Seneca museum showcases new Haudenosaunee Beadwork exhibit

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SALAMANCA — The Onöhsagwë:de’ Cultural Center recently hosted the opening of its new exhibit, “Here, Now and Always: Haudenosaunee Beadwork,” housed in the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum.

The Sept. 23 event celebrating beadwork from the museum’s vast collections gave the public an opportunity to view the pieces, both old and new, and see the inspiration for contemporary artists. People also watched Haudenosaunee artists working on their craft.

Director Hayden Haynes said the staff wants to highlight the museum’s collections and is putting more emphasis on the beadwork because it’s so vast. He said they invited people to come to the opening and view the old as well as the more contemporary pieces on display, learn about their origins and what they mean to the Haudenosaunee culture.

“We wanted to exhibit these pieces, not just to show the collections but to also open conversations about Haudenosaunee history that includes the beadwork,” he said. “Beadwork is not just a form of self-expression; it’s also tied to our identity, our beliefs and our culture. The motifs, designs and even the forms themselves all tie to other things in our culture. We want to show how our ancestors’ pieces inspired us and continue to inspire contemporary bead artists, along with other artists.”

Haynes said beads, in general, have been employed by the Haudenosaunee people for many different uses since time immemorial. He said beads themselves are important to his people and they’ve been used for tens of thousands of years, having been made out of stone, bone, wood and marine shells.

Randee Spruce, educator and curator, said she prepares most of the exhibits at the museum, including putting the current beadwork exhibit together. She was educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts where she majored in museum studies. Spruce, who is also a beadworker, said she first learned the art from a friend and her friend’s grandmother.

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Two well-known bead artists presented at the opening. Through their presentations, Grant Jonathan gave a detailed history of Tuscarora Raised Beadwork while Ken Williams Jr. took visitors on his personal beadwork journey. Both presenters gave an inside look at their lives growing up and how Haudenosaunee beadwork influenced their own beadwork.

Jonathan, who grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation near Niagara Falls, is a renowned beadwork artist and an attorney who has spent over a decade bringing home the beadwork crafted by his Tuscarora ancestors and sold to tourists from across the world at Niagara Falls. He said they were called “whimsies” and are beaded souvenirs that first appeared in the mid-19th century and were sold to tourists throughout the Northeast. Based in New York City, he started collecting whimsies in 2008 and currently has more than 2,100 of the historical beadwork pieces.

Williams, an award-winning bead artist, is Northern Arapaho and Seneca. Originally from the Cattaraugus Territory, he now lives in Santa Fe, NM. He talked about the traditional art of the Haudenosaunee and how modern design is integrated into his works today. Drawing upon Indigenous history, popular culture and high fashion, his work merges earlier Seneca and Arapaho styles and techniques with his own contemporary twist on pictorial imagery. He manages the Case Trading Post at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, N.M.

Bead artists from across Turtle Island were invited to the event to sell their finely crafted pieces. Beadwork vendors included Lexi Sickles (Oneida), Iakorihwato:ken Hemlock (Mohawk), Courtney Regis (Seneca), Grace Crowe (Seneca) Robin Seneca (Seneca), Katwite:ne and Kwaharani Jacobs (Mohawk), Alayna Jimerson (Seneca), Kahionwinehshon Phillips (Mohawk), Kehala Smith (Tuscarora), Barbara Jonathan (Seneca) and Melissa Smith (Seneca). Visitors had the opportunity to watch Regis, Sickles and Hemlock demonstrate the intricate beadwork in their own styles.

Haynes said the beadwork exhibit will be on display until next fall. Staff are currently planning the museum’s November Winter Art Market, which is always well-attended. The market will feature traditional and non-native vendors showcasing their amazing works of art, jewelry and home decor. He said they are also working on their Annual Spring Art Show for 2024, which is one of their most popular events. Carson Waterman’s painting exhibit will be on display through February.

The Seneca-Iroquois National Museum is located within the Onöhsagwë:de’ Cultural Center at 82 West Hetzel St. For up-to-date information, call (716) 945-1760. The museum’s website, senecamuseum.org, is currently under construction.

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