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Beadwork as Survival Art

Laurel Parker (Turtle Clan) is an accomplished artist in her own right, and as an artist is motivated by the designs she viewed on the beaded items. Holding a heart-shaped whimsy, Laurel was amazed at the size of the beads used in the ornamentation. The designs were on display for Elders to view at the Ray Elm Children and Elders' Center.

“I always use smaller beads,” said Laurel. “But I’d like to replicate the whimsy because of the flowers and leaves embroidered on it,” she continued, noting they evoke woodland Indians, which includes Oneida. “I would make it on velvet using colored beads. The originals are translucent. It’ll be easier than some of the beadwork I’ve done as the beads are larger, making it less tedious.”

The beadwork in the collection is typical of that 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. It 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 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.

Beadwork and other crafts helped to compensate for the loss of the fur trade. Laurel has developed her own unique interpretation of the art form for a modern audience, ever mindful to include long-established traditional elements in her work. She makes elegant doll regalia for 11-inch dolls. The outfits are painstaking to make. Dresses for these tiny dolls require four days of crocheting time, and the beadwork on the dresses and moccasins can take up to two weeks to complete.

“I incorporate my love of beadwork into a doll dress,” said Laurel. “I work with material from my era. Those who made the whimsies used material from theirs. I think seeing this beadwork might inspire others to make something like them as well.”

Currently, Laurel is also placing beadwork into her cross-stitch works, each with an American Indian motif.

“Beadwork is part of you, part of your life; you put part of yourself into it,” said Laurel. “And those beaders back 100 years ago or so, they are still here through their work.”

See also: Elders Review Artifacts

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