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Listening to the Beads

Beaders (l to r) Sandra Gauthier, Judith Jourdan, and Betty Willems at an Oneida Nation Arts Program workshop in 2013. Learn more about Oneida raised beadwork. Photo by Anne Pryor.
Beaders (l to r) Sandra Gauthier, Judith Jourdan, and Betty Willems at an Oneida Nation Arts Program workshop in 2013. Learn more about Oneida raised beadwork. Photo by Anne Pryor.

There is an arts resurgence occurring across Wisconsin. Women and, occasionally, men, sit around tables with containers of colorful, glistening beads close at hand. Steel needle and waxed thread move deftly through paper and velvet amidst exchanges of advice on technique, opinion on color, or philosophy on culture. Updates on families are mixed in too, reflecting the tight social bonds between many of the beaders. Above all, frequent eruptions of laughter illustrate a shared joy in having gathered to bead.

In and around such cities as Green Bay, Stevens Point, and Milwaukee, members of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin are leading a local renaissance in Iroquois raised beadwork. Unlike flat beadwork in which sewn beads lie flush with the surface of fabric or leather, raised beadwork is characterized by lines of beads that arch above the textile surface, creating an extra dimension like bas relief sculpture. The design aesthetic in raised Iroquois beadwork ranges from simple floral patterns to highly ornate shapes with exuberant finishing elements like tassels or scalloped edges. The objects created are often functional, like picture frames or pieces of clothing, highly decorative, and extremely beautiful. 

But this art form is about more than beauty. Raised beadwork has powerful cultural and historic meanings for members of the Oneida Nation. Along with the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, the Oneida are one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy based in New York State and Lower Ontario. Wisconsin’s Oneida artists lay claim to Iroquois raised beadwork as part of their cultural heritage, even though they left their homelands in the 1820s, before this style of beadwork was developed. 

As Beth Bashara, the director of the Oneida Nation Arts Program, explains, “The emotional pain and isolation from relocation and being separated from the rest of the Iroquois Confederacy has been felt in this community since Oneidas first arrived in Wisconsin. To this day, elders talk about how their elders, and their elders, talked about the homelands and the move to Wisconsin. … For this community, beadwork connects people to their original culture, their homelands, and their brothers and sisters in the Iroquois Confederacy.”

Connections between Wisconsin Oneida beaders and their sister and brother beaders in western New York and lower Ontario have occurred in different forms over many years. In Wisconsin, this often meant weeklong classes taught by established bead artists to interested beaders on the Oneida reservation. Some Wisconsin Oneidas traveled to New York and Canada to visit historic collections, attend international conferences, participate in regional or international art shows, and take public or private classes from Eastern Iroquois raised beadwork artists. Support for these connections came not only from the beaders themselves, but also from funding structures within the Oneida Nation as well as the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Because of the contributions these beaders are making to the cultural vitality of the community, the Oneida Nation is actively encouraging the pursuit and application of this art form. This is with good reason. A 2013 study by First People’s Fund found that creative production and artistic expression through media like beadwork preserves tradition, maintains cultural identity, and strengthens spiritual values in Native communities. The raised Iroquois beadwork produced today by Oneida artists “demonstrate[s] the economic development potential of Native cultural assets,” transforming what was once a cultural loss into a cultural gain.

 

Learning an Old Tradition

The rise of Iroquois raised beadwork in Wisconsin can be traced back to the early 1990s when Samuel Thomas first came to the Oneida Reservation to share his skill and knowledge. 

A member of the Lower Cayuga Band of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, Thomas is a self-taught beader who has gained regional and international renown for his art. He has pieces in the permanent collections of the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institute, and is a recipient of the Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award. Thomas has also led collaborative beading projects in places such as East Africa. 

Starting in 1998, Thomas and his mother, Lorna Hill, also Cayuga, annually taught classes in Oneida. These classes were greeted with ardent enthusiasm. “I went to that first class and I was just hooked because it’s such a different way of beading,” recalls Loretta Webster, a member of the Oneida Nation who has played key roles as a community arts leader, including establishing the Woodland Indian Art Show and Market, an art competition and market showcasing the unique artistic styles of Native American Nations from the Midwest and eastern regions of the United States.

