January 13, 2002

Iroquois beadwork displayed at the George Gustav Heye Center through May 19th


The show “Across Borders: Beadwork in Iroquois Life” at the George Gustav Heye Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian lays to rest any idea that the tourist items were mostly made-for-the-trade tchotchkes.

Done with a vital design sense and extraordinary handcraft, they are part of a long line of Iroquois beadwork that goes back hundreds of years to a time when beads made from shells and bird bones were used instead of the tiny glass cylinders first brought to North America by European explorers in the 16th century.


Records show that glass beads were first supplied to the Mohawks, one of the six Iroquois nations, as early as 1616, and by the 18th century commercial beads were in widespread use.

Before that, quill work, using dyed porcupine quills, was a preferred form of decoration. But the stiffness of the quills made them more suitable for geometric design.

Abundant plant life in the Iroquois regions suggested the use of curvy forms with leaf and floral patterns, and beads were more amenable to the working of these more delicate motifs.

Significant tribal symbols relating to the Iroquois cosmology are also prevalent in the works. Among them is the Sky Dome, a half circle resting on two parallel lines, with a pair of simplified plant forms springing from the dome’s top.The dome signifies the arc of the sky, the parallel lines the earth. The plant forms represent the celestial tree of life that stands at the center of the world, bearing the sun and the moon aloft in its branches.

Tribal motifs also include the sun in stylized form, the celestial tree as a floral design enriched by fruits, the mythological turtle on which the earth was built and other animal clan figures…Read Full Story

AUTHOR: Grace Glueck
New York Times

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