Niagara Hat

Niagara Hat - Body

“For over a century, the men and women from my reservation have made beadwork that could be used either in the Iroquois home or the Victorian parlor. In this way, the tiny glass beads are a history of my own people.”—Richard Hill, Tuscarora educator and beadworker

History of Haudenosaunee Beadwork

Indigenous artists from the Haudenosaunee, Huron, Abenaki, and Algonquian nations in the Northeast of North America have created beaded masterpieces for thousands of years. These artists used locally sourced materials as well as the materials that their communities traded with other Indigenous communities.

One of the most frequently created and deeply rooted artworks is the Hiawatha wampum belt. This video from PBS offers a close look at a traditional Haudenosaunee beadwork design and shares the history and story of the founding of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, which comprises the Mohawk, Seneca, Tuscarora, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Oneida nations.

“The third symbol (the tree) represents Onondaga. Here the Peacemaker uprooted the tallest white pine, the Tree of Peace, which leaders buried their weapons of hate, jealousy, and war beneath it (they buried the hatchet).” —Hiawatha Belt, Onondaga Nation

Post-contact with Europeans, Haudenosaunee artists continued to innovate their artwork using materials traded with the Europeans. Multiple European nations competed for Haudenosaunee trade favor, offering glass beads, among other materials, in exchange for furs and other local products.

Black and white print of a white man and woman standing near the ledge of a large waterfall.

History of the Niagara Trade Industry

Why is this hat called a Niagara Hat? In the 19th century, a rise of tourism to Niagara Falls, on the border between New York State and Canada, brought an influx of Euro-American settlers to Haudenosaunee lands. By this time, settler colonial ideology (the belief that white people had a right to occupy land historically cared for and lived on by Indigenous peoples) and practices had forcibly removed many Haudenosaunee people from their ancestral lands and the fur trade had depleted traditional food and clothing resources. By creating and selling tourist souvenirs, Haudenosaunee artists generated essential financial income for themselves, their families, and their communities. This income enabled artists, families, and communities to resist many colonial pressures.

Of the Haudenosaunee nations, the Tuscarora and the Seneca were the most active artists at Niagara Falls due to their geographic location. Artists from neighboring Indigenous nations also created and sold tourist souvenirs at Niagara Falls. While we do not know the name (or nation) of the artist or artists who made this hat, it was probably made by a Tuscarora or Seneca woman or women.

With this new tourist consumer base, the imagery of Haudenosaunee beadwork changed rapidly from geometric designs to floral designs, such as those on this Niagara Hat. The beadwork continued to be informed by Indigenous curvilinear forms (forms made of curved lines), but the aesthetic shifted to appeal to Victorian (mid-late 19th century) tourist preferences.

Print of a white woman with pink flowers in her hair. Text below reads "Women's Edition (Buffalo) Courier."

Flowers through the Consumer’s Eyes

Victorian tourists from Europe and the United States strongly preferred realistic floral designs, and these floral designs represented specific cultural values for them.

Euro-Americans believed that both women and Indigenous people were more in-tune with the natural world than white men, who were thought to be more advanced. Because of this, floral images were seen as deeply feminine, an inferior position.

Euro-Americans also believed certain artistic forms were superior to others. Painting, for example, was better than crafts (like beadwork). Beaded flowers represented a simpler time, before factories and other industry took over the world. Euro-Americans saw the Niagara Hat as a reminder of the “quaint” past.

Black and white photograph of a Seneca woman. The woman wears clothing decorated in floral beadwork and she carries a bag decorated in floral beadwork.

Flowers through the Producer’s Eyes

According to Richard Hill, a Tuscarora educator and beadworker, floral patterns are important because they recall the Iroquois woodland environment and are part of larger cultural meaning.

Floral motifs are linked to the feminine through the creator Skywoman, who occupies a position of respect. For the Haudenosaunee, this connection to the feminine is respected. Floral imagery may also connect with Haudenosaunee theory of world creation. When Skywoman, who is also known by the name Mature Flower, arrived on Turtle Island (North America), she began the growth cycles of crucial culinary and medicinal plants.

