It isn’t so easy to gather the porcupine quills used for traditional Native American art, especially if you’re not willing to kill the animal first. Mary Annette Clause, who juried into Indian Market for the first time this year for her beadwork and quillwork, said that one of the most common ways to get quills is from roadkill. If that thought makes you squeamish, there’s another way, but you have to be brave. It involves getting close to an animal known to release its sharp and painful spines as a defense mechanism when it feels threatened. The small barbs at the ends of the spines, barely visible to the naked eye, can be difficult to remove if they get under your skin.
“Up toward Montreal, they do a lot of quillwork,” said Clause, who will be in booth number 518 at the market. “If they see a porcupine, they have this big sheet or blanket and they throw it on top of them. Of course, the porcupines eject their quills into the blanket. Then they just pick the blanket up and remove the quills.”
A Tuscarora artist who was born in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1958, Clause spent much of her life on the Tuscarora Reservation, near the Canadian border. Her primary focus is on the Tuscarora’s traditional raised beadwork, a practice she learned from her mother as a little girl. From the time she was 13, she and her brothers beaded objects at home under their mother’s guidance and accompanied her to regional fairs to sell their wares. Clause was allowed to keep her own profits. She, in turn, taught her own daughter how to do beadwork, keeping the family practice alive.
Her quillwork came much later. In fact, she introduced quillwork into her beading only in the past year. At the time, Clause was teaching traditional arts to members of a women’s recovery group at a cultural center on the reservation, she said. On the whole, the women weren’t doing very well with beadwork and she was looking for a new craft to teach them.
“I took a workshop with Jamie Jacobs, who’s one of the few artists who still does traditional quillwork,” she said. “Originally, the Haudenosaunee [also known as Iroquois] people used the quills as part of their traditional wares because, at the time, they would use whatever resources were available within their territory. It wasn’t until the Europeans came that the beads were introduced. The quillwork was replaced with the beadwork because beads became more accessible.”
Porcupine quilling was traditionally practiced among East Coast and Plains tribes and has seen a revival among Native artists. The quills are softened, flattened, dyed, and sewn onto textiles. Quilling is most commonly used for appliqué embroidery.
Although Clause is a first-time exhibitor at Indian Market, she’s shown her work nationally and often participates in other Native art markets, including the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, in Phoenix, which is among the longest-running Indian art fairs in the nation. She also shows her work at the annual Great New York State Fair. She and Tuscarora artist Judy Judware decided to enter the Santa Fe Indian Market as a friendly challenge to each other. “We applied in January, and we got accepted, so here we are.”
Jurors accepted Clause into Indian Market based on her examples of beadwork and quillwork, including a pair of elegant white love birds intended as a topper for a wedding cake. It was inspired by a historic piece made by her great-great-grandmother that she encountered in a local museum. Her works sell for anywhere from $100 to $3,500, depending on the intricacy of the designs and the amount of time involved in their creation.
Examples of bead and quillwork can be found among all of the six member nations of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), which includes the Tuscarora, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. The significance of the designs and motifs, however, are peculiar to each tribe. In the 1990s, Clause said, the Tuscarora Nation saw that crafts like beadwork were in a decline and in danger of being lost. In response, the tribe started a program to reintroduce traditional arts and crafts. Clause taught in the program for about 15 years. She also taught night classes, following in the footsteps of her grandmother who had taught classes in beading at the Tuscarora Indian School.
To revitalize the flagging art form, practitioners had to acquaint themselves with historic designs that few were familiar with. A private collector named Dolores Elliot, who Clause said had more than 3,000 historic examples of traditional Haudenosaunee beadwork, invited 12 members of the Tuscarora, including Clause, to come to her home and document the works, many of which were based on patterns Clause had never seen. She did have patterns of her own — unbeaded silhouettes, passed down to her from her grandmother, Doris Hudson — but she didn’t know how they were actually supposed to look once they were beaded until she saw the historic examples. A photographer friend of the artist took detailed pictures of the works at Elliot’s home.
“I have this huge album that has, probably, over a thousand pictures in it,” she said. “My grandmother never used all these patterns.”
For her own part, Clause filled five sketchbooks with everything she saw in the collection, including detailed renderings of floral, vine, leaf, and bird designs, which were typical elements of many of the beaded works.
Clause developed a beading curriculum based on all the new patterns, demonstrating basic stitching techniques on sample stitch boards. Each year, she would lead her classes in more and more advanced beading techniques.
“That’s where I’m at with my artwork right now,” she said. “I do a lot of teaching, demonstrations, and lectures, more than I actually do my beading.” ◀