Silver in Iroquois Communities

Larry P. Madden

larry p. madden | yl voice | march 2019

As early as 1780, silver trade ornaments became an important item on trappers' inventories of goods for trade. Records refer to them as official Indian gifts, though descriptions are vague as to shape and form. Just as vague is the transition from receiving silver trade gifts to creating the heritage of woodland silverwork. With no accounts to draw upon, one must look at silver pieces from the era for clues.

It's reasoned that the gorget (gore jay), the crescent-shaped insignia worn around the neck of officers, harking back to the armor era, led this style change. This is researched by Arthur Woodward, in “Indian Use of the Silver Gorget.” By the French and Indian Wars, favors could no longer be purchased with mere beads and brass. Vying for allies from the tribes and prestige cost both Britain and France silver ornaments. Arthur C. Parker stated, in the July-September issue of 1910's “American Anthropologist,” “Their shirts so thickly covered (with silver rings and brooches) that they looked like armor.”

Before the war in 1812, the Indian loyalties were in flux between the French and British, but the British were well known for their gifts of silver. Americans, impoverished, were known for empty promises. American General Anthony Wayne was known to the Indians as Gen. Wabang (tomorrow) for his promise of gifts “next time.” Not only were gifts of silver a political statement, they were also payment for services rendered, fur exchange, and as Wayne didn't understand, a standard of Indian diplomacy.

At one point, nothing other than wampum belts exceeded the demand for Iroquois silverwork. Up until 1865 silverwork was abundant. Native smiths filled the gap as the old trade items disappeared.

Sheldon Gibson, Onondaga from the Syracuse, New York area, started out in the construction world. After years of experience, Mr. Gibson worked as a respected building inspector. Looking to his future, he elected to attend Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in 1990 as a non-traditional student.

As with anyone entering a completely new environment, he had his misgivings. However, he states, “You know, I really loved the experience of diversity of the Indian Nations.”

Trade silversmith, metalsmith, jeweler, and precious metalsmith are the skills that Gibson brought from his IAIA tenure.

He will bring his skills and experience to the Oneida community in a series of workshops calledSilver in Iroquois Communities. Gibson will hold seminars March 2-5, 2019. Gibson suggests that you “bring an open mind and a thirst for Knowledge.” Other presenters in the Silver in Iroquois Communitiesseries include Steve Chrisjohn, April 24-28 and Dan Hill, May 23-31, 2019.

If creating silver pieces isn't your cup of tea, the artists will have pieces for sale; come out and welcome them. They'll be featured in the upcoming Woodland Indian Art Show and Market, May 24-26, 2019.

The Silver in Iroquois Communitiesworkshop series is funded in part by the First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) from the Native Arts Initiative category.

More workshop info by calling (920) 490-5260 extension 0.

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