Revisiting Karen Ann Hoffman (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin)
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: Welcome to Arts Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Today, we’re revisiting my interview with Iroquois raised bead worker, teacher and 2020 National Heritage Fellow Karen Anne Hoffman.
For past twenty-five years or so, Karen Anne Hoffman has found her artistic voice in creating works of art using the technique of Iroquois raised bead work. Raised bead work is unique to the Iroquois confederacy.The beadwork created by Iroquois consists of lines of beads that arch above the material which give the art work dimensionality. Karen Anne’s work reimagines the existing forms while remaining deeply rooted in Iroquois culture and traditions. Some pieces recall ancient legends, others refer to current social issues, and still others explore the future of the Iroquois. Her art has been exhibited in many museums across the country and is part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC and Chicago’s Field Museum. A three-time master-teacher in Wisconsin’s folk arts apprenticeship program, Karen Anne is both knowledgeable and passionate about Native American art in general and Iroquois raised beadwork in particular. I spoke with her recently, and we began our conversation with a little bit of history about the Oneida nation’s journey west to Wisconsin.
Karen Ann Hoffman: The homeland for we Oneida of Wisconsin is back east in what they now call New York State, but in about 1820 there was an issue, shall we say, around the Erie Canal, and as a result of those issues the Oneida Nation that lived in New York at the time was removed from their homelands. In about 1820, a good chunk of Oneidas began a three-wave journey from the homelands to the state of Wisconsin. Simultaneously, some of the Oneidas remained in their homeland and are still there today, and another group of Oneida moved up into Canada, another part of the original homeland at the Thames, and yet another group of Oneida was forcibly removed out into the Indian territories in Kansas and Oklahoma, but I come from the groups, the three waves, that left New York and came to Wisconsin in the 1820s, and that’s how Iroquois raised beadwork comes to have a home in Wisconsin.
Jo Reed: Now I’d like you to describe Iroquois raised beadwork and also explain to us what makes it distinct.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Iroquois raised beadwork is a beautiful, rare form of Haudenosaunee beadwork. Its forms and designs stretch back ten-, twelve-, fourteen-thousand years. We’re still using shapes and contemporary beadwork today that were originally scratched into rock or etched into a shell; those forms, those cultural content pieces stay with us across the millennia, but the materials that we use to express those ideas change. So now, instead of scratching into a shell or etching into a rock face, I’m privileged to use a steel needle, some cotton thread, some beautiful glass beads, and I am able to execute those forms in Iroquois raised beadwork, but I think we all know that steel needles, cotton thread and beads were gifts of the colonizers, and those gifts were distributed actually all across the world. What’s interesting to me is that those selfsame materials distributed to cultures all across the world produce distinctive, rich art forms, depending on the hands in which they landed and the fingers that are now executing the art form. So Iroquois raised beadwork takes our beads, and instead of sewing them flat onto a surface like many others do, we’re the only nations that use our beads in a dimensional pile, the exuberant three-dimensional fashion, so that our work is thick and rich and stands above the base fabric upon which we sew; that’s what makes it visually distinctive.
Jo Reed: Was creating beadwork something that you learned at home when you were growing up?
Karen Ann Hoffman: No, it isn’t, and in fact it’s my belief that Iroquois raised beadwork in this highly arched form wasn’t present in Wisconsin until the 1990s or so. You see, the high point, the exuberant point, of Iroquois raised beadwork really is in the middle 1800s; that’s when the form reaches what I call its zenith. We Wisconsin Oneida were gone from the homeland for 50 years by the time that happened, so the beadwork that we did wasn’t the same as this exuberant form that was occurring out east, back east, back in the homeland, and it wasn’t until, in my case, Samuel Thomas and his mother, Lorna Hill, came from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to Oneida, Wisconsin and gifted us with raised beadwork that the form really took fire in Wisconsin.
Jo Reed: Can you tell me how it felt to you when you first learned raised beadwork from Sam Thomas and Lorna Hill? Did it feel like, "Oh, man, I am home"?
