Have you ever looked, really looked, at Iroquoian art? The old stuff, I mean. It’s really beautiful. I had never known much about Native American art until recently, and I came to discover it in a kind of roundabout way.
I’ve been reading a very old book called Great Epochs in American History, Volume I. Voyages of Discovery and Early Explorations: 1000AD-1682. It is full of first-hand accounts of the early European explorers of North America. I love history and I prefer original sources, even though they can be pretty dry reading sometimes.
The book is written from the explorer’s point of view, so you can imagine it’s pretty offensive to the modern perspective. It is really tragic how these two very different cultures, European and Native American, met, causing such anguish and death, mostly for the Native American people. But learning from history is important, especially if we want to avoid repeating the bad parts. So in an effort to balance the two sides of those ill-fated early battles, I decided to learn more about the arts and culture of the Native Americans that were encountered, and mostly ignored, by the explorers during that time.
The largest nation in the Americas when Europeans arrived was the Iroquois Confederacy, also called the Five Nations. It was a confederation of five tribes which later became six tribes. I started searching for “Iroquois arts and culture”. Most of it was about the houses they lived in, the organization of their confederacy, food, religious ceremonies, etc. But I kept digging for the art. And the trees caught my eye.
So many trees. Now, I have been accused of being a tree hugger from time to time. I had a lot of fun climbing the magnolia trees in my grandmother’s front yard as a child. My uncle and I got so high that we didn’t have to look up to see the power lines. And now I live in the forest, right on the edge of a state park with close to 21,000 acres of undeveloped land.
Trees are everywhere in Iroquoian art. And when I decided to find out why, I found beautiful stories. One is the Iroquois origin story. And the other is the story of how the Iroquois Confederacy was formed.
There’s a lot of variation in the origin story among the five nations, but most of the basics are the same. In the beginning, there was only an ocean with large creatures and birds flying above. The only people were the Sky People, who lived on a floating island in the sky. There was a tree there that grew at the passage to the world below. It was a very important tree to the Sky People. One day Sky Woman decided to dig up the tree. There are variations in the explanation as to why she would want to do such a thing, but the story goes that when she did, it created a hole to the world underneath. The tree fell through the hole and pulled Sky Woman with it. The birds saw her falling and decided that she was too beautiful to let die, so they gathered together, floating on the water, and caught Sky Woman before she plunged beneath the waters. The birds took her to Turtle, the king of the creatures, and he held the Sky Woman and the tree on his back. The tree was magical and grew the land around it to form the land of North America. Some variations tell that Sky Woman or the creatures gathered earth from under the sea to form the land. Sky Woman became the mother of the people of Earth.
The story of the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy is even more interesting, and I thought it was particularly appropriate for the current culture wars we are having. It starts by explaining that there was once a time when all of the Five Nations were warring with one another. They were locked in an endless cycle of murder and revenge and there was chaos everywhere. So the Creator decided to send a Peacekeeper to the people. He was born to a virgin who, when she was pregnant, was hidden by her mother out of fear that she would be rejected for having a child without a father. The child was wise beyond his years, so they realized that they must raise him to be a leader. When he became a man, he united the tribes by convincing them, one by one, to stop fighting with each other and develop a treaty between themselves. In order to commemorate the treaty, the Peacekeeper uprooted a white pine tree and the nations threw their weapons in the hole. The weapons fell to the waters underneath and the tree was replanted in the same spot. The needles of the white pine that grow in groups of five represent the five nations. There were four roots that reached out to each cardinal direction and an eagle was put atop the tree to watch for any outsiders that may come to endanger the nations. If so, the eagle would scream and all the nations would come to the defense of each other.
It turns out that there are subtle references to trees even in some of the designs that the historical Iroquoian people have used in their beadwork. If you look closely at the two pictures on the right, you can see a double line with semi-circles on top of them. The double lines represent the earth and the semi-circles are sky domes. Sometimes there will be tiny suns over the sky domes and/or outwardly curling lines that represent trees. The picture on the left shows what those outwardly curling lines look like. There's a more in-depth illustrated explanation of this symbolism here.
Sometimes a little knowledge can give you a whole different perspective. You can check out examples of Iroquois art, historical and contemporary, at the Iroquois Indian Museum. If you can’t visit, you can explore their online exhibits. You can see more at Fine Art America, and even buy prints.
There are other types of symbolism used in Iroquois art. Check out the turtles, the Hiawatha belt, and many others. If you want to share some of what you learn, or what you already know, visit the forum post for this article. The forum is for members, but you can join for free if you're not already one.
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