Old Glory as Rendered by Mohawk Beadworkers

Old Glory as Rendered by Mohawk Beadworkers

Of the six nations of the Iroquois, it was the Mohawk beadworkers who used the US flag design in their beadwork. Shown here is a 5.5″ box purse made in 1909 by a Mohawk beadworker. Notice how the Iroquois beadworkers rendered the flag in beads.

Countries, nations, states, and groups all over the world identify themselves by their distinctive flags and banners. Many designs have been meaningful for centuries. Early in the formation of our United States, a red, white, and blue national flag was created to identify our new country.

In July we see many flags as we celebrate Independence Day, the federal holiday that commemorates the declaration of independence of the United States on July 4, 1776. The holiday is also called the Fourth of July. Throughout the month flags are flown, and commercial sales brochures are decorated with red, white, and blue images.

The flag of the United States of America, the national flag, is also called the American flag and can be referred to as the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory, and the Star-Spangled Banner. It is one of the most recognizable flags in the world. It features thirteen red and white horizontal stripes with red stripes on the top and bottom. A blue rectangle called the union or canton is in the upper left corner. It features fifty small, white five-pointed stars arranged in nine horizontal rows with alternate rows of six stars and five stars. The fifty stars on the flag represent the fifty states of the United States of America, while the 13 stripes represent the original 13 British colonies that declared independence from Great Britain and became the first 13 states in the United States.

The first version which had 13 stars and 13 stripes was adopted on June 14, 1777, and has been modified officially 26 times. (In recognition of the first adoption, an official national Flag Day was proclaimed starting on June 14, 1916.) The current design of the US flag is its 27th version. The 48- star flag was used for 47 years until the 49-star version became official in 1959, while the 50-star flag was adopted in July 1960 after Hawaii, the 50th state, was added to the list of states. It has now been in use for 59 years, the longest used version.

Over the years many rules have been adopted on the correct use and disposal of the national flag. If flying at night, it must be illuminated, and it must not touch the ground, the water, or anything below it. There are rules on how to display it and how to dispose of an old or damaged flag. I once asked an army general why he left his institution’s flags up during rainstorms. He answered, that we are not only fair-weather patriots, but we are patriots in storms too.

Iroquois beadworkers started creating purses, pincushions, and wall hangings over two hundred years ago. Although some of the pieces were made for family and friends, the majority were made to sell. Of the six nations of the Iroquois –the Mohawk, Oneida, the Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora- it was the Mohawk beadworkers who used the US flag design in their beadwork. It is ironic that they used Old Glory because the Mohawk beadworkers lived on the Kahnawake Reserve across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal in Quebec. The flag motifs were obviously marketed to US citizens, which indicates that the Mohawks either wholesaled to US distributors or traveled to markets in the US themselves.

This 11″ x 11″ early 20th century tri-lobe pincushion features two flags and a bird, probably an eagle.

The Mohawk artists also created pincushions that were meant to hang on a wall to hold sewing supplies. This large tri-lobe heart pincushion shown above displays two flags and a bird, probably an eagle, also a patriotic symbol of the United States. Elaborate pincushions such as this probably sold for only a few dollars, but now, over one hundred years later, they are worth several hundred dollars.

This 8″ x 9.5″ pincushion may be carrying one of the earliest beaded flag images.
This rectangular pincushion with the eagle and US flags sold for $152.50 in Feb. 2019.

It is thought that the first beaded flags were incorporated on Mohawk beadwork in the 1870s. They were probably inspired by the celebration of the United States Centennial. This rectangular pincushion form in the top photo above was very popular in the last quarter of the 19th century. Tens of thousands of these rectangular pincushions were sold, but most feature beaded birds and flowers instead of flags.

This 6.25″ x 6.25″ 1904 picture frame was gifted to me by Will Seippel, WorthPoint CEO and founder.

By the 20th century, flags appeared more frequently on Mohawk beadwork. Flags appear on one particular piece made to sell in 1904. If you haven’t guessed what it is, it is labeled PICTURE FRAME in the photo above (thanks, Will). Picture frames sell for about $100 or more depending on size and condition. 21st century Haudenosaunee beadworkers still create picture frames, but no one seems to be adding the US flag design to any Iroquois beadwork.

Note that the beaded flags on Iroquois beadwork do not contain the standard number of stars and stripes for their time periods. Of course, it would be impossible to indicate dozens of stars, but the beadworkers could have rendered the 13 stripes correctly. Most pieces have fewer than 13 stripes but some have more. It seems that the idea of a US flag was more important than to attempt to render it correctly. In fact, some flags have red fields and blue and white stripes or the fields fill the entire left side.

This heart-shaped pincushion with the US flag sold for $99 in 2018.

The Mohawk beadworkers knew that flags were important to their potential customers. They were not only skilled beadworkers but also wise marketers.


Dolores Elliott is a retired archaeologist who has researched the art and artifacts of the indigenous people of the Northeast for the last 50 years. Since the 1970s, her research has concentrated on the beadwork created by the Iroquois. As a museum consultant, she has mounted over a dozen exhibits. She has written fourteen publications about Iroquois beadwork, and she organizes an annual International Iroquois Beadwork Conference. For more information check out www.otsiningo.com. She can be contacted through email at Dolores@stny.rr.com.

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Published at Thu, 27 Jun 2019 16:56:56 +0000