Picking up the Threads: A Reflection on Sam Thomas’ Lecture on Indigenous Beadwork

Growing up in Northern Ontario, where I observed Indigenous culture largely through multicultural festivals and expositions in which Indigenous beadwork was prominently featured, I imagined myself to be aware of the cultural significance of beadwork. However, I never could have comprehended how each choice made about the forms, colours, and even the number of beads used in a piece has a cultural and personal meaning. As an Iroquois beadwork artist and historian, Sam Thomas has dedicated his life to interpreting and creating such meaning through his research and artistic work. Thomas, a member of the Lower Cayuga band of the Iroquois Nation, shared some of this insight through a lecture entitled “Metaphors, Memories, Moving Forward” at Western University’s Conron Hall on Thursday, September 20, 2018.

In his presentation, Thomas illustrated how Iroquois beadwork can be rich in symbols of Haudenosaunee culture that tell the oral stories passed down in the nation. For instance, to Haudenosaunee peoples, the beaded form of a strawberry can represent the triumph of good over evil, the path to the afterlife, and traditional Haudenosaunee teachings. Thomas explained that he can read his people’s entire history and ideology from a cultural object as “Indigenous people…think in metaphors” (“Metaphors, Memories, Moving Forward”). This illustrates how beads act as another form of alphabet, creating a language full of metaphors and meanings beyond the grasp of those without the cultural context to decipher them. This encryption is essential to the preservation of Haudenosaunee culture. Thomas described how the commodification of Indigenous cultures has weakened their cultural economy by displacing traditional beadwork in favour of commercialized products. This affirms a point made by Métis artists and scholar David Garneau in his essay “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation,” that Indigenous signifiers are not always meant to be comprehended by settlers and are often omitted from Indigenous goods in order to protect the culture from exploitation (33). Thomas emphasized the significance of preserving traditional beadwork for the survival of Indigenous cultures. It is for this reason that he decided to re-claim and revitalize his nation’s tradition of elaborate beadwork. Amongst his artistic endeavours, he highlighted several successful exhibitions, including Power of Place-Strength of Being,Wiping Away the Tears,and Opening the Doors to Dialogue.

Thomas’ work challenged my notion of what constitutes art. As he displayed images of intricate, vibrant beadwork on moccasins, purses, boxes, and other everyday objects, the boundaries through which I considered art were stretched. It struck me how such artistic expression could be excluded from Western societies’ narrow definition of art, often relegated to the status of “handicrafts” instead. As my preconceptions crumbled, they were replaced with a growing sense of awe at a culture that could create such beauty and powerful messages through the use of beads.

Another thing that surprised me was how contemporary and global beadwork could be. Thomas modernized the ancient tradition of beading by creating a signature pattern that is distinct from what his ancestors had done. Additionally, by drawing inspiration from global cultures, Thomas’ Power of Place – Strength of Being exhibit drew Indigenous beadwork into the world of globalization. Thomas traveled to six places of power around the world, including Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Egypt, and Delphi and created a piece inspired by each. Thomas recognized the similarities between the struggles experienced by the cultures he encountered and allowed his beadwork to be influenced by these cultures, while deliberately maintaining an emphasis on the representation of his own culture in relation to the world. This reflects Cherokee writer Daniel Heath Justice’s philosophy that Indigenous art is “explicitly, generously engaged with a larger network of relations, influences, and experiences, always with some measure of commitment to articulating Indigenous presence in the world” (21). Justice articulates how Indigenous art can take on an array of external meanings, while focusing on Indigenous culture, in order to express how Indigenous peoples interact with the world.

Thomas’ art was also inspired by trauma and the pursuit of healing. His exhibition entitledWiping Away the Tears reflected his grief over the passing of his mother and helped him overcome that trauma. Thomas translated the healing power of art to a greater scale through his Opening the Doors to Dialogue exhibit. This project involved workshops where residential school survivors discussed their experiences and traumas with church representatives as they created beadwork which was inserted onto doors taken from former residential schools. Through these exhibitions, Thomas demonstrated the healing power of art. Justice notes that, for Indigenous peoples, art is not simply an aesthetic endeavour, but a means of cultural preservation, healing, and survival (21). Suitably, Thomas takes on beadwork projects to preserve Haudenosaunee culture, heal himself, and help Indigenous peoples overcome the traumas of colonialism.

Not only did Sam Thomas’ lecture, “Metaphors, Memories, Moving Forward” provide me with a greater appreciation for Haudenosaunee beadwork and culture, but it also lent a greater understanding of the power and significance of art at large. What struck me was not only how such significance could be created from beads, but how a people could create such art out of the ruins created by the oppression and trauma inflicted upon them. In this context, Haudenosaunee beadwork is both a symbol and a process of the resilience and beauty of Indigenous cultures in the face of complex struggles.

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