When I started my research for the recent Handmade Meaning exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery, I ran across a fascinating Wisconsin craft tradition I’d never known about before: lace made by Oneida women in the early 20th century. Sybil Carter, an Episcopalian missionary, introduced the art of bobbin lace to the women of the Oneida Indian Reservation near De Pere in 1898. Carter developed a piecework system in which teachers, materials, and patterns were sent to the Oneida as well as to reservations in Minnesota, New Mexico, and California. The finished products, including trim and decorative inserts as well as tablecloths and other large items, were sent to New York, where they commanded high prices and won awards at international expositions.
The Oneida Nation Museum has collected and preserved many examples of lace passed down in local families, although many of the largest and most intricate pieces seen in period photos have not been located. For the exhibition, we highlighted just a few examples from the Museum collection along with several original patterns, all of which are now online in the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database. The stereotypically Indian motifs in some of these works–the figures with a bow and arrow, a canoe, and a papoose–were probably not selected by the lace-makers themselves. Instead, they were likely provided by the Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association to provide an element of exotic but generic “Indianness” appealing to non-native audiences.
At the closing events for the Handmade Meaning exhibit, Nicolas Reynolds, historical researcher for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, offered an in-depth look at the significance of other patterns and motifs found in Oneida lace. While they may appear at first glance to be typical examples of European-style bobbin lace, many of these works contain arching and branching shapes–traditional Oneida symbols of the sky dome and the tree of life.
Nic also provided an important historic context for Oneida lace-making, along with his co-presenter Nancy Marie Mithlo of the Departments of Art History and American Indian Studies at UW-Madison. In an aggressive effort by the federal government to assimilate Native people in the late 19th and early 20th century, Indian children were sent to boarding schools like the Hampton Institute in Virginia, which was attended by lace-maker Josephine Hill Webster and many other Wisconsin Oneidas. When young people came back from boarding school, fitting in again with their families and communities was an immense challenge. Lace-making, a skill Webster and presumably others learned at boarding school, was a means for many women to earn a living without having to leave home again to seek employment elsewhere.
–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer.
“Indian women rival Europe in Lace Making,” Milwaukee Sentinel, October 27, 1901 (via Wisconsin Historical Society, Local History and Biography Articles).
“Vanderbilt home opened for charity; hundreds pay $2 admission to mansion and to buy lace made by Indians,” New York Times, March 22, 1912.
Kate C. Duncan, “American Indian Lace Making,” American Indian Art Magazine vol. 5, no. 3 (1980): 28-35
Nicolas Reynolds, “Oneida Lace Makers,” Cultural Heritage Department, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. See this article for more great sources.