Thomas’ aesthetic favors a minimalist color palette, harkening back to one of the original styles within Iroquois raised beadwork. According to Beverly Gordon, an emerita faculty in Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, pieces made by Tuscarora beaders around the 1850s used a combination of clear crystal and white chalk seed beads, or all crystal beads; occasional bugle beads of the same hue might be added as accent.

Using this basic approach but enhancing it, “Thomas developed a unique style by studying old pieces in museums and private collections and then adding his own artistic flair,” writes archaeologist and collector Dolores Elliott in “Iroquois Beadwork: A Haudenosaunee Tradition and Art,” a paper presented at the 2002 Conference on Iroquois Research.

A member of the Oneida Nation who grew up in Kenosha and began doing flat beadwork in the 1970s, Laura Manthe turned to raised beadwork after taking Thomas’ class. “We give him a lot of credit in our community for reviving an art that was lost here,” she says.

In a model that is still used today by the Oneida circle, Thomas would instruct his students by introducing a new project, such as a barrette or a purse, each week. During this time, students were encouraged to ask questions of the instructor, make aesthetic choices, and hone beading skills. This process reinforces the elements of quality in raised Iroquois beadwork. At the most basic level, the workmanship must be excellent, with no visible knots or loose threads. The beads must be sewn tightly with even tension—but not so tight as to pucker the fabric. Materials should be of the best possible quality; for some beaders, this means use of glass beads exclusively. The overall design must be pleasing; for some of the advanced beaders, this means intricacy with more elements rather than fewer, like some historic pieces in which barely any of the background fabric is visible. 

Another advanced technique that adds complexity is to use a wide variety of bead sizes in a single piece. “It makes it pop,” Oneida beader Betty Willems enthuses. The choice of colors needs to be appropriate to the piece as well, with the various hues skillfully shaded if multiple colors are used, or not too many colors incorporated if a minimalist approach is being employed.

Sandra Westcott Gauthier (Oneida and Menominee), who travels to Oneida regularly from her home in Keshena to bead with others, says she only gradually learned what is perhaps the most important part of the beading process. “When I first started, I used to ask for help in everything that I did and finally one day, to one of the ladies, Carol Bauman, I said, ‘What color should I use here, or, what should I do with this [area]’ Carol said, ‘Let the beads talk to you.’ ”

“And the beads have been talking to me ever since,” says Gauthier.

In 2000, the Oneida beading circle invited a new teacher who would prove to have “explosive influence” on how they approached their art, according to Oneida artist Judith Jourdan. Rosemary Rickard Hill is a respected Tuscarora beader who uses a wide range of colors in her beadwork. Her own family history reflects the history of this art form, for among the Tuscarora raised beadwork is a uninterrupted tradition across the generations.

In an interview during her most recent visit to Wisconsin, Hill discussed the enduring legacy of raised beadwork, “It’s always been with us; we’ve never lost it. We’ve only improved on it: improved with color, different ways to put it together, stronger ways, sturdier ways.” 

Hill grew up on the Tuscarora reservation in western New York, close to Niagara Falls. She learned beadwork from her mother, aunt, and grandmother beginning around age seven and progressing in skill so that by age twelve she could sew both flatwork and raised work. Hill recalls beading as a fun family time. Her family did what generations of earlier Tuscarora artists had done; they sold their handmade wares to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, carrying all supplies and display materials with them each morning to a designated spot adjacent to the Falls. Tourists were plentiful because, during the nineteenth century, Niagara Falls had developed into one of the most popular places to visit in North America. (A Wisconsin parallel would be the sale of cultural art to Wisconsin Dells tourists by the Ho-Chunk people during the 1950s.)

As Ruth Phillips, a scholar of historic Native souvenir art, explains, “Impelled by economic need, virtually all Native groups living in proximity to Euro-Canadian settlements developed commodity productions of both utilitarian trade wares and ‘fancy’ souvenir goods.”

The ornate raised beadwork perfected by Tuscarora and other Iroquois artists fell into both categories: these pieces appealed to Victorian aesthetics and proved extremely popular as souvenirs. So popular were they that there are thousands of these period pieces in homes and at galleries today, despite the relative fragility of textile art over time. 

