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Art in the family

Mohawk beader Niioieren Perkins honors tradition through her work

AKWESASNE, N.Y. - Twenty-seven-year-old Niioieren Perkins spends her days in a small craft room at her mother;s home. When business is busy - which is most of the time - Perkins will sit and bead all day long.

Beading is what the young Mohawk woman has become known for in her hometown of Akwesasne. Her intricate designs of raised beadwork on items like purses and skirts are popular and her work is in high demand: so much so, in fact, that beading is not only a loved hobby for Perkins, but a career as well.

''I started beading at a very young age,'' the artist said. ''When I was a little girl - around 7 or 8 - I was taught by Tsiahawi, my sister-in-law, and her sister, Tsiakwas. They were the best beaders around.''

Perkins started with small things like earrings and necklaces; and when she developed a real interest for the art form, Tsiahawi taught her to make barrettes.

Growing up, Perkins' mother, Elizabeth, was a seamstress and it remains her livelihood today. She makes traditional Mohawk clothing and her work is popular in the Akwesasne community as well. When the younger Perkins showed a clear interest in beadwork, the two teamed up. Elizabeth sewed the traditional outfits and Niioieren added beadwork to them.

''As a young girl, I always had money because I was always making stuff,'' Perkins said. ''I always knew I didn't want to work for anybody else.''

However, when Perkins reached high school and college, she stopped beading.

''It wasn't cool, so I didn't do it,'' she admitted.

Later, a friend of hers was starting to compete in juried art shows, and Perkins thought about doing it herself.

''I knew that I could do it. I started competing for the independence and I knew I was very artistic.''

Today, Perkins loves the art she creates and she has a great appreciation for its cultural significance - something she didn't understand when she briefly gave the hobby up in her teen years.

''Now I appreciate it,'' she said. ''Before, I just did it for money. A lot of people take it for granted, and I definitely did when I was a kid. I understand more now. I am happy that it is my career because it's art.''

Perkins beads elaborate designs on a daily basis, and she has been picking up awards and ribbons at art shows across North America.

In 2007 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz., Perkins picked up the first place ribbon for a purse, as well as the second place ribbon and jury selection prize for a traditional outfit she sewed and adorned with her beadwork.

''That was huge,'' she said. ''That was my biggest accomplishment and it was in my second year of competing. It's going to be hard to top that. It's a lot of pressure.''

However, Perkins loves to compete and she loves to be among other artists. She has taken her work to juried shows in Phoenix and Santa Fe, N.M., where North America's two biggest shows are held.

''They're the best of the best and they just make you so proud because everyone is famous there and they're all Native,'' she said. ''It's a completely different world.''

Perkins has researched the art of beading thoroughly and she is always doing her best to represent her Iroquois culture.

Someone once told her at a show that her work wasn't traditional because she used colored beads.

''It really bothered me,'' she said. ''It bothered me because all of my research is on traditional Iroquois beadwork as far back as the 1700s. What I've learned from that is our people used everything that was available: seed beads, bone, shell and porcupine quills. We also have symbols to represent nature and our medicines. Today we have a much wider variety of supplies, and I make it a point to use everything at hand and still use our traditional symbols.''

Perkins is in the middle of a line of artistic family tradition. She and her mother collaborate, and both have a skill in the fine arts of sewing and beading. Perkins' father, Gary, was great with beadwork and pottery; and though he no longer works with those artistic mediums, ''he will help me if I'm stuck,'' Perkins said.

Her older brother, Roger, has made a living out of his artistic talents. He is a painter and currently works at an art gallery in Berkley, Calif.

Perkins said that she herself wants to do some painting that would include her raised beadwork; she plans to collaborate with her brother in the same way she does with her mother and clothing.

''Since they are both artists, it was much easier for me to choose this career because they had already paved that road for me,'' Perkins said. ''When I started beading, I did it for the independence. Today, I bead because I love my culture and I want to represent our people well. When someone says or asks about the Mohawk people's tradition, I hope they think of me.''

The family tradition doesn't stop with Perkins, however. As she was giving Indian Country Today an interview in her craft room, 4-year-old Tia Perkins arrived home from school and plopped herself on her mother's lap and took over the beading Perkins had been working on. She is the artist's only child; and when she grows up, she said she wants to be a mom and a beader.