City of Niagara Falls Museums Insider's Look

Beaded Purse

Beaded Purse

In the 1800s, Niagara Falls was considered an essential destination for people of wealth and education travelling in North America. These travellers were eager to bring home curiosities that would remind them of their trip and impress their friends. Especially popular were First Nations items, like this beaded cylinder (or fist) purse made in the Tuscarora style of beadwork.

Fanciful versions of utilitarian objects like this one were produced by Tuscarora women for sale in the tourist area of Niagara Falls. Purses, bags, picture frames and pin cushions were elaborately decorated with raised, clear beadwork that appealed to the European taste. While visitors would have imagined that they were carrying home little pieces of Indigenous culture, in fact they may be better understood as European objects reimagined through an Indigenous lens. The women who made these beautiful and highly commercial pieces were both craftspeople and businesspeople, able to turn a livelihood from the artistry of their beading.

In 2015, the Niagara Falls History Museum partnered with Naomi Smith of Neyaashiinigmiing, Ontario, a First Nations traditional artisan and educator, to reimagine this purse as part of a reciprocal opportunity for learning. She wrote of the experience, “After spending hours meticulously sewing on the crystal clear beads, I was afforded a unique and very real perspective on how much time, effort and creativity was employed in making these beautiful objects. So much can only be understood through the act of doing.”

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