Beaded purse which reads "Niagara Falls"

Niagara Beadwork, Then and Now

Beaded Beauties: The Art of Raised Beadwork

The Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), also known as the Six Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora Nations) have developed a distinctive style of heavily-embossed beadwork, which is also called raised beadwork. In the Tuscarora language, wíyu means “It is beautiful.”

In the late 19th century, such items became very popular to the tourists and adventurers who visited Niagara Falls. This heavy ornate style of beading appealed to the Victorian and Edwardian tastes of that era. With Tuscarora and Seneca communities nearby, Niagara Falls became the place where tradition, myth and artistry came together.

A local legend tells us that wealthy Porter Family from Buffalo, to show their appreciation for the assistance of the Tuscarora and Seneca warriors during the War of 1812, gave permission for the Haudenosaunee women to sell their crafted items at the Falls. Since the 1840s specialty shops opened on both sides of the river featuring Indigenous handicrafts – moccasins, dolls, and beaded beauties in the form of sofa pillows, pincushions, picture frames, doilies, small canoes, birds, purses, wall hangings and moccasins.

The Tuscarora Nation, located five miles north of the Falls near Lewiston, NY; the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, located near Akron, NY, and the Six Nations community at Grand River supplied a wide variety of beaded objects to the tourist market. Their work was also supplemented by beadwork from the Mohawk community at Kahnawake, near Montreal, as well as Huron (Wendat) community near Quebec City.

A Unique Style

The tiny glass seed beads are sewn in such a manner as to enhance the visual effect of the designs. By overlapping short loops of beads, the Haudenosaunee bead worker creates flowers, leaves and animal images that rise up off the surface of the object they are beading. The layering of beads and the curve of the loop of beads enhances the shape, and the use of graduated colours adds visual depth to the form depicted.

Using white and translucent Venetian beads, Haudenosaunee women created a delightful fusion of utilitarian objects that were beautifully decorated with glass beads and metal sequins. Pincushions were perhaps the most common style of object sold at Niagara, along with small beaded purses. The pillow and pincushions were stuffed with graphite or sawdust. Often English words were also sewn onto the surface with expressions like “From Niagara Falls,” “Good Luck,” “Love,” or “Mother.” Heart-shaped cushions were popular, as were three-dimensional beaded birds.

Usually birds in profile were depicted, and occasionally beavers, owls, rabbits and horses could also been seen in bright, contrasting colors. The artists that made this work used a wide variety of colors, often sewn on red, black, purple or green velvet. Seldom are any pieces exactly alike.

Before the arrival of glass beads, which were introduced in the 16th century, the Haudenosaunee ornamented themselves and their possessions with beads made of bone, shell, and stone. They also used porcupine quills to decorate their leather clothing.

Developed and written by Rick Hill