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Decolonizing Indigenous Designs and Works of Art


Last Thursday, Kanehsata’kehró:non had the opportunity to learn about Indigenous iconography and history during a presentation given by Jamie Jacobs, an expert in Haudenosaunee culture and history.

The virtual event was planned by Miranda Gabriel, the new Cultural Development Officer at Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Kanesatake Language and Culture Center.

“I first saw Jamie Jacobs while teaching here in Kanesatake years ago. It was so interesting,” Gabriel said.

“I wanted to organize something so that more people could listen to Jamie. I think he’s very knowledgeable and it’s important to learn as much as possible about our language and culture so you don’t lose anything.

Jacobs, who is from the Tonawanda Seneca Nation and has worked at the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC) for 16 years, said he was more than happy to share his knowledge of the origins of contemporary Haudenosaunee designs.

“I showed objects from the museum and how they evolved into what we know today,” Jacobs said. The cultural expert explained that the RMSC has a unique collection of archaeological material dating back to 4000 BCE and has been excavated at known Seneca sites called Proto-Iroquoian sites.

“I interpret these objects for our own people, things that no longer exist. Symbols carved or carved into bones and shells. Things we just haven’t seen since then,” he said.

The format of the presentation followed a timeline so participants could visualize the evolution and adaptation of Haudenosaunee designs.

“I’ve highlighted events that happened in Haudenosaunee history that influenced designs – even wampum belt designs. The wampum belt is actually based on a much older item that our people use to make that we no longer make,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs also explained that many older artifacts have primarily geometric patterns. But over time, these designs evolved into more contemporary objects like flowers and strawberries, as well as circular and semi-circular designs.

He said the evolution of designs has been caused by colonization and adaptation, among other reasons.

“I think what’s happening in our society is people are starting to realize that we need to decolonize our history, and I think people are also realizing that we need to do that in our artwork as well,” did he declare.

He said his upbringing and the years he spent as a ceremonial speaker traveling to different Indigenous communities sparked his interest in Indigenous imagery and history.

“I started making traditional quillwork probably about ten years ago because what I learned was that porcupine quill beading and moose hair embroidery came from before the pearls. So I decided to try and bring him back,” Jacobs said.

“I started wearing feather headdresses which are very different from what we know now. And people recognized that they were different, and they wanted to know where it came from, and I had to tell them that was what our ancestors wore before what we wear now.

The expert says that over the past few years he has noticed a lot of interest and a kind of revival of this practice.

“That’s what I do, decolonize our designs and our artwork, and I show, as the story goes, how it happened,” Jacobs said.

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Marisela Amador, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door