Treasured Traditions: A Statement of Place
What does it mean to create?
“It’s not just a physical experience. It’s a rich spiritual experience that fuels our identity as Indigenous people. It helps ground us, it helps heal us, it helps to connect us." - Jennifer Stevens, Oneida potter
This season we showcase a selection of art forms that are well integrated into, and delineate the individual character of five Haudenosaunee communities. Stone carving at Six Nations Reserve and raised beadwork at Tuscarora demonstrate tremendous endurance. Seneca basket making and traditional Oneida pottery represent expressions that have been lost, rediscovered, and resurrected. Lastly, we celebrate quiltmaking at Akwesasne—an artistic tradition that, although non-Native in origin, has come to bear a decidedly Iroquoian signature.
We worked with representatives from each of the 5 communities to select the art and provide the exhibit’s narrative. The work stands as far more than visually pleasing examples of outstanding craftsmanship. It speaks of honoring, of an unyielding connection with the past, and most significantly, of commitment to a strong and vibrant future
Weaving Good Medicine
Primary interpretation by Penny Minner, Seneca basketmaker
Among the Seneca basketmaking and its specialized supporting knowledge fell out of common
practice by the 1940’s with the introduction of commercial materials.
Today at the Seneca communities of Allegany and Cattaraugus a current generation of basketmakers is re-establishing the art form as valued family heirlooms, embracing their construction as a tactile connection with Seneca culture and history, and taking the tradition in new directions.
“The most significant factor was the loss of our elders. The community lost some great ladies
in my lifetime. There was Nettie Watt, her daughter Ruth, and her granddaughter Kathy Mitchell. The whole family right there. They shared it in some ways, but in some ways those things got lost.”
“The knowledge was there but they didn’t continue it or they didn’t pass it on. The men
remembered the sound of pounding from across the river. The knowledge was there, it just
wasn’t being utilized. The mother, the matriarch, might not have continued the art either. I think people just got too busy to learn.”
Tuscarora Nation consists of 5,700 acres and is located in western NY, near the town of Sanborn. The origins of the venerable art of raised beadwork among the Tuscarora are shrouded in conjecture. Once relegated to the craft genre, beadworking served as an important economic resource in this community. Today, Tuscarora beadwork has continued to evolve and flourish independent of market incentives and has secured unqualified recognition as fine art.
“Traditional Tuscarora beadwork starting around the 1860’s, right around the Civil War Era, was made using a size 10 or size 9 clear glass beads. It was embossed stitching—meaning it was raised, it was 3 dimensional.”
“Because we can teach the skill and share it with our sister nations we’ve been able to preserve the art form and the technique and get it out there so it’s known as Iroquois raised beadwork. But there are certain styles, certain patterns, certain techniques that are unique to the 3 historical nations. You still see it in contemporary Seneca beadwork at Tonawanda, in contemporary beadwork at Tuscarora, even among the Mohawks in Kahnawake.”
A History in Layered Glass
Primary interpretation by Grant Jonathan, Tuscarora beadworker
A Marriage of Fire & Earth
Primary interpretation by Jennifer Stevens, Oneida potter
At Oneida Nation Wisconsin a once completely extinct form of expression is undergoing a promising resurgence. Traditional Haudenosaunee pottery began an arduous restoration in the 1960’s and continued with rigorous experimentation in the late 1970’s and 80’s. Today, Oneida Nation Wisconsin nurtures the largest concentration of potters actively practicing this ancient and demanding art.
“What created the loss of our pottery? In the late 1600’s a lot was going on with the interaction between European settlers and the Haudenosaunee and my tribe, the Oneida—especially with trade. Oneida pottery was replaced with brass and copper kettles. Kettles were durable and more practical because pottery would break easily. It was easier to travel with as well. It was a necessity of survival for them.”
“When the pottery went extinct nobody kept records of the techniques, the symbolism, the purpose, the ritualistic connection—all of that has been lost. We stopped cold turkey and used kettles. We lost something like 75% of our resources. I didn’t have a grandma saying ‘This is how we did this.’ We didn’t have that generational learning.”
Primary interpretation by Iakonikonriiosta/Sheree Bonaparte, Mohawk quiltmaker
The Mohawk community of Akwesasne straddles the US-Canadian border near Hogansburg, NY. While best known for its extraordinary basketry, the “Land where the partridge drums” also maintains an imaginative quilting tradition. This textile-based art has been embraced by generations as traditional handcraft and, more recently, as an expression of cultural values, stories, and contemporary issues. The vitality of this art form is nourished by the Akwesasne Freedom School. An annual quilt auction each August brings the community together in support of this important community cornerstone.
“The Freedom School started in 1978. NY State surrounded our community and closed us off from the outside because we were protesting. Children were there with their parents who were defending the Mohawk Nation. It seemed to drag on. The parents got together and said, ‘What is the point anyway because New York State is enforcing their curriculum on our kids which teaches them to be good NY State citizens…but doesn’t look at what it is to be a Mohawk.’
We taught everything from math to social studies. After a few years it was decided that the school would be taught in the Mohawk language. We struggled with funding. Tom Porter gave the idea to start a quilt auction. He challenged the parents and teachers to make quilts. At first it wasn’t a real popular idea, especially among us young ladies who didn’t like, or didn’t want to sew—especially quilts.”
Speaking Through the Stone
Primary interpretation by Dave Farnham, Onondaga carver
Like the previous art forms, stone carving at Six Nations Reserve sprang from utilitarian and economic roots. From the 1800’s to the 1950’s the transformation of wood into ladles, paddles, masks, and other household items fueled a mastery of carving skills. “Turtle Woman” by John Dockstader, Seneca from Six Nations, featured in Indian Arts in Canada in 1968, marks the earliest outside acknowledgement of contemporary Haudenosaunee stone carving.
The following year Buck Spittal of Iroqrafts, a Native crafts outlet, cultivated a number of Six Nations carvers by providing stone and regularly purchasing sculptures of small animals and Grandfather masks for resale. Further motivated by the success of carvers Duffy Wilson in the States and Joe Jacobs, whose family was from Six Nations, interest in stone carving skyrocketed. By the mid 1970’s Jacobs was
receiving considerable recognition for his composite statements, a concept that was embraced and quickly individualized by up and coming carvers.
“Six Nations has always had a lot of carvers, a lot of quality carvers. The style that they do is different. The guys up here put all kinds of detail into it, two-tone it and such. Vince Bomberry is still carving. Vince and Eunice’s boy Cyril, he’s doing fantastic work— big pieces, just phenomenal. I think there always will be stonecarvers.”