Karen Ann Hoffman: Do you know what it felt like? I fell in love, that immediate warmth, that immediate desire to know more, that idea that you cannot separate yourself from the object of your love. That’s what it felt like to me. I just had to learn more and more and more about this. I think I was the right student at the right time with the right teachers and the right support system, and all of those things came together to give me the opportunity to really learn and really explore this amazing art form, and I’m really grateful for those happenstances of circumstance that came my way.
Jo Reed: You had said that there are kind of three strands of Iroquois raised beadwork, and you described some of the ancient art and the way it was reinvigorated in the mid nineteenth century, and then there are two other strands and I’d like you to describe those.
Karen Ann Hoffman: So what I talk about are, yeah, the popular form of Iroquois raised beadwork, "whimsies," a lot of people know it as, tourist-trade items that were made for sale deliberately by the excellent businesspeople that my people come from, so it was a deliberate attempt to produce and sell items to the tourist trade; that’s one stream. The other stream that I’m aware of are personal items, regalia items, ceremonial items; those kinds of things are typically not for sale outside of the community, although they may well be traded for within the community. The clothing that somebody wears when they’re married, when they die, when their babies are named, those pieces of culture aren’t for sale but they are gifted and handed down from generation to generation within the community. And the third stream and the stream that interests me the most is a contemporary form of Iroquois raised beadwork where, being deeply connected to the past, the form is taken, explored, pushed, expanded and reimagined against contemporary life. So much of the work that I do is in response to contemporary issues because we as Native people live in the middle of contemporary issues and they have social impact on us, and like artists all over the world we respond to that social impact with our art.
Jo Reed: Can you walk me through your work practices? How do you begin? How do you know when an idea is right and you want to go with it?
Karen Ann Hoffman: You know because it won’t let you alone. <laughs> So I’ll tell you about the piece that I’m currently working on. Most of my pieces take about a year to sew but they percolate in my mind for a lot longer than that. The piece that I’m currently working on arises out of this situation. I live in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and a couple years ago there was a designation by the state of Wisconsin that the university from which I graduated, UW Stevens Point, was constructed on a mass Native burial. Those Natives had died in the late 1800s of scarlet fever, and, not being allowed into town to buy groceries, they certainly weren’t allowed into town for burial, so their bodies were disposed of in an abandoned quarry. As the city of Stevens Point began to grow, that quarry got turned into the Stevens Point’s garbage dump. As the city began to grow even further and that kind of unused land got plotted off and sold off, the burial was never able to be sold because everybody knew that there were bodies underneath of it. Ultimately, that land by the 1890s was given to the state of Wisconsin, and in the early 1890s they built the Stevens Point Normal School or Teachers College on it, and that college has continued from the early 1890s to this very day to educate students from the state of Wisconsin and across the United States, and people don’t recognize that every day, every week, every semester thousands of us walk on the bones of those poor dead Indians. So I’ve been sitting with that idea for a couple of years, and that compels me to make a piece of art to honor and acknowledge those dead, and what happens for my process is these ideas, these things, percolate in the back of my mind and I don’t know that I’m consciously thinking of them all the time but very often a completed piece will appear in my head; whether I’m sleeping or awake I’ll just suddenly see a completed piece and that’s when I know it’s time to take out the needle and thread and begin the work. And then the next year is consumed with pattern making and bead-pattern design and the actual execution of the piece, and that’s what I’m in the middle of right now.
Jo Reed: Do you sketch it all? Do you draw on the fabric? How do you approach the fabric? Do you make patterns? What’s the next step?
Karen Ann Hoffman: Right. So each piece that I make I’m only interested in making once, which is a great way of saying you get the opportunity to create an entirely new object every time you sit down to bead, and that means you get to figure out an entirely new pattern and construction form and that means you get to explore the geometry of your beadwork and make patterns and make mock-ups and find errors and make corrections and spend all of that time constructing the body of the object. Now that body of an object is also decorated with beadwork embellishment, and when I do a beadwork design I don’t like to bead the same thing twice either, so all of those designs are original to me as well, and that means I get to spend a lot of time looking at whatever it is I’m going to bead. If it’s a tree I have to know what is it that makes an oak tree an oak tree and not a maple; how can you simplify that form down to its very essence so that the beads that I’m working with can do their best job explaining what an oak tree really looks like, and that’s a lot of trial and error; that’s a lot of sketching; that’s a lot of practice beading; that’s a lot of making an object just to see if I have it right before I make the object that I need to make.