The commercial aspect of their beading heritage resonates with contemporary Oneida raised beaders who make a living as artists. A self-described “cultural artist,” Judith Jourdan’s mission is to learn as much as she can about all Oneida cultural arts. To Jourdan, learning and sharing this knowledge with her community is the best way to ensure that beading lives on in perpetuity. While she identifies foremost as a doll maker, Jourdan is an especially creative beader and is well regarded as an innovative artist and teacher. Jourdan respects the commercial heritage of the art form. “This was how we lived; this was what fed us, supported us. I enjoy it, but this was a lifestyle, a way to survive,” she says, adding “That it’s beautiful is just a plus.”

In Oneida communities today, some of the expert beaders continue this commercial dimension of the work. They sell their pieces at national and local art fairs or to museums for their permanent collections; two notable purchases were by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which bought Karen Ann Hoffman’s three-sided “Wampum Urn,” and the Iroquois Indian Museum in New York, which bought Loretta Webster’s cuffs beaded with a “Three Sisters” motif (corn, beans, and squash).

Some beaders take special orders for powwow regalia or ceremonial attire; Loretta Webster and Betty Willems are especially active with commissions from community members in Oneida. Others eschew commissions because they impinge on their artistic freedom and time. Still other beaders treat their creations as gifts to give away to family.

No matter what the approach to sharing their work, beaders often keep the very first piece they made. “You have to hold on to those pieces so you have something to compare it to later,” explains Laura Manthe, laughing at the difference between her current skilled work and her very first piece.

 

In the Circle

Beading has become a shared activity that builds community while providing fun and inspiration to participants. Following a pattern identified by the First People’s Fund, Native artists expand skills and opportunities primarily through informal social networks such as beading circles. In Wisconsin, beading circles provide a place of instruction for beginners, access to needed materials, and advice for anyone who wants to learn how to share in the rich heritage of raised beading.

“For me, it’s [about] setting time aside,” says Laura Manthe. “This is the time that I can do it, and I really enjoy everyone’s company. I really love the advice other people give.”

Loretta Webster started the Oneida beading circle in 2009 at her Bear Paw Keepsakes. Opened in 2006 on the Oneida Reservation just outside of Green Bay, Bear Paw increasingly became a beading destination as Webster spent some of her time there each day working on raised beadwork projects. Other beaders began to drop in to bead with her or to ask for advice on how to finish a piece. To help organize her time, Webster established Saturday as the drop-in day.

When Bear Paw Keepsakes closed in 2012, leadership of the beading circle transferred to Betty Willems, who hosted it in her large finished basement. With long rows of tables, excellent lighting, and plenty of room for sharing food, it became a perfect new home for the beading circle. Willems hosted until 2016 when the circle transitioned to a local community center.

April Jordan, an emerging organizer among the beaders in Oneida, is grateful for the sense of community and support she finds in the circle. “That’s what I like about the beading circle. They give you everything and help you get started.”

This is a critical issue for many beginning artists, as access to adequate supplies can be a major hurdle in getting started. Referring to Betty Willems, Jordan says that she “always gives me a bunch of stuff. When I put it on my beadwork I think of her so it’s not just me beading, it’s everybody there.”

Long-time beader Jim Kelly is largely self taught. Based in Milwaukee, Kelly occasionally joins a beading circle or takes a class in Oneida. He emphasizes that for the final product to be good, the beader must have the right attitude. “We burn cedar or sage when we start to give us a good feeling about this,” he says. “We don’t want anger or hatred; sometimes you feel real frustrated because you start beading and it’s not working out. It’s like you have to start all over again. So you stop and realize you forgot the first step in your process and it’s your medicines.”

When he can, Kelly joins the circle hosted by Karen Ann Hoffman at her home in Stevens Point. For those like Kelly who do not live on or near the Oneida reservation, Hoffman’s invitation to fellow raised Iroquois beaders to sit at her table is too good to pass up. An active promoter of raised beadwork in Wisconsin, Hoffman often speaks on the subject and exhibits her work at locations across the state.

Hoffman first learned raised beadwork at the class taught by Samuel Thomas and Lorna Hill in Oneida during the early 1990s. Since retiring from her sales job in 2013, Hoffman has made Iroquois raised beadwork her primary focus, producing more large pieces each year and pursuing her goal of increased public recognition of Iroquois raised beadwork as a fine art. She is one of the main Wisconsin advocates of the minimalist approach to color; her pieces are often comprised of primarily crystal or white beads on a dark background.

