The term tradition sounds like it exists mostly in the past, in a distant era or age.
Yet, the latest exhibit to open at the Iroquois Indian Museum proves that the term has another side to it, one that is still very much alive and well today.
“Treasured Traditions: A Statement of Place” features art forms that have recently become traditional, others that have been a part of certain communities for hundreds of years, as well as art forms that have been lost through the years and recently revived.
"We wanted to celebrate and encourage that revival,” said Colette Lemmon, the curator of exhibitions at the museum. The exhibit explores these traditions through primary interpreters or the perspectives of people currently engaged in those traditions, both old and new.
Modern-looking woven bags mix with picnic baskets with intricate designs in one part of the exhibition, celebrating the revival of black ash splint basket making.
The tradition has been recently revived in the Seneca community of western New York. The carefully woven baskets used to be an integral part of their community, with people making them not only to sell but to store and gather food. With commercialization of products, the communities stopped making the baskets around 1940. There were a handful of people who still made them, but no one was teaching it and passing it on to the next generation.
Community members Midge Dean Stock and Penny Miner decided to bring it back.
They studied the process, practice it and know enough to teach it. The baskets they and others have created are elegant, and simple; yet they take hours to make, between pounding the logs, to the weaving itself.
Using new tools and a few new techniques, Miner and others have brought the interest and tradition back to the community.
Nearby are stunning pieces of beadwork, ranging from rose covered wedding regalia to a heart-shaped box with Niagara Falls illustrated on it. The beadwork is part of the Tuscarora community tradition and has been passed down through the matrilinear line for generations.
“It’s very distinctive. They can pick somebody’s beadwork out,” Lemmon said.
One case features work from several relatives and generations in the family. Though the technique is the same, each piece has its own style. Grant Johnson part of the younger generation, has a bold style, mixing bright colors together, while other artists in his community are more subdued.
Not too far away are cases of stone carving from Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario.
In one piece, made of smooth black soapstone, the heads of two eagles rise up out of the platform they’re perched on. In another piece, made by Joe Jacobs, a figure’s head is carefully carved, with haunting eyes and long flowing hair.
Carving has always been an economic driver in the community. At one point, wood carving was more popular, however, that changed with artists like Jacobs, who learned to carve stone and taught others.
"The expectation is that it’s passed through the line and in some cases, that’s [true]. But with other things, like the baskets, you don’t necessarily learn from your parents [because] your parents don’t necessarily know how to do it,” Lemmon said.
A prime example is stationed at the start of the exhibit with pottery work from the Oneida Nation Wisconsin. Traditional Haudenosaunee pottery was lost in the 1600s, with only a few artifacts remaining in collections like the New York State Museum. During the 1950s the Smith family from Six Nations started working to get it back.
“When the pottery went extinct nobody kept records of the techniques, the symbolism, the purpose, the ritualistic connection -- all of that has been lost. . . We lost something like 75% of our resources. I didn’t have my grandma saying ‘This is how we did this. We didn’t have that generational learning,” said Jennifer Stevens, a potter who has been working to revive the tradition.
Potters in the community have continued to experiment over the years in an attempt to recreate the traditional methods. Since then, it’s become more and more popular within the community. Other generations have taken up the art form, creating a more modern aesthetic, using traditional methods. In one piece featured in the exhibit, an artist used crushed shells to embellish the center of a pot, making it look like a crystal of some kind.
It’s not just a physical experience. It’s a rich spiritual experience that fuels our identity as Indigenous people. It helps ground us, it helps heal us, it helps connect us,” Stevens said.
The exhibit ends on a sweeping note, with the inclusion of large and impressively detailed quilts created by the Akwesasne community along the U.S. Canadian border. While the community is best known for its basket weaving, over the last few decades quilting has become something of a tradition as well.
“Since everyone knows them for their baskets, we [decided] to look at a fairly new tradition that is not based in anything native at all,” Lemmon said, “But it’s very community rooted because it grew out of the Akwesasne Freedom School.”
Established in 1978, the school was a way to pass on the community’s language and tradition, as well as teach students math, social studies, etc. However, as an independent school, it lacked funds.
“In order to keep the school going, Tom Porter, an elder, suggested to the community members that they do a quilt auction as a fundraiser,” Lemmon said.
While many in the community were reluctant to take it up at first, it’s become a longstanding tradition.
“That has grown to be generations of women who have embraced this idea of quilt-making but have made it very Iroquian,” Lemmon said.
Upon first glance it might seem like these quilts are something one would see on a bed, yet each has a rich history. Take for instance “A Fight for Peace,” a colorful and sweeping quilt that seems almost cheery because of its brightness. Look close though and one starts to see an embroidered tree with an AK-47 buried underneath, a depiction of Halley’s comet shooting across the top, and 50 embroidered chiefs lining the edges of the piece. Nearby, a large applique quilt depicting the head of a wolf using carefully planned out pieces of fabrics is dedicated to the artist’s grandmother, who was a Wolf Clan quiltmaker.
“Treasured Traditions” explores how traditions both lost and found, new or longstanding, continue to bring native communities together and will be for generations to come. It's on exhibit until November 30.
"For more information on the exhibit or on the museum visit iroquoisemuseum.org.