Color symbolism may also have played a part in the artist(s)’ choices. Bob Smith, an Oneida teacher, beadworker, and collector, suggests the use of pink, purple, and white might reference the white thistles spread by Hiawatha when he called the five nations together to create a peaceful confederacy. Hill suggests white can symbolize peacefulness, with white lines symbolizing the path of peace and that white can also symbolize celestial bodies and the bright light within each individual person. Hill shares that purple can symbolize death, tragedy, and mourning, and that purple, black, and blue together can look like constellations in the night sky.

The beadwork itself reinforces the Haudenosaunee worldview. Beadwork was, and is, a medium for infusing Indigenous realities into clothing. Beadwork, including beadwork intended for tourist consumption, functioned (and functions today) as a way of carrying on Indigenous traditions and resisting colonization through financial generation, artistic innovation, and cultural expression.

One Hat, Multiple Meanings

The floral designs on this hat are representative of both the cultural values of the Euro-American Victorian tourists to whom it was marketed and the cultural values of its Haudenosaunee creator(s). Because flowers symbolized very different things for the two cultures, the people of each culture likely saw very different things when they looked at this hat.

Black velvet cap in the shape of a pointed oval, with beadwork in blue, white, green, yellow, and red forming flowers and stems all over; made by a Haudenosaunee woman.

Unrecorded artist (Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)), Niagara beadwork hat, ca. 1870, beadwork on black cloth and velvet. Gift of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, 2016.25.5

Black velvet cap in the shape of a pointed oval, with beadwork in blue, white, green, yellow, and red forming flowers and stems all over; made by a Haudenosaunee woman.

Unrecorded artist (Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)), Niagara beadwork hat, ca. 1870, beadwork on black cloth and velvet. Gift of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, 2016.25.5

Black velvet cap in the shape of a pointed oval, with beadwork in blue, white, green, yellow, and red forming flowers and stems all over; made by a Haudenosaunee woman.

Unrecorded artist (Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)), Niagara beadwork hat, ca. 1870, beadwork on black cloth and velvet. Gift of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, 2016.25.5

Black velvet cap in the shape of a pointed oval, with beadwork in blue, white, green, yellow, and red forming flowers and stems all over; made by a Haudenosaunee woman.

Unrecorded artist (Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)), Niagara beadwork hat, ca. 1870, beadwork on black cloth and velvet. Gift of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, 2016.25.5

Black velvet cap in the shape of a pointed oval, with beadwork in blue, white, green, yellow, and red forming flowers and stems all over; made by a Haudenosaunee woman.

Unrecorded artist (Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)), Niagara beadwork hat, ca. 1870, beadwork on black cloth and velvet. Gift of Jonathan and Karin Fielding, 2016.25.5

Questions & Prompts

  • Try viewing this hat through the lens of mid-late 19th century Euro-American values. What do you notice?

  • Try viewing this hat through the lens of mid-late 19th century Haudenosaunee values. What do you notice?

  • How do different cultures view flowers and floral motifs? How does gender intersect with floral motifs?

  • If you could ask the maker(s) of this hat one question, what would you ask? Why?

  • If you could ask the tourist who bought this hat one question, what would you ask? Why?

  • Explore this hat as a part of our Becoming America curriculum.


References and Resources

Dubin, Lois Sherr. 2014.“Gifts from the Sun: Northeastern Woodlands.” In Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork. Los Angeles: Autry National Center of the American West.

Hill, Richard W. 1994. “Patterns of Expression: Beadwork in the Life of the Iroquois.” In All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture by National Museum of the American Indian, 36–61. Washington D.C. : Smithsonian Institute.

Holler, Deborah. 2012. “The Textile Artistry of Caroline G. Parker Fashion, Nationhood, and Identity.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331439221_The_Textile_Artistry_of_Caroline_G_Parker_FASHION_NATIONHOOD_AND_IDENTITY.

Onondaga Nation. n.d. “Hiawatha Belt.” Accessed September 23, 2021. https://www.onondaganation.org/culture/wampum/hiawatha-belt/.

PBS. 2018. “Haudenosaunee Beadwork: A History.” Video. https://www.pbs.org/video/haudenosaunee-beadwork-history-eykeex/.

Phillips, Ruth B. 1998. Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press.