Thursday, July 2, 2020

Northeast Woodland Shields

     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 are also strong symbols of good medicine. My intention is to create a series of shields, some inspired by designs on old Northeast Woodland beaded bags and others by animals or some other aspect of nature. 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. 


Figure 1 - While studying a selection of old Iroquois beaded bags, I noticed that several of the ones that had a prominent heart motif also included tri-lobed strawberry leaves in the design. Given the importance and sacred value of strawberries in Iroquois culture, and from conversations with contemporary Haudenosaunee beadworkers, I've come to understand that some of the heart motifs on the old bags were likely a stylistic representation of the strawberry or heart berry. The old souvenir bags functioned as a non-verbal medium for historic beadworkers to weave key cultural concepts into their work and also served as a conduit to communicate those ideas to future generations. When used in a covert way, these traditional motifs allowed an artist to include these concepts in a way that was non-threatening to a 19th century patron. Although made for sale to outsiders, the motifs recorded in the beadwork were a way to keep a tradition alive and they were also a form of resistance to assimilation pressures. It was a method of preserving key aspects of Haudenosaunee beliefs and traditions for both present and future generations.

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. 

Figure 3 - Many contemporary Wabanaki beadworkers see medicine plants in the designs that were woven onto their old beaded bags: plants that could heal cuts and burns, break fevers, and a host of other ailments. Wabanaki artists had to look no further than the nearby fields and and their gardens to find inspiration for their beadwork designs.

This is the bag, likely Mi'kmaw, that was the inspiration for the design in figure 3.  A beautiful example with a bilaterally symmetrical design and linear beadwork. The bag dates to the 1840s and has flora that likely represented sacred or healing plants to the maker. It’s a beautiful example of Wabanaki workmanship from this time period.

Figure 4 – This piece is based on a mid-19th century Tonawanda Seneca design. I did it as a tribute to Caroline Parker and her family who were from Tonawanda.  It’s unclear if Caroline actually made the piece that inspired this design but a documented table cover in the Rochester Museum and Science Center was made by her and there are many similarities between the two pieces.

There were several Parker family beadworkers during the mid-19th century, notably Caroline Parker, her mother Elizabeth, and Mariah, the wife of Caroline’s brother Levi. There may have been others in their immediate circle of beadworkers as well.

     Scholars, such as Ruth Phillips, have indicated that the rapid shift from curvilinear and geometric designs to floral motifs in mid-nineteenth century Iroquois work has been linked to Victorian fashion trends and women’s domestic sphere (Phillips 1998). The floral style in this piece appears to be unique to the mid-nineteenth century Seneca on the Tonawanda Reservation.

     Lewis Henry Morgan, an attorney from Rochester, New York, who was loosely affiliated with New York State Cabinet of Natural History (NYSCNH), retained the Parkers to produce examples of Seneca material culture for the NYSCNH, the predecessor to the New York State Museum in Albany and the Parkers produced numerous examples for the State collection.

Morgan’s correspondence with the Parkers indicates that Caroline made many of the items that were supplied to the Cabinet of Natural History although some scholars dispute this point as Caroline was attending school in Albany at the time and wrote that she was overwhelmed with school work and other obligations. It’s possible that the beadwork she provided was from an existing inventory and it’s impossible to determine at this point how much of it was made by her or by other members of her family.

     The table cover in the Rochester Museum and Science Center is a documented example of Caroline’s work and there are numerous other objects that have survived that incorporate virtually identical floral motifs. Except for the table cover, I’m not aware of any other documented examples of her work, but the bead colors, delicacy and refinement of the designs and their stylistic similarity to the table cover suggests that she could have made them; they represent the highest level of 19th century Haudenosaunee beadwork.

     Art historian Ruth Phillips has written that Caroline Parker’s work is characterized by its flatness, great delicacy, relatively high degree of naturalism, and its use of small, pastel, white, and translucent beads (Phillips 1998:224).

     Other distinguishing features on Tonawanda Seneca bags include a tight band of beads along a scalloped perimeter. Additionally, like the table cover, they incorporate some variation of the dendrite or spray work along the perimeter of the flower that might symbolizes the world tree from the Iroquois creation story. The large flower could be a stylized representation of the sun depicted atop of the celestial or world tree also from the creation story.

This is the bag I used as the inspiration for figure 4. It dates from the mid-19th century and is in the Tonawanda Seneca style.

     Although the Parkers adapted their lifestyle to co-exist with Europeans and presented their work to Victorian consumers in a way that was acceptable to them, they could still covertly incorporate symbols in their work that had cultural significance to them. 

      “The art of flowering” – as the Parkers termed it – is what they were noted for:

In doing this work,” Morgan reported that “the eye and the taste are the chief reliances… In combining colors certain general rules, the result of experience and observation, are followed, but beyond them each one pursued her own fancy.  They never seek for strong contrasts, but break the force of it by interposing white, that the colors may blend harmoniously. Thus light blue and pink beads, with white beads between them, is a favorable combination; dark blue and yellow, with white between, is another; red and light blue, with white between, is another; and light purple and dark purple, with white between, is a fourth. Others might be added were it necessary. If this beadwork is critically examined, it will be found that these general rules are strictly observed; and in so far as beadwork embroidery may be called a systematic art. The art of flowering, as they term it, is the most difficult part of the beadwork, as it requires an accurate knowledge of the appearance of the flower, and the structure and condition of the plant at the stage in which it is represented (Morgan 1852:111).

Figure 5 - Over the years, I’ve come across a small number of Haudenosaunee beaded items that had designs that reminded me of insects. For this latest shield I used an old bag with what could be interpreted as a spider as my inspiration.

Some days I think it is, but other days I’m not sure. It is certainly an intriguing design and since many 19th century beadworkers covertly included concepts in their work that had both personal and cultural meaning, there might be something entomological to the design.  Although many folks have a fear of spiders, diverse tribal people around the world consider them sacred. 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 North America, the Pueblo and Navajo people have a great tradition about Spider Woman, who, according to their traditions, 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.

Below, I’ve included a few other images with motifs that could be interpreted as insects. Of course, it’s unclear if these designs actually represent insects or were just a variation of the double-curve motif by their maker. Today, our interpretation of these designs is not necessarily an accurate representation of the maker’s original intent. 

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.

Figure 7 - My rendition of a thunderbird shield. The thunderbird is a powerful spirit who has taken the form of a bird. The flapping of its wings produced the sound of thunder and lightning bolts were believed to radiate from its beak. It brought the rain which advanced all life on earth. 

Figure 8 - Eagle shield. October 1, 2020


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.

Phillips, Ruth

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.