Amid the construction of Waterloo’s Longhouse Labs (LLabs) in 2023, a group of Haudenosaunee artists gathered in the space to plan and design “Bead the Tract” – a project that would create an artistic representation of the Haldimand Tract made of deer hide, velvet and glass beads.

The Haldimand Tract was promised to the Six Nations in 1784, for their support for the British in the American revolutionary war, which resulted in a genocidal campaign against the Haudenosaunee and ultimately ended in the total destruction of their lands in New York State. The Haldimand Tract includes six miles (10 km) on each side of the Grand River from source to mouth and covers approximately 950 000 miles (all but 48,000 has been taken). The Tract includes the land the University of Waterloo is situated upon.

With guidance from knowledge keepers and raised beadwork artists, Talena Atfield, Tesha Emarthle, Jija Jacobs, and Kahionwinehshon Phillips used traditional materials and methods to create a beautiful and meaningful representation of the interconnectedness of Haudenosaunee culture, history, and life along the Grand River watershed.

“When we are creating things using traditional elements blended with contemporary elements we are engaging in an artistic dialogue with past generations, by bringing in elements of their practice into our art, as well as future generations, by bringing in elements of our own practice into our art,” says Dr. Atfield, who is also an assistant professor in History and holds the Canada Research Chair in Tentewatenikonhra'khánion (We Will Put Our Minds Together).

The map is adorned with raised beadwork of flowers, animals, leaves, and birds done in the Tuscarora style. Fish from the Grand River are depicted in each corner, symbolizing the health of the river and its connection to the Great Lakes.

A piece of deer hide stretched on a log frame. The Halimand Tract is intricately beaded pattern of flowers, and animals.

“There were a lot of people involved in making this project,” says Atfield, who together with the other artists and contributors dedicated approximately 1,500 hours to design and create the map.

The hide was prepared by Ratsiranonnha Dakota Rohrer, using a traditionally brain-tanned hide to incorporate elements of the natural environment, explains Atfield.

“We worked with Tuscarora bead worker and collector Grant Jonathan, who comes from a long line of Tuscarora bead workers. He was able to get us 150-year-old beads as well as the velvet/velveteen we used. In addition, he did workshops with us to teach us stitching techniques for some of the most common stitches found in the old pieces in his collection.”

Haudenosaunee beadwork has not always been viewed as the beautiful and intricate art form it is recognized as today, continues Atfield. “Museums used to classify it as ‘tourist art’ and it was often seen as evidence of acculturation and assimilation because glass beads and velvet were not items that would have been available to Haudenosaunee People prior to contact with colonials.

“By juxtaposing the glass beads and velvet with the traditionally tanned deer hide we were making a statement that innovation and tradition are not in opposition to one another, it is possible for practices considered to be traditional in an historic sense to also be innovative, bringing in new ideas, themes, materials, or techniques.”

Haudenosaunee raised beadwork is “considered one of the highest forms of art that our culture has. We wanted to use that form to convey our connection to the land,” said Courtney Skye, co-director of Protect the Tract. “You can see the common themes and the way the different artists incorporate and express our culture,” said Skye. “I think it really demonstrates that we’re a living and vibrant people, a vibrant culture.”

The four Indigenous artists who created Bead the Tract. Three are wearing traditional skirts featuring ribbons of colour

Left to right: artists Talena Atfield, Kahionwinehshon Phillips, Jija Jacobs, and Tesha Emarthle.

Bead the Tract is an initiative of Protect the Tract, a Haudenosaunee-led project that “conducts research, policy development and creates capacity for civil engagement, to exercise sovereignty through the promotion of land stewardship over the Haldimand Tract.” Longhouse Labs, directed by Professor Logan MacDonald, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Art, provided space and resources to the artists who are among the first of the Longhouse Fellows.

LLabs interior facilities were completed in December 2023. The wrap-around supports, state-of-the-art equipment, research assistants and opportunity to collaborate with researchers across the entire campus will enable Indigenous artists to share knowledge, learn new skills, and take their creative practice to new heights. They in turn will help to decolonize the Fine Arts curriculum and help to improve the representation, participation, and engagement of equity-seeking groups within our community.

“One of the aims of the Longhouse Labs is to support the creation of new Indigenous artwork and develop meaningful partnerships with Indigenous artist,” says Logan MacDonald. “Our partnership with Bead the Tract was a great beginning for the Longhouse fellowships. We’re excited to welcome the next cohort of fellows in the fall.”