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East by northeast: a Haudenosaunee beaded purse from the Montreal region.

In terms of imagery and design, be it decorative or symbolic, Northeastern Native art is rich and diverse. No more so than the art of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) beadwork which evolved over the course of the nineteenth century into a myriad of forms, from articles made for indigenous use to material produced for the early souvenir market.



Afficionados of Northeastern beadwork are quite familiar with a recurring repertoire of ancient double curves; sun, star and other celestially inspired motifs; beautifully executed zigzag borders of varying levels of complexity; stylized floral designs derived from both local flora and, eventually, European influence; even human figures from traditional creation mythology.

Of all the forms of imagery associated with historic Native beadwork from the Northeastern region, one would think few could be more unexpected or incongruous than depictions of wild and exotic creatures from a distant continent.

Imagine my astonishment when, way back in the early 1980s while perusing the rabbit warren of antique stalls at London's famous Portobello Road market, I happened upon an unusual early velveteen purse (opposite page) with rather strange elephant figures incorporated into the beadwork design!

I duly purchased the beaded purse, took it home, and began the slow process, in those pre-internet days, of researching the cryptic origins and iconography of this intriguing North American Indian object it was a purse made in the Northeastern region, most likely Haudenosaunee in origin. That much was clear. The choice of materials, beadwork techniques and form of construction all conformed to normal expectations of a nineteenth century purse from that area--with its early Venetian glass seed beads on dark brown velveteen, edged with a red bias edging tape. So far it was so straightforward. But what was the explanation for those curious and highly anomalous elephants? Northeastern beadwork and elephants would seem to make the least likeliest of bedfellows!


Closer inspection revealed not only elephants--pictured in profile, one to each side of the purse, facing right--but a range of other design elements that proved no less tantalizing: namely, a crown (at top center of the composition), a tablet bearing the inscription ASSAYE (directly below the elephant), and the number 74 (in the space between the crown and the elephant). Additionally, several more conventional elements one would expect to see on a Haudenosaunee beaded purse: foliate stems with thistle-like terminals (to left and right of the design field), simple star devices (flanking the number 74), and a double range of zigzags (at the bottom of the field).


Further research eventually yielded the fuller story. The design combining the elephant design surmounted by a crown and number 74, as well as the ASSAYE inscription, are a representation of the insignia of the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot. This regiment, sometimes known as the 74th Highlanders, was stationed in eastern Canada for almost four years in the early 1840s.


The 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot

The 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot was raised in the City of Glasgow in 1787 by Archibald Campbell, their first colonel, and were known as Campbell's Highlanders. The original uniform comprised full Highland garb of kilt, plaids of government tartan, and feathered bonnet, but was modifed over successive years to suit the changing exigencies of military service in foreign climes.

The 74th Highlanders were soon ordered to India, where they spent a total of eighteen years. Here, they first saw action during the Mysore campaign of 1789, fighting at Bangalore and Seringapatam under Sir Arthur Wellesley (1st Duke of Wellington), they fought in the Mahratta War of 1802 and, in the following year of 1803, at Assaye, they defeated the combined forces of the Mahratta chief Scindia and the Rajah of Berar. Despite heavy losses, with every officer either killed or wounded, it is this bloody battle which is regarded as the regiment's greatest victory, hence the adoption of the name as part of its regimental insignia. To this day, the 74th are known as the "Assaye Regiment". Their distinguished conduct was recognized by the Honourable East India Company by the gift of a third or honorary colour, bearing at its centre the figure of an elephant within a wreath of laurel (or sometimes palm) leaves.




Returning to Europe, they served again under Wellington in the Peninsular Campaign and later, during the colonial period, in the Kaffir War and in the Sepoy Rebellion.

From 1834, the 74th Regiment of Foot was stationed throughout the Caribbean (including Antigua, Grenada, Barbados and St. Lucia) and moved about these islands until May of 1841 when it proceeded to Quebec, Canada. They remained in Quebec for three years, removing to Nova Scotia in May 1844 and embarking at Halifax for England in March of 1845. [1]

The "Assaye" Purse

When the purse shown on page 6 was made, somewhere between 1841 and 1844, there were a handful of circuses and traveling menageries or "wild beast shows" touring the region, in which elephants, lions, tigers, hyenas, monkeys and other exotic creatures were presented to the public. Similar shows were also common throughout Europe. However, it is conceivable that, at such a date, the maker of this purse had never had the opportunity of seeing a real live elephant. The first Canadian circus was established in Montreal by British equestrian John Bill Ricketts as early as 1797. It was not until 1847, however, that Andrew Down's Zoological Gardens, the very first Canadian zoo, opened in Halifax, Nova Scotia, apparently housing the largest collection of birds, animals and plants outside of Britain.


It is likely that the Assaye purse was commissioned by an officer of the 74th Regiment while stationed in Quebec, between 1841 and 1844, probably at Kahnawake or another Mohawk reserve (Kanesatake?) in the environs of Montreal. The purse may have served to hold the officer's medals, or was perhaps acquired as a gift for a relative back home. With a little room for artistic license, the Mohawk maker obviously copied design elements from the 74th Highlanders' shoulder belt plate.

The copying of military insignia by a Haudenosaunee beadworker is fairly unusual. The purse's design is more or less identical to front and back. Interestingly, the figure of the elephant, facing to the left on the shoulder belt plate, has been reversed on the beaded purse, and faces right.

