More than a century ago, ladies who traveled to the Saratoga Race Course or across the state to Niagara Falls would pick up mementos.
At tourist sites, Native American women would be waiting for such travelers and sell them exquisite handmade beadwork items: pin cushions, boxes, purses, picture frames and bird ornaments; objects that were perfectly suited to the ornately decorated Victorian home.
Once dismissed only as cheap souvenirs, antique Iroquois beadwork items are now recognized and appreciated as artwork, says Dolores Elliott, a retired archaeologist and collector of Iroquois beadwork.
“Many pieces today are true art objects in that a creative design was used to make them,” says Elliott. “I’ve never seen two identical pieces.”
‘Birds and Beasts in Beads: 150 Years of Iroquois Beadwork’
WHERE: Iroquois Indian Museum, 324 Caverns Road, Howes Cave
WHEN: Through Nov. 30. Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $8;, $6.50 for seniors, $5 for ages 5 to 12, free for kids under 5.
MORE INFO: 296-8949 or www.iroquoismuseum.org. An exhibit catalog is available for $12.
RELATED EVENTS: Karen Hoffman, a contemporary Oneida beadworker, will do demonstrations Aug. 5, 6 and 7 at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown and Aug. 8 at the Iroquois Indian Museum. The International Iroquois Beadwork Conference is scheduled Sept. 21-23 at the Iroquois Indian Museum. For details: 607-729-0016 or www.otsiningo.com.
For the next six months, visitors to the Iroquois Indian Museum in Schoharie County can see 200 beaded items, mostly from Elliott’s private collection, in “Birds and Beasts in Beads: 150 Years of Iroquois Beadwork.”
From a bright green, four-inch hummingbird to a plump, 10-by-8-inch cushion depicting beavers and elephants, each sumptuous object is made of shimmering and colorful glass beads stitched onto velvet and satin. Flat or stuffed with fragrant grass and wood chips, shaped like stars and hearts, some of these old souvenirs are so encrusted with beads that the surface is raised and sculptural. Others drip with loops of beads that dangle from the edges.
Because animals are the theme, there is a Noah’s ark aboard this show, with images of cats, dogs, cows, pigs, deer, bear, lions, eagles, rabbits, camels and tigers, just to name a few. There’s even a unicorn.
In one glass case, more than 40 bejeweled birds in bold red, purple and blue, are suspended like joyful Christmas ornaments. And nearly every beak carries a tiny red berry.
“To have this many pieces in one place is unusual. It’s bright, it’s beautiful,” says Stephanie Shultes, an anthropologist and curator at the Iroquois Indian Museum who mounted the show with Elliott after the exhibit traveled from its first stop, Colgate University’s Longyear Museum of Anthropology in Central New York.
“Much of it is 100 to 150 years old,” says Shultes. “When I look at it, I’m thinking about what was happening in the artist’s head.” Native American women were selling their beadwork to these Victorian ladies “while Little Bighorn was going on in the West.”
According to Elliott, Iroquois women began making and selling beadwork in the mid-1850s to support their families.
“Souvenir sales cemented the importance of Iroquois women as bread winners,” she says.
Elliott, who lives near Binghamton, owns 2,000 Iroquois beadwork objects, which is probably the world’s largest collection, rivaling the Smithsonian or the New York State Museum, and many of her pieces are stored at museums.
She has also authored many books on Iroquois beadwork and is the founder and director of the Iroquois Studies Association.
“I bought my first piece at the New York State Fair in 1958 and really started collecting in late ’70s,” Elliott says.
For many years, she found them one by one as she traveled to antique dealers. Since the 1990s, she stays at home and finds them on eBay, where new ones show up every day.
Elliott, who is not Native American, researches the history of beadworking by talking to the daughters and granddaughters of Iroquois beadworkers.
“I have collected as much oral history as people are willing to share,” she says.
“The names of most 19th and early 20th century beadworkers are unknown but more research will uncover many of them from census records and museum files. Most contemporary beadworkers do not have examples of ancestors’ work because those pieces were sold, which is why they were made.”
Because they were souvenirs, the words “Niagara Falls” and “State Fair” or the date, like “1905,” appear on some of them, spelled out in beads.
Others are marked with the name of the animal depicted, such as “PIG” or “DUCK,” a whimsical touch, which Elliott says may have made them “more interesting to potential customers.”
In her collection, but not in this exhibit, she has a few items that display the words “Saratoga” or “Saratoga Springs.”
There were Indian markets at the Saratoga Race Course from its first years in the 1860s, she says.
“Iroquois women found that tourists were eager customers for their beadwork.”