Grant Jonathan has spent the last decade repatriating beadwork crafted by his Tuscarora ancestors and sold to tourists from across the world at Niagara Falls.
Jonathan, a 48-year-old raised beadwork artist based in New York City, started collecting “whimsies” in 2008 and today has more than 2,100 of the historical beadwork pieces.
“It’s beautiful stuff,” he said. “I find every piece that I can. No matter what condition it’s in, I’ll buy it and bring them home.”
Whimsies are beaded souvenirs that first appeared in the mid-19th century and were sold to tourists throughout the Northeast. Col. Peter Porter, a United States military leader during the War of 1812, granted Tuscarora families licence to sell goods and beadwork on the New York side of the falls in perpetuity for their service during the war.
They sold their wares to the thousands of tourists who flocked to Niagara Falls after the Erie Canal opened in 1821.
“We would make things that were popular at that time,” said Jonathan.
Women of the era did a lot of sewing, needlepoint and knitting and the families made things that would be useful in the home.
He found his first piece, a clamshell needle case, in an antique store while on travel for work in Salt Lake City, Utah. But repatriating wasn’t his original intention.
Mastering the craft
Jonathan learned the basics of beadwork when he was 18 from his mother but after she died in 2006, he took an advanced beadwork class and mentored under Tuscarora master beadwork artist Rosemary Hill.
“It just sparked something in me,” said Jonathan.
“She really challenged me and pushed me. Whenever I made a piece and it didn’t look right, she would make me rip it out and do it again.”
Hill encouraged him to look at old Tuscarora beadwork pieces to study and enjoy them. The pieces have influenced his own beadwork, which have earned recognition at the Santa Fe Indian Market, a prestigious juried Indigenous arts show.
Finding Tuscarora work isn’t an easy task, he said. They’re harder to come by compared to other Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) raised beadwork made by Mohawk families who travelled for ironwork, wild west shows and world fairs.
Most of his Tuscarora pieces were found online or through word of mouth from other collectors who are primarily non-Indigenous.
Dolores Elliott, a researcher and collector of Haudenosaunee beadwork in Binghamton, N.Y., has traded some of her Tuscarora pieces with Jonathan for Mohawk beadwork.
He has one of the largest collections of Haudenosaunee beadwork, currently standing at 2,558 pieces. It overshadows most museum’s collections, including Montreal’s McCord Museum’s Indigenous cultures collection of around 100 Haudenosaunee beaded objects from the late 19th to the early 20th century.
“They’re just beautiful,” said Elliott.
Elliott catalogues, indexes and photographs all the pieces she’s collected.
“It’s very important not only for the people who are descendants of the people who made them, but for the general public who can appreciate them because nobody has cared about them until just recently,” she said.
According to Gerry Biron, a Vermont-based collector who authored A Cherished Curiosity: The Souvenir Beaded Bag In Historic Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Art, commoditized beadwork such as whimsies were not recognized as authentic Indigenous art.
“Until recent times, the prevailing attitude of professionals in the field of Indian studies considered the beadwork that was made to be sold as kitsch, a commoditized tourist art that was lacking in ethnographic or artistic value,” he said.
Since the 1970s, such attitudes have changed.
“Since for most Native people the choice was assimilation or extermination, the making of commoditized art was not at all a cultural betrayal, but rather a strategy to ensure cultural survival.”
Preserving Tuscarora beading techniques
For Jonathan, the hundreds of whimsies he’s brought home from across the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan and even Australia are about admiring, preserving, repatriating and revitalizing old Tuscarora beading techniques.
“It’s keeping the tradition alive by looking at things that may have been lost, and reusing them again,” he said.
“When I make a piece, I remind myself that I’m continuing this tradition.”
Today, there’s been a resurgence of beaded whimsies in not only Jonathan’s community but in Haudenosaunee communities on both sides of the border.
Carla Hemlock, a Mohawk artist from Kahnawake, Que., said the historical beadwork continues to inspire younger generations in her community. While beaded picture frames and birds are no longer made for the tourist industry, they’re reserved as special gifts for family and friends, as a way to pay homage to women of the past.
“A legacy is left to this generation to continue to our best ability to honour the women who came before us,” she said.
“To the women who trekked to Old Montreal on their snowshoes with their babies in cradleboards on their backs to sell their work, and to the women who could not speak a word of English but continued to write ‘Good Luck’ in beads on their velvet souvenirs, and to so many others, we owe a debt of gratitude.”