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Antique beadwork returns home

Photos courtesy Martin Loft

After two years of COVID-19 kept him away, Grant Jonathan was finally able to return to Kahnawake in December to find new homes for some antique Mohawk beadwork.

The Tuscarora artist has tried to come up every year since 2011, bringing with him yards of velveteen and beadwork items he has collected.

“It was nice to see all my friends and meet new people this year,” he said.

Jonathan brought 125 Mohawk beadwork pieces with him and sold 105 of them on December 19 at the Golden Age Club, which he rented out for the day. Attendees of the sale registered for a timeslot online beforehand to ensure pandemic restrictions were followed.

“The appointments filled up in a matter of days,” he said. “People know what I bring, it’s good stuff, and they’re very interested, not just to give gifts at the holidays but just to keep things within their family and pass on to future generations.”

Jonathan started collecting over a decade ago, at first focusing mainly on Tuscarora beadwork. But in time, as he developed connections with other Haudenosaunee beaders, he started buying work he came across from other nations as well, in order to bring them back to their communities.

“It’s just exploded through selling part of my collection, or just selling targeted Mohawk beadwork to (Kahnawake), and it’s fun. I enjoy it very much.”

He buys the pieces when he finds them, then resells them back in the community at the price he paid, no extra. Some of the pieces travelled very far from Kahnawake.

“The Tuscaroras, we sold primarily at Niagara Falls. But the Mohawks from Kahnawake, because of ironwork and their involvement in circuses and fairs, they travelled all over the US and Canada and would set up and sell beadwork at different venues as far out as Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas.”

He finds the pieces at various antique stores, flea markets, and garage sales or online in stores like eBay. People will also hear about him through word of mouth and reach out with pieces to sell.

“I’ll go into an antique store, and I’ll just look down, and they’re there, just waiting for me to take them home.”

‘Rematriating’

“The process of doing this, the museum term, what’s used by historical preservationists and so forth is ‘repatriation,’” he said. “What I just learned within the last month, and I really was excited about this, especially among the women they don’t like the term ‘repatriate,’ they’re using ‘rematriate.’”

Given the matrilineal structure of the Haudenosaunee, Jonathan finds this term more fitting.

“It’s a really cool concept to rematriate beadwork back to the community, and the majority of the buyers are descendants of the women who made it three, four or five generations ago.”

This time around, he also chose to raffle off a set of 25 pieces to one lucky family. Eleven of the pieces were beaded with the word “Caughnawaga.” They were dated from as early as 1928 to the 1950s.

The set to be raffled included two canoes with beaded dolls in them, wearing regalia. On the canoes, one was beaded with “Indian canoe” and the other “Kanawaka.”

Jonathan said that it was his first time raffling, and he was inspired by beaders he has seen online raffling off their work.

“I wanted to have a little fun,” he said.

After two years away from the community, he said this latest trip was a real success. He just hopes he won’t have to wait two more years for the next visit.

savannah.eden.stewart@gmail.com

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