Hoffman has adhered to the aesthetic first learned from her teachers, and in turn passes on these principles to students like Christine Munson. Munson, who had to suspend regular weekly attendance at the beading circle due to the demands of graduate school, intends to return now that she has earned her degree in Student Affairs Administration. 

“How I prefer to bead is with a group of people,” Munson explains. “It’s just part of the beadwork process itself, all the stories that we’re telling, the jokes that are going on, what happened last week—that all gets beaded into the pieces. It becomes part of the project.”

Hoffman reminds her students that it is very important to pay attention to the narrative being told through the beadwork. “You get to choose one thing in your beadwork. You get to choose the story you’re going to tell,” she says. “After that, all you have to do is back up, get out of the way, and bead—because it is now in charge. The story determines the colors. … Our challenge is to let the story speak in its most clear voice.”

 

Regaining the Past

While beading has been an identity-based art for generations of Native Americans, Iroquois raised beadwork is providing Wisconsin Oneidas a special path to their Haudenosaunee identity. Many of the older beaders began working with flat or loom beading, an art form they could relate to as Native Americans but not specifically as Oneidas. Through Iroquois raised beadwork, Oneida artists today feel a stronger connection with their own tribe’s past. As Sandra Westcott Gauthier explains, “It makes people look back at what we used to have, what we used to be. That’s how I look at it. … It lets people know that what we are doing is bringing back what we once lost.”

Now that they have regained the past through intensive study, research, and practice, Wisconsin’s raised beadwork artists are inventing new directions in which to take their art. Betty Willems emphasizes this when she explains, “We still have our past and we can expand that and make it better.”

A specific example of moving in a new direction is a challenge given to the Oneida beading community by instructor Rosemary Rickard Hill. When Hill began teaching in Wisconsin, she told the beaders that they would have to create patterns unique to their own people and place, a style distinct enough to be called “Oneida beadwork.”

“We in our nations in New York State, we know what each other does,” Hill told the Oneida beaders. “We’re all aware the Mohawks have their way of beading, and the Tuscarora have their way of beading; the Onondaga have their way of beading; and the Seneca have their way of beading. We know this. It’s history to us. We have that respect among each other so that when we see each other we know where [we are] from.”

The Oneida beaders are taking up the challenge of creating that singular communal aesthetic identity. The current beaders are looking to a future in which Oneida youth grow up with a raised beadwork style that is distinctively Wisconsin Oneida. They want this to become a permanent element of Oneida cultural practice.

“It’s really important for me to keep this going,” says Laura Manthe. “That’s why I teach the kids [beading] at the school.” 

They see this goal taking shape as young people join the beading circle. All three beading circle hosts—Betty Willems, Loretta Webster, and Karen Ann Hoffman—speak with delight of the young beaders they have taught, supported, and welcomed to the beading table. 

 “You see it in the community all over; it’s everywhere,” observes Christine Klimmek, a beader and program coordinator for the Oneida Nation Art Program. With public art projects such as a raised-bead quilt and a cape on display in public buildings across the reservation, raised beadwork is weaving itself through the very community. Oneida dancers perform in powwow regalia adorned with dramatic raised beadwork, making their tribal affiliation instantly recognizable.

The enthusiastic work of the circle in Oneida is changing the face of the reservation, assuring that today’s youth will inherit raised Iroquois beadwork as part of their visual cultural legacy.

 “We’re creating our own history, “adapting this medium to our lives,” says Klimmek. 

Postscript: Many thanks to beaders interviewed during the course of developing this article and the James Watrous Gallery exhibition, Beading Culture: Raised Beadwork and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. Appreciation goes to the individuals who provided editorial assistance with this article, especially Beth Bashara, Sherrole Benton, Jody Clowes, Karen Ann Hoffman, and Loretta Webster, and to those not mentioned in the article whose reflections and artistic practice contributed to our work: Coral Cook, Rodrick Elm, Robin John, April Lindala, Stephanie Sikorowski.

Contributors

Anne Pryor is a folklorist who specializes in the traditional cultures of Wisconsin. She holds degrees in Education and Cultural Anthropology. Pryor served as a folklorist on staff with the Wisconsin Arts Board from 1996 to 2016, where she coordinated the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and the Woodland Indian Arts Initiative.

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