Also worthy of note is the way in which the beadworker has included serifs to each character of the inscription ASSAYE, in keeping with the style of legend on the original military shoulder belt plate. These short lines to the termination points of each letter are added for decorative effect in red beads. The actual lettering is done in translucent dark green beads.

Kahnawake seems to have been an important center for the production of beadwork purses. moccasins and other curios for the early tourist market. Mohawk beaded cloth purses produced in this region during the early 1840s take a variety of forms, but are typically U-shaped, without flaps. Fan-like sprays, linear stars, and spiky, hair-like projections are a common design feature. Several specimens from this period feature a bold central flower design, solidly beaded, such as two of the purses shown on page 9.

Elephants in Iroquois Beadwork

Various types or species of birds are commonly seen in Haudenosaunee beadwork from at least the mid nineteenth century on--purses, card or needle cases, pincushions, wall pockets and a range of "fancies" in the raised beadwork technique (see top of page 11). Although birds may occasionally be identifiable by species, including doves and parakeets, this is by no means always the case, the majority being of a more generic style. Depictions of quadruped mammals are far less common on beadwork in the earlier Haudenosaunee style, prior to the production of heavily embossed beadwork "fancies".


The Assaye purse, with its depiction of an Indian elephant, copied from 74th Highlanders insignia, is probably unique. Clearly custom-made for a member of the 74th Regiment, it serves as a reminder of the presence of Scottish Highland regiments in the Northeastern region at the time. Dating as early as the very early 1840s, this choice of zoomorphic imagery may seem surprising and incongruous. The depiction of elephants in Haudenosaunee beadwork, however, is not restricted to this one particular purse.

A beaded purse in early zigzag style, possibly Seneca in origin, is illustrated on page 8 and pre-dates the Assaye purse by at least a decade.[2] It features the stylized design of an elephant, facing left, with curled trunk and triangular tab-like tail. What extraordinary powers the creature was perceived to possess by the purse's maker is a matter of speculation, but perhaps not too difficult to imagine. Without reading too much into the design, the treatment of the elephant in beadwork brings to mind depictions of Thunderbirds and other mythological figures on some early pieces of Haudenosaunee beadwork, as well as dream representations of underwater panthers and other supernatural creatures on charm bags made by tribes from the Great Lakes region. It was considered that the spiritual energies of such manitous permeate the cosmos and that, when depicted on certain personal or ceremonial objects, some of their supernatural forces were transferred to the owner. This may well have been the case for the maker of this purse. With its striking elephant design and, looking at it closely, one can imagine the great sense of awe with which she regarded the great exotic beast.

So, what could possibly have provided the inspiration for this early purse's design? Did the maker ever see an actual elephant? Of course, we will never know for sure. The United States' first zoo was established in Philadelphia in 1859 and was only opened to the public in 1874, a date well after this beaded purse was made in the 1820s or '30s. It is possible the purse may have been made by a Haudenosaunee woman who saw an elephant in a traveling menagerie in New York State or southern Ontario.

Together with a wide range of other wild creatures, elephants continued to fascinate Haudenosaunee beadworkers for many generations. By the late nineteenth century, elephants and other wild and exotic animals could be seen in captivity in local zoos and circuses, as taxidermy specimens in museums, as well as depicted in a wide range of books and newspapers of the day. They were incorporated into designs on a number of raised beadwork fancies, especially those produced for commercial sale by the Mohawks of Kahnawake, near Montreal, Quebec (see bottom of page 11 and cover). They no doubt appealed to the tourist market for their novelty, color, and undeniable folk charm. Elephants feature on a number of different types of Mohawk fancies, including high-heeled boot pincushions, tri-lobe heart pincushions and lidded box type purses. From the early years of the nineteenth century at the very least, Haudenosaunee beadworkers have been absorbing external influences and elements of design, delighting in the use of imported trade materials such as glass beads, store-bought fabrics, and metal sequins.

While some of the design influences may appear as alien, strange and surprising today as they must have done to their makers, the best part of two hundred years ago, the articles of beadwork that have survived the ravages of time to the present day have an enduring appeal and bear testimony to the aesthetic flair and needlework skills of a past generation of Haudenosaunee women.


Green, Richard. (2006). Animal Imagery in Native North American Beadwork (Part 2). Bead Society of Great Britain newsletter 82. March, pp.11-14

Herrington, Lorren D. Charm Bags. American Indian Tradition, No.50, Vol.8-4.

Lorenz, Carol Ann (ed). (2011). Birds and Beast in Beads: 150 Years ofIroquois Beadwork. New York: Longyear Museum of Anthropology, Colgate University.

Melven, William. (n.d.). History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Regiments, Vols. I and II. London: William MacKenzie.

Additionally, a very useful and comprehensive online history of the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot, written by William Melven, M.A. and based on the above publication, can be found at the following website:


[1.] In 1845, the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot became the 74th (Highland) Regiment. Later, in 1881, they were amalgamated into the Highland Light Infantry and, more recently, in 1959, amalgamated with the Royal Scots Fusiliers (21st) to form the Royal Highland Fusiliers.

[2.] Illustrated in Herrington: 145.

This paper was presented in absentia at the 3rd annual International Iroquois Beadwork Conference, held at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, 17th September 2011. The event coincided with an exhibition entitled Birds and Beasts in Beads: 150 Years of Iroquois Beadwork, hosted by the Longyear Museum, Colgate University.
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Author:Green, Richard
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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