For centuries Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, women embellished clothing and personal objects with intricate designs inspired by the natural world and their world view. They used materials such as porcupine quills, moose hair, bone and shell beads. As early as 1492, European travelers introduced glass beads to the Americas where they quickly became popular trade items. These exotic beads spread through the trade routes of North America, and by the early 19th century traditional Haudenosaunee ornamentation had been enriched by glass beadwork.
When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it provided easier access to Niagara Falls and established it as a tourist destination. Haudenosaunee women realized that this location was a lucrative market in which to introduce beadwork. Purses and other small items were among the first objects created intentionally for sale to non-Native American tourists.
As time went on, souvenir beadwork was tailored to evolving Victorian tastes and sold widely at county fairs, circuses and national expositions. Specifically among the Mohawk, when work took the men away from home, the women accompanied them and sold their handmade beadwork to new audiences. Unfortunately, many of these women makers remain unknown as it was not customary for them to sign their work.
While other Haudenosaunee Nations created beaded objects, the Tuscarora, Seneca and Mohawk were the most prolific. This exhibition features predominantly Mohawk beadwork while celebrating the distinct traditions of each of Nation. Haudenosaunee women ornamented the works on display here specifically for a non-Native American consumer.
Events affecting the tourist industry in the first half of the 20th century reduced the demand for beadwork in western New York State. However, beadmakers never stopped creating beadwork or passing down traditional techniques. Today, Haudenosaunee artists – both women and men – continue to make a living creating beaded objects, selling their work and preserving this tradition for future generations.
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