Artists from Tonawanda Seneca Territory

The Art of Connecting

Contemporary artists from Tonawanda Reservation requested that their beadwork be displayed side-by-side with the work of their ancestors from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Indian Arts Project (1935-1941). With artist time cards, photos, and object material lists, the WPA Indian Arts Project is one of the best documented Onöndawá’ga (Seneca) art collections in the world. ­Though few sources have captured the experiences of the WPA artists in their own words, their descendants shared reflections on their inspirations and the process of creating.


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“I don’t think I can name one thing that inspires me. It’s a combination of things around me but mostly internally and culturally. I’m inspired by past beaders and the work they put into it and how they used our symbols and culture to design their projects. I like my pieces to have Iroquois representation.

“The hardest part in beading for me is deciding WHAT to bead. Putting your ideas down on paper and sketching it out takes time. I like to think about the person I’m beading for. What would they like? What colors would they wear? Does this match their outt? And from there I use our own Iroquois designs and symbols and culture to come up with a design. Sometimes I may just use a simple line design. It really depends on what I am beading.”
-Ashley Shenandoah


“I usually design my beadwork with a plan I have in my head. As I go, I alter that plan. I put it on my material and if it doesn’t work, I’m not opposed to taking it all back o and starting again. If it doesn’t work the second or third time, I take it o until I’m satised with my design.”
-Melissa Smith



“Developing a design or pattern for my beadwork oen translates to looking at an object and thinking of what I might add to it. I work with stones, shells, and bone at various times and study the colors or shapes to see what pattern or colors might enhance the piece that I am working on. The image I envision is what eventually comes forth in my beadwork.”
-Cookie Jonathan



“To develop designs for my artwork, I look at old beadwork pieces, things I find in nature, other symbols from other cultures that are closely related to ours, pottery, and quillwork.Sometimes, the symbols mean something to me for the person I’m making it for or represent my connection with them. This specific piece I made after one of my former students had committed suicide. Suicide is something that directly affected me as someone close to me was going through a tough time as well. The wind part represents how life gets sometimes, the rays of the sun represent the ups and downs of life but also that each new day the sun shines again and the three sisters represent our connection to the earth.” -Anne Tahamont


I like to look at pictures and paintings of old beadwork and designs. I use some of these as a base for my work. Pictures of nature (animals & owers) also are used. I put my own style on each piece I do and have yet to replicate something I have already done. anks to Michael Galban & Jamie Jacobs, I have opened up my beadwork to quilling. I try to include all things into one piece. I like to use more than just beads.”
-Allison Smith


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Click on the images below to see more about the artists, their work, and their ancestors.