Jo Reed: So your current project that honors the Native Americans who died of scarlet fever, enter in unnamed graves, what's the structure of that particular piece? Is it going to be an urn? Is it going to be a mat?
Karen Ann Hoffman: So for this particular object it will be a medicine bag, but a medicine bag that would have been used by the displaced folks who lived in this area in the 1820s, ‘30s and ‘40s, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what those old skin bags were and how they’re made and what they need to have to be properly constructed, and so I’m doing my very best to re-create for those poor, unrested Indians a bag that can be sung and danced for them so that they can finally sleep, and it will need to be a bag that they’ll recognize.
Jo Reed: What about color choices? So much of your work is beautifully vivid, but you tend to limit the number of colors in each piece.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I do, I do, and I always say I work in what I call a dichromatic color scheme because I think a couple of things, and one of the things I think is that, no disrespect to the people who are amazing in their use of color, but for me color can be a distraction from the elegance and accuracy of a design. A lot of technique can be hidden by color, and so I like to be able to focus on the techniques and the accuracy of the needle placement so I limit my color palette probably to two, at the most three colors, and I always think too that I’m not in charge of choosing those colors; the idea, the concept, the story, the tale, the tradition-- that chooses the colors. So when I made a bag or an urn, an urn that talked about the water, obviously it was blue, of course the accents were silver because water and froth and foam are those colors. It wasn’t up to me, it was up to the idea, and I just have to get out of the way and represent for the idea.
Jo Reed: I'm wondering, Karen Ann, when you’re beading it will take a year for you to do a project. Is it meditative when you’re beading? I’m just curious; what’s going through your mind as you’re doing this?
Karen Ann Hoffman: I think that “meditative” is a good word, but another word that I like to bring to the table is “committed” because when you sit down with a piece and you know you’re going to live with it for a year, it’s going to live with you, it’s going to occupy all your free time, you have to be committed to that. It’s kind of like entering a marriage; you know there are going to be rough spots and joyful spots, but you’re committed to seeing it through. And so I take that approach once I start with these pieces, but the actual sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing does become very meditative to me. I think it must be like a pianist practicing their E-flat scale. It’s challenging, it’s repetitive, it’s beautiful, and it brings that music deep into your body and your soul, and once it hits that core, you just go with it.
Jo Reed: Everything you do with your art is absolutely deliberate and you encircle the central images you create with beads. I'm thinking of Winter Mat, for example.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Yes. Yes.
Jo Reed: There’s a reason for that and I’d like you to share that.
Karen Ann Hoffman: This is the way I understand that encirclement of beads. To me, every really good piece of Iroquois raised beadwork that I’ve ever seen is encircled in some way or another and the way it comes to me is to understand that each one of those beads stands for all the Iroquois people that ever were, all of us that currently are, and all of those whose faces we have yet to see, all of the unborn, but we’re all connected in this really beautiful, connected circle. What’s important to remember is that when you look at that encirclement, it’s not important to pick out an individual bead and say, “Oh, that’s Karen Ann Hoffman,” or, “Oh, that one must be her dad or her grandma,” or, “These are her children’s children’s children.” What’s important to remember is that each bead has a significant and equal responsibility and if any one of those beads got plucked out, the entire encirclement would suffer, and what that says to me is that that’s my responsibility as a good Iroquois person. If I or any of us don’t live up to our responsibilities to the whole, if we fail, if we fall out, we impact every other person in that chain, from the past, of the present, and into the future. So it’s about knowing that you as an individual are not the important part but that we as the community are.
Jo Reed: I have a sense that could be why three different times you’ve been chosen as a master teacher in the apprenticeship program.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I like to try to think I pass these ideas that were gifted to me on to another generation of beaders, and I really hope that that’s true because the other thing that I truly do understand is that this beadwork, these pieces that come out of my fingers don’t represent me in particular; they represent us as a whole.
