Oneida Beaders Keep Tradition Alive And Thriving

By Erika Janik | November 9, 2016


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Raised beadwork was once widely practiced by the Iroquois but the art form had declined precipitously in the mid-20th century.

Beadwork arose in the 19th century among the Iroquois as a way to make money from tourists visiting Niagara Falls. This beadwork was different in that it had texture and dimension, rising above the surface of the textiles. But as the tourist market dwindled in the 1950s, so, too, did the number of artists making raised beadwork.

Since the 1990s, however, native artists have made a major effort to teach and share the art form. Artists from the east like Samuel Thomas, a  member of the Lower Cayuga Band of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, came to Wisconsin to share skills and knowledge.

In and around cities such as Green Bay, Stevens Point, and Milwaukee, members of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin are now leading a local renaissance in Iroquois raised beadwork. They gather around kitchen tables to share stories and techniques.

Raised beadwork has powerful cultural and historic meanings for members of the Oneida Nation. The Oneida are one of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy based in New York State and Lower Ontario. The Oneida left for Wisconsin in the 1820s, breaking with their people in hopes of finding a better life. But the separation was not without its dislocation and hardship. Raised beadwork is one way the Oneida have connected with their homeland and their original culture.

Erika Janik

Erika Janik

Erika Janik is the co-creator and former executive director of Wisconsin Life. She is the author of six books, including Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, Apple: A Global History, and  Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. She’s currently the executive...

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