This week's blog focuses on a beaded bag in the West Highland Museum's collection. The museum usually collects objects associated with the Highlands, so this bag was an unusual addition to the collection when it was gifted to the museum in 1960, as it appears to have no obvious connections to the Highlands or Highland folk.
The Niagara floral style bag or as it is widely referred to – The Victorian souvenir bag, is one that many feel hasn’t received its due respect. After some research I have to say, I agree. Like many items of the past, the story behind this bag is yet to be told and understood. We can all agree that the Niagara bag is beautiful, an opinion that has remained unchanged. In the 1850s, when this bag is said to have been made, items that had been handed beaded by the Iroquois Tribes and other native groups in this location were highly regarded by tourists- especially British tourists.
In 18th century Canada the fur trade was picking up but trading organisations like the Hudson Bay Company were struggling for men who could tolerate the harsh conditions of Canada. The owner of the company had decided to hire Highland men, for they knew they could pay them little and work them hard and the men wouldn’t complain. Given the circumstances at home, the Highland men felt that they had little choice but to join the trade.
The Highland men soon assumed their roles and quickly found that they shared lots of similarities with the native people they were trading with. Before long relationships began to grow between these communities. Highland men were becoming honorary members of Native American tribes, through marriage and friendship and they (The Highlanders and Native Algonquians of Canada) even found similarities in language- The Gaelic term for an English person “Sassenach” closely relates to the Algonquian word for white man “Saganash”. I would say the most important similarity they shared was their love for the land, with each group possessing a deep emotional connection to nature and wildlife, living according to what and who had come before them and considering carefully the lands around them. They each found sharing songs and stories a necessary part of their heritage, this is how these groups communicated their origins and beliefs, without the cold nights around the fire – it’s possible these stories wouldn’t have survived.
The Hudson Bay Company recognised that the groups had good relationships and so quickly hired as many Highlanders from the Orkney Isles as possible until they took up 75% of the company. However, the trade could not last forever, the local people of America and Canada only had so much land they could hunt, as wars started and revolutions came, groups were divided and resources were lost. The indigenous groups were soon left in a position where they could no longer sustain the lifestyle they had done so successfully for hundreds of years. Being forced from their lands and with no access to tools and materials to trade with these groups needed to find a source of income, if they were to survive in a modernizing world.
The 19th century brought many tourists to ‘America’s honeymoon spot’, Niagara Falls. Which was convenient for the Iroquoian’s new money-making venture, as the falls sat by their land. They knew where to place themselves as vendors and already possessed good selling techniques through their years of trading. The streets leading to the falls would often be the location of choice for the women selling their work. The women would hand bead items whilst encouraging passers-by to purchase one of the pieces that they had already made.
The Iroquoian women were experienced beaders and some were experienced traders but the two skills had rarely crossed paths. Beadwork in the Iroquois culture was usually reserved for special occasion clothing and would usually have symbolic meaning to the individual tribe. The individual style of beadwork used by each tribe set them apart from one another similar to how each clan has its own tartan in the Highlands of Scotland. A tribe could be identified simply by what was beaded on their clothing.
The hand beaded items were a great success, three-dimensional bead designs like birds and hearts were created on pin cushions and tea cozies. Every piece was completely unique, the Niagara floral style, usually meant thick stems of green and beautiful bursts of red, blue and yellow flowers on a contrasting dark velveteen. The Iroquois often hand beaded organic subject matter, this would be done to show respect for the medicinal flowers used by the tribe to heal their sick. The design would include white beads to highlight the flowers and shape of the bag but also to represent life, light and goodness.
The tribes people kept up relationships with the Highlanders that they had traded and fought with. Some Highlanders were now a part of local tribes themselves, the tribes utilised this network of men and soon had the bags flowing directly to the UK. Tourists began coming to Niagara and buying as many bags and beaded pieces as possible for themselves and as gifts. The popularity of the bags in Britain was great for the bead workers. It meant the women of the tribe were the sole providers for the tribe and they were receiving wide recognition for their wonderful skills as beadwork artists.
There is no question why Iroquoian beadwork became so popular, the designs aligned with the Victorian woman’s sensibilities. As soon as middle-class women were seen to be holding these bags in photographs, they became must-have items. Amongst the working class these bags were regarded as some girls/woman’s most prized possessions. Until in the late 19th century British women’s magazines began publishing “how to” articles for the bag. When people started to replicate the bags, the significance of these pieces were lost and the stories told of the Iroquoian tribes and their ‘romantic lifestyle’ was falsified. In fact, the story of these people had never been accurately told. and the struggle experienced by this dying community was diluted in publications about their lifestyle. People would describe the scenery as picturesque and their small tent homes as quaint but never explained how difficult it was to sustain a family out in those lands.
So, whether now you believe the Iroquoian bags were souvenirs or just trendy pieces, the significance they had in indigenous American culture and the remaining days of their traditional lifestyle represents the sense of community amongst the tribes people and the fight they were willing to peacefully have to remain in their home. Although the tribes were eventually pushed from their lands, they never gave up, with every member, regardless of age or gender, attempting to protect what had been theirs.