Jo Reed: We’ve mentioned the dimensionality of Iroquois raised beadwork, but you’ve brought that to another level in any number of pieces and you actually created the beaded-urn form. I’d love for you to first describe that form, but then if you can to share the impulse behind it, behind giving that much structure to the beadwork.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Well, I would say I didn’t create that form but I may have reinvigorated it. I was at the New York State Museum, I’m going to say, 20 years ago, and they were nice enough to let me rattle around in their archives, and in that museum I saw a very small dimensional birch-bark container, and that was my first inspiration. It was a seed holder; it’s four or five sides sewn together, open at the top, a bulbous form at the bottom, dated to come from, if memory serves, the early 1500s, so it was a very old piece and I thought about that piece for a really long time. Then sometime later I bumped into some pieces that were to have been created in the early 1800s, and they were called jardinières and they were similar in form, the similar bulbous, maybe six-inch-tall, four- or so sided vessel, but what I did was I took that form, I blew it up, I exaggerated, I made the bulb huge; I made it 18 inches tall, not 6. I made it 15 inches wide, not 4. I made the corners, the ears twist and turn in a way that had not been done before, so that’s where I take these very old and traditional ideas and forms and I move them into this third stream of contemporary beadwork, deeply connected but pushing forward, pushing forward, and that’s what I love to do.
Jo Reed One of your pieces Wampum Urn was placed in the permanent collection of the National Museum of the American Indian here in Washington. Tell me what it meant for you when you found out that piece was chosen.
Karen Ann Hoffman: That was orchestrated for me with the guidance and the help of Emil Her Many Horses, an amazing beader that I had met when I was exhibiting at the Eiteljorg Indian Market in Indianapolis. Emil’s curator down there at the Smithsonian, and I have a high respect for the work that he did. Now Emil encouraged me as a young beader, so I screwed up my courage and I made a proposal that Emil should please take to his board and ask them to buy that piece, and when they did I kind of knew that my dreams were real possibilities. Other people judged that that piece of work was worthy of an institution like the National Museum of the American Indian; that meant that other people judged that my artwork had reached a professional form, and that validated my suspicions about myself and gave me the courage to step forward and pursue other high ideals. So I’m very grateful to Emil for showing that faith in me and letting me know that others saw me as I dreamed that I could be.
Jo Reed: I also think it is fabulous that your work was shown a few years ago at the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I know. That was so awesome.
Jo Reed: I think that is great because of course they’re known for their beadwork too.
Karen Ann Hoffman: <laughs> And I’ll tell you that-- do you have a moment for the story?
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah, please.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Okay. I got a call from Colette Lemmon who is curator at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cavern, [ph?] New York, and Colette said that she was working with someone else and they were putting together an exhibit that was going to be at the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago, and the theme of it was Women with Courage and did I think I’d like to be involved in that, and I had to tell her, “Jeez, Colette, I appreciate that you thought of me but I’m sitting here in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, fat and sassy. I am not a woman of courage, and thank you but I just don’t think this is for me, I just don’t think I fit,” and Colette was very gracious, but at that same time my dad was real sick, real sick with Parkinson’s; it was getting real bad. And my mother, his wife of-- since she was 15 and by then they were in their eighties, his constant companion, never, never left his side. He stayed in my mom’s home until the moment that he passed, and I looked at her and her daily caregiving, that loving, difficult, heartbreaking job that she did without complaint, and I thought to myself, there is a woman of courage.” And at that moment I saw a beautiful pink urn, gorgeous and rounded in the belly like women are with ears and arms that reach out to hold in a beautiful French-silk pink fabric that was beautiful and strong, and I knew that I had to create Feminine Balance to separate those women and that courage. So I called Colette and I said, “I think I have an idea,” and they were gracious enough to include it in that really amazing exhibit.
Jo Reed: Often art by Native Americans is sort of put to one side as a craft rather than a fine art, and I know you have thoughts about this and I’d like for you to share them.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I know that really highly executed Native American fine art can go head to head, toe to toe, heart to heart with any fine art from any portion of the world, and I think if we could learn to address fine art with the same critical eyes and the same kind of value system that we apply when we’re looking at the Dutch masters, we could begin to understand that the work that comes from contemporary Native hands is every bit as significant, meaningful, beautiful and technically executed as any other art form. Like people can diagnose the brush stroke in a Rubens [ph?] as compared to the plop of a Jackson Pollock, you can tell Iroquois raised beadwork between communities, between artists, between brush strokes or, shall I say, needle sticks. You can hold our art right next to anyone else’s and we will stand tall because we stand for our people.
