care and skill, the intrinsic merit of their designs and their technique apparently entitling them to rank among the best native wood carvers in the north. Compared with the adjacent tribes the Penobscot are quite profuse in artistic decorations. It is indeed rather unusual to find tools and other wooden objects among the Penobscot which have not some ornamentation, either purely aesthetic or combined with utility in the form of cross-hatching or series of triangles which serve to make the hand-hold firmer (Speck 1927: 55-56).

    Regarding their beadwork he says:

Whereas, prior to a period dating back only some thirty years (late nineteenth century), the aesthetic impulses of these Indians expressed themselves in the production of beautiful bead and ribbon work designs. Now since there is hardly any beadwork done in the village, they find artistic  expression in the construction and designing of splint and sweetgrass baskets (Speck 1927:56).

Figure 26a – Real Photo Post Card of a Penobscot handiwork display in Old Town, Maine. 3.5 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. Dated on the back: July 6, 1936. Most of the pieces offered for sale are either baskets or items made from birch bark.
Figure 26b – Two Real Photo Post Cards of Sylvia Stanislaus, a Penobscot baketmaker. 3.5 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. The top image is dated 1911 and is at the Farragut Hotel at Rye Beach, New Hampshire where she regularly sold her work. The lower image was taken in 1921. She represented the Penobscot at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, and again in San Francisco, in 1906. She died in 1938. Though the images were taken about ten years apart, she was still using the same textile to cover her display table.

     It is possible that the beautiful beadwork Speck mentions was made for sale to tourists, but he could have been referring to the decorations found on their raiment. There is enough ambiguity in his statement for the question to remain open. The lack of adequately documented Penobscot souvenir bags and other beaded tourist items suggests that this was not a thriving activity among them.
Beadwork flourished among those groups who had ready access to material and who received enough remuneration from their work to make their handiwork economically viable. For the Penobscots, beadwork was largely reserved for internal use – to decorate personal regalia, such as peaked caps, headbands, cape collar and cuff sets, coat and dress lapels and skirts worn for special occasions (Faulkner 1998: 37). 

Figure 27 – Real Photo Post Card of Joe Francis, a Penobscot wearing a large beaded chief’s collar with a deer motif.  5.5 inches high by 3.5 inches wide. Circa 1912. Photographer: A.F. Orr, Old Town, Maine.
Fannie Hardy Eckstorm wrote that the Penobscot
“. . . were not masters of beadwork” (Eckstorm [1932] 1980:31).  She says that “examples of more elaborate work are rare, although the Indians still have the broad collar with a running deer on the front of it, which is passed on from one governor to another as a badge of office [figure 27].  There used to be many pictures of Indians wearing this collar of heavy beadwork, coming half-way down the breast. It has even been photographed on a woman, who would have no right to wear it [figure 28]. How old it may be, it is impossible to tell; pictures of it probably go back as much as sixty years, and no doubt the collar is much older” (Eckstorm [1932] 1980:32).
Figure 28 – Real Photo Post Card of Clara Neptune, a Penobscot elder, wearing the same beaded chief’s collar depicted in figure 27. 5.5 inches high by 3.5 inches wide. Circa 1912. Photographer: A.F. Orr, Old Town, Maine.

     The two designs on either side of the deer appear to be trees [figure 29]. The motifs are uncommon and generally not seen on souvenir beadwork. Even the treatment of the leaf motifs, with the dark center band, is unusual on Wabanaki work. There are also two, large circular floral-like motifs done in a quasi-Mohawk style of raised beadwork that have thick bundles of beads dangling from the center.
Figure 29 – Detail of the chief’s collar. 
Eckstorm goes on to say:
Considerable cheap beadwork, largely pincushions made of beads cut from glass rods, [bugle or embroidery beads] used to be sold by our Indians, but it was not made by them and had no claim to merit. A small amount of minor work was done for sale such as watch cases and pocket cases, the beads being small and predominantly light blue, with some vermilion and white ones for accents. This may, or may not, have been Penobscot work, though one piece which I particularly recall was no doubt local. . .
The result of a cursory examination of the small amount of material available or remembered, is an opinion that after they ceased to wear wampum belts. . .  [they] did very little good beadwork.  To them beads were merely a finish used on clothing to give contrast and vivacity to the work. The most elaborate examples were some of the collars and pointed revers [a coat lapel or trimmings to suggest one] worn by the men either separately or attached to coats. Here the ornamentation was often profuse and striking, but unless the ‘double-curve’ patterns were employed, it had little design. Women were apt to use beadwork on their moccasins and leggings, or on their caps, possibly on detached collars after the old wampum collars were given up (Eckstorm [1932] 1980:33-34).

     Two circa 1900 George Hunt business cards lists the items the Penobscot had for sale and beadwork is not on the list (figures 30 & 31). Their specialty was making baskets and other wood derived items and the photographic evidence suggests that they were not heavily involved in the production of souvenir beadwork.
Figure 30 – Business card for George H. Hunt, the Indian agent for the Penobscot in Old Town, Maine. 2.75 inches high by 4.5 inches wide. Circa 1900. Hunt ran an agency store in Old Town where he sold Indian novelty items that were made by the Penobscot. A distant view of the Penobscot village, on Indian Island, can be seen on the card.
Figure 31 – Another business card for George H. Hunt, the Indian agent for the Penobscot, on Indian Island, in Old Town, Maine. 3.5 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. Circa 1900. This card list’s the Penobscot items he had for sale.
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 in Part 1 & 2

Bourque, Bruce J and Labar, Laureen A.
2009    Uncommon Threads: Wabanaki Textiles, Clothing, and Costume. Maine State Museum in association with University of Washington Press. Seattle and London

 Department of Indian Affairs
1967    Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development – Indians of Quebec and the Maritime Provinces (An Historical Review). Published by the DIA, Indian Affairs Branch, Ottawa , Canada

Eckstorm, Fannie Hardy
[1932] 1980 The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine, published by Robert Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, Maine. Printed by Jordan – Frost Printing Co., Bangor, Maine.

Faulkner, Gretchen Fearon & Prince, Nancy & Sapiel, Jennifer
1998    Beautifully Beaded: Northeastern Native American Beadwork in American Indian Art Magazine, Volume 24, Number 1, Winter edition.

 Johnson, John W.
1861    Life of John W. Johnson who was Stolen by the Indians when three years of age, and identified by his father twenty years afterwards. Related by himself. Biddeford, Maine.

Speck, Frank
1927    Symbolism in Penobscot Art. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. Volume XXIX, Part II. Published by the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

Wallace, Wilson D. and Wallace, Ruth Sawtell
1955    The Micmac Indians of Eastern Canada – University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

 Whitehead, Ruth Holmes
2001    The Traditional Material Culture of the Native Peoples of Maine in Bruce Bourque, Twelve Thousand Years: Native Americans in Maine. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

 Willoughby, Charles C.
1905    Textile Fabrics of the New England Indians, in American Anthropologist, New Series, Volume 7, F. W. Hodge, Editor, Lancaster, PA.


  1. Thank you for such an informative site, I have learned so much from your blog. I highly recommend it to my friends. Very inspirational!

  2. Rolling Thunder Newell was Penobscot :)


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