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Beadwork offers stunning display of artistry

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ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. - Safely stored inside ordinary plastic bins
in the Oneida Nation's archives are extraordinary items of Haudenosaunee
beadwork, remarkable for their intricacy and colorful design. With last
summer's purchase of a second superlative collection of more than 130
pieces of beadwork - originally designed as souvenir items sold during the
Victorian era - the nation now owns one of the largest collections of
Haudenosaunee beadwork in existence.

Nation elders were offered a first glimpse of the beadwork recently at the
Ray Elm Children's and Elders Center. At an informal gathering, elders were
given the opportunity to get an up-close look at the painstaking work
performed by their predecessors.

A vibrantly colored beaded bag depicting the good and evil twins from the
creation story caught Lenora Call's eyes. "Isn't that beautiful," she
enthused. Call, who is in the process of making a beaded belt and necklace,
said she can appreciate the time and effort put forth to make such an
elaborately designed item.

THE COLLECTION

The newly purchased collection of 203 items is in pristine condition.
Included are 73 bags; 59 assorted beaded works, including pincushions,
needle cases and watch pockets; hats; and a variety of baskets, cornhusk
pieces and wooden objects, including a late-1800s carved and painted
cradleboard.

"The second collection is strongly focused on very early, rare and
artistically excellent items," said Oneida Nation historian Tony Wonderley,
who facilitated the purchase. "Owning this collection places the nation's
holdings in its own world-class league. These are items the Smithsonian
[Institution] or British Museum would be proud to display."

The first collection purchased totaled 328 pieces. Of this assemblage, the
majority was beaded works from the 1800s and early 1900s and brimmed with
moccasins, purses, pincushions, hats and whimsies - fanciful souvenir
items.

Both collections are indicative of Haudenosaunee artistry, using an ancient
technique of built-up decorative surfaces in their work. The beadwork
represented in the collections is typical of those designed to sell to
tourists. Some articles are emblazoned with the year and where they were
sold, places that included Niagara Falls, Saratoga and Oneida Lake.

"This type of beadwork was survival art," said Wonderley. "It was started
at a time when the Haudenosaunee were impoverished and struggling to
continue under conditions of devastating cultural loss. Each was the
product of long work and each was imbued with sacred values.

"Oneidas regarded beadworking as a gift from the Creator to teach patience
and humility. Such a gift should be used and it should be shared. Often
beadwork was carried on by women of different generations who talked, as
they worked, of their community and its history. In such a setting, these
beaded creations took on deep personal meanings. Stories, lovingly
interwoven into every beaded flower, petal and stalk, told of what it meant
to be Oneida and Haudenosaunee."

THE ACQUISITION

Frank Bergevin, the antiques dealer from whom the Oneida Nation purchased
the collection, acquired many of the beaded items from an English
collector, Mark Sykes, who explained how the beaded work ended up in Great
Britain.

During the Victorian era, Niagara Falls was considered a romantic American
destination for the English and one of the venues where the Haudenosaunee
sold their beadwork, said Sykes. Also during this era, several exhibitions
were held in England and American Indian beadwork was included, as
Haudenosaunee beadwork was very popular.

Beaded items from the Haudenosaunee also reached Great Britain's shores via
American soldiers in World War II, who offered beaded pieces to their
girlfriends. Later, in the 1950s and '60s, beaded work remained popular in
England and was still affordable and available. But by the 1970s and '80s,
fewer pieces were accessible and prices began to escalate, said Sykes.

"A nation should own and control its cultural history to tell its story,
rather than having outsiders own and use this material to tell their
version," said Bergevin. "By owning their past, a people are better
prepared to shape their future. The Nation accepts the role of caretaker,
and in effect culture bearer, for themselves, and by extension the
Haudenosaunee as a whole, by preserving a material part of their culture,
which reflects their self-image and how they will be perceived by others.

"The emphasis in the second collection has been placed on rarity and
earlier material, artistic excellence, dating and attribution and with
attention to Oneida material, and, as with the first collection, physical
condition. Combined, the two collections provide a comprehensive inventory
of 19th-century Haudenosaunee material culture from the 1820s on."