Jo Reed: Karen Ann, your work is visually stunning, and it’s also for you not the point that it is; that’s not what you’re going after.
Karen Ann Hoffman: <laughs> Yeah. Well, thank you, <laughs> In my mind, fine art needs to be three things. One of those things it has-- is that it has to be visually attractive; that doesn’t necessarily mean pretty, but it has to catch the eye or no one will engage with it, so it has to be beautiful, it has to be intentional, by which I mean crafted of the very best materials with the very best technique that the artist can muster, and the third thing it needs to be is meaningful, and to me that is that it has a reason to exist, an idea to share, something to relate to an audience about. And so I like for my things to be striking so that someone will take a second look, but I’m more interested in the execution and the meaning.
Jo Reed: You’ve talked about how you see yourself and your work as part of a continuum from the past into the future but I wonder, if you think about your part of that continuum, what would your goal be for that?
Karen Ann Hoffman: My goal for my part in that continuum is to not disappoint those who have put so much faith and trust in me. I recently said to somebody about another thing that I’m working on, “Oh, don’t worry,” I told them, “I have faith in you,” and then I laughed and I said, “The biggest burden in the world is when somebody tells you they have faith in you.” Well, I’ve been told that people have faith in me, and so my part of the continuum is to shoulder that responsibility in a really good and strong way that doesn’t highlight me necessarily but highlights all of those who have come before and shed some light for those who are yet to come, and if I can do that well then the pieces will live and they will live up to that responsibility. Whether anybody knows my name in the future or not isn’t really very important; what’s important is that they know what I was taught and what I’m trying to pass on. And those teachings did not come from me; I’m just a needle-and-thread conduit.
Jo Reed: What did it mean for you to be named a 2020 National Heritage Fellow for your raised beadwork?
Karen Ann Hoffman: I was very honored by that because I know full well that that honor is built on the talents of thousands of Haudenosaunee artists from the past, that are currently practicing, and that will practice in the future, and I shoulder this responsibility gratefully and solemnly and will do my very best to live up to the representation that I’ve been gifted with. I think it’s my job to represent for all of the amazing talent that surrounds us, and so I appreciate that opportunity.
Jo Reed: Karen Ann, it is an honor that is so well deserved, and your work is stunningly beautiful and visually striking and stays in my mind; I really see it for a long time after I stop seeing it, if you know what I mean, so I think that’s wonderful.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I’m very, very pleased to hear you say that, and I think that will please my teachers and that’s a good thing. Thank you.
Jo Reed: Thank you, Karen Ann.
Karen Ann Hoffman: You’re most welcome.
Jo Reed: That is Iroquois raised bead worker, teacher, and 2020 NEA Heritage Fellow Karen Anne Hoffman.
Don’t forget to check out the our recently names 2021 NEA National Heritage Fellows—as ever they come from around the country with a range of artistic backgrounds and traditions from blues guitar to Irish flute to Osage ribbon work. Find out all about them at arts.gov
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening
2020 NEA National Heritage Fellow, teacher, and Haudenosaunee Raised Beadworker, Karen Ann Hoffman (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin) creates contemporary art that is deeply rooted in the past. Haudenosaunee or Iroquois raised beadwork is unique to the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which includes the Oneida. Its hallmark is beads sewn in a such a way that they arch above the fabric creating stunning dimensionality. Hoffman has taken this art to new literal and figurative heights—creating large beaded urns for example. But while her work is deeply connected to the traditions and culture of the Haudenosaunee, her interest is in taking the form and “exploring, expanding and reimagining it against contemporary life.” A three-time master-teacher in Wisconsin’s folk arts apprenticeship program, Hoffman is committed to keeping this traditional art vibrant for the next generations through her teaching. She is not just an extraordinarily talented artist, she’s also, as you’ll hear, a passionate advocate for the art form and a fabulous storyteller.