North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Surviving Creatively: A New Art Form

MoccasinsIn the nineteenth century, the Iroquois searched for alternative sources of income. A diminishing land base and the depletion of game and fur-bearing animals left people with very few opportunities for earning a living. Iroquois women recreated their traditional arts such as basketry, embroidery, quillwork, and beadwork for sale to non-Native people. They sold their products at resorts and tourist attractions.

Niagara Falls was the first and foremost American tourist attraction of the nineteenth century. European and American tourists of all ages, particularly honeymooners, flocked to see the spectacle of the Falls. After the War of 1812, Tuscarora women were granted the exclusive rights to sell their beadwork at Niagara Falls by the American family who owned the land. The Porter family made this offer in gratitude for the Tuscarora's service during the war and for saving the life of a family member.

For well over a century, tourists purchased souvenirs from Iroquois women to take home as gifts and reminders of their personal experiences. They bought whimsical beaded items such as pincushions in the shape of a boot, wall pockets and match safes, model birchbark canoes, and basketry novelties. Customers could request an individual name or inscription which the beadworker added on the spot.

The Victorian tastes of the tourists determined what types of items the artists made and how they made them. Many of the novelties were destined for cozy corners which were popular in Victorian homes. Once considered Indian-made curiosities, these works are now considered an expression of Native identity and a source of pride.


Image 1: Moccasins
Iroquois, 1850-1875
Iroquois women continued to make traditional objects, such as these moccasins, to wear on dress occasions. Moccasins were also popular with non-Native clientele, who considered them both exotic and unmistakably "native" and yet could wear them at home as house slippers.
Tanned hide, commercial cotton and silk, glass, paper, silver; L 23.0 x W 9.5 x H 7.0 cm; 35068-66 a & b, gift of James B. Richardson, III

Image 2: Bag
Iroquois, 1850-1875
Iroquois bags and purses in innumerable variations on the same theme sold in the greatest numbers. Their makers incorporated an assortment of materials--beads, rickrack, ribbon--to make the bags eyecatching to both tourists and Native people, who also used them.
Commercial silk and cotton, glass, paper, silver; L 18.5 x W 18.5 cm; 35068-35, gift of James B. Richardson, III, PhD

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