Stevens Point woman tells Oneida Nation history through beadwork
STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAW) - An Oneida Nation woman of Stevens Point is being nationally recognized for her creative skills. Karen Ann Hoffman is a Haudenosaunee Raised Beadworker and has been recently recognized by United States Artists as a 2022 fellow of traditional arts.
Hoffman explained it’s not about the award. Instead, she said it’s about the unheard voices of her ancestors and bringing awareness and education to their stories.
When it comes to inspiration for the work, she said she thinks about their 14,000-year history on Turtle Island.
“When I think about our homeland in the eastern Great Lakes, I think about the Niagara Falls. I think about the rain. I think about the waters. And the way our old people explain, everything has its old instructions. Everything has its responsibilities. So the water gives us gifts, and we, in turn, are responsible to give those gifts back to the water.”
Hoffman explained, “It’s not a hierarchy, it’s a community.”
“And in every good piece of Haudenosaunee Raised Beadwork, in my opinion,” she explained, “you’ll see an encirclement. A line of beads that run all the way around a piece.”
First, she starts each piece with research. She said she’s always given one choice, and “that choice is, ‘what vision am I going to talk about with my beadwork?’” Once that choice is made...”all I’m supposed to do is get the heck out of the way and let the materials do what they’re good at. And that’s my job as an artist... is to know what these materials excel at and give them what they need to be their best.”
She uses glass beads from Europe, thread, needle and velvet. “And the teaching that I was given about this line of beads, is to think of each individual bead as every Haudenosaunee person who ever was, everyone that is, and everyone that ever will be. You can’t tell me apart from my grandma in these beads, but if any one of us, as Haudenosaunee people, does not live up to our responsibilities, it would be like taking a bead out of this encirclement.”
“Only one would be gone, but the entire community would be forever changed. And so these lessons are sewn right into the work that we do.”
She explained everything she does is done in a culturally sensitive way. She said it allows her to understand her past, “but it allows me too, to have the benefit of that 14,000 years of thinking about the right way to live, and use that lens to think about contemporary issues, contemporary situations and respond to them with the gift of the vision of my ancestors.”
She said every stitch is done with a purpose.
Her work tells just a sliver of the stories of her ancestors, and while she has pieces of beadwork from the recent past, she has some for the near future.
“This otter was taken in a good way and he’ll be used to commemorate those dead.”
The otter piece is to honor those specifically buried under UW-Stevens Point campus back in the 1860′s who died from scarlet fever.
“These particular pieces, these skulls are actually [cow] bone. I’ve wrapped those skulls and these pieces of bone in a blanket, because in the 1930s when reserve street was being worked on. Reports in the newspaper say that bits of bone, blanket were unearthed, and we know those pieces of bone and blanket, to be the burial of those natives from the 1860s. So I made these little dolls, and I wrapped them up again, and I’ll lay them safely in this piece of beadwork so they can finally rest.”
Her goal for this piece is to let the message of her ancestors speak and be heard. She explained her ancestors went through a lack of care during scarlet fever, isolation and segregation.
“And now, in this pandemic age, have we learned how to treat people, have we learned how to live together, to help one another? I truly feel that’s what those dead would like us to do, and learn from their experiences and be better humans and better neighbors.”
That’s why she said the otter piece will be a prayer piece.
“It will be a piece that asks for rest and education, sympathy, and bringing together in community.”
The piece will be live with her until “He finds a home that will respect him, give him his voice, and allow him to speak his own truth.”
She said her goal is simple.
“...Is for people to know that there is this incredible depth and breadth of amazing native fine art, right in their midst. And, I am honored to have gotten this U.S. artist fellowship for 2022, to be among that class is a great honor. But what I really like about it... is that it gives me a platform to talk about the other native artists, equally talented, equally impressive, just not as lucky, to have gotten this honor. It is my responsibility then, to share that honor with them.”
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