Iroquois Art, Power, and History by Neal B. Keating

A book review by: Larry P. Madden

“Iroquois Art, Power, and History,” is a study in what one might call ethno-discovery, an in-depth look at the art and communication of one of the most powerful nations of the east. This visual history chronicles the Iroquois from their earliest encounters to the vision of 21st century modern artists. The book covers the dominant artistic genres, but it does more than trace the styles and techniques of recorded time—it discusses the artists and how their personal and shared histories influenced their work.

It begins with tree paintings that allowed this reviewer to envision glades along paths in the woodlands of eastern lands. The Haudenosaunee people had a confederacy of nations before the time of white record. Their family ties and common beliefs formed what most people call the Iroquois Confederacy and this concept became a founding standard in th development of what would someday be America. Therefore, it is no wonder that the common camp spots of the time carried messages easily read by the traveling indigenous peoples.

Wampum was a misunderstood substance to many Europeans who immediately likened it to coinage. As early as 1642 in what would one day become New York, an old Dutch man named Cornelius ferried people across the rough water for “the small price of three stuivers in wampum, meaning nine purple beads or eighteen white.” Yet Wampum was and is so much more—it allowed for a mnemonic device enabling this elegant race of speakers to continue to pass on culture stories, practice a form of government unknown in Europe, and many times to possess a worldview often broader than that of the new arrivals. This book gives fantastic examples of how it’s woven through every aspect of the culture, and how the great wampum belts that would be involved in multinational negotiations were contract recorders, mnemonic guarantee policies, and a form of art onto themselves.

“Iroquois Art, Power, and History,” helps set a foundation for understanding the art the Iroquois people created as the story expands to contact period and beyond. As culture changed, the mediums did also, and the book captures the interesting ways people worked to steer the Indian artist. As the time passed, the art served as a medium for Indians to voice their silence and the book highlights this type of talking back to such times as Wounded Knee and the Termination Era.

As you may have guessed, this reviewer has a fondness for books; the physical interaction of reading is an enjoyment for me. I’m dating myself by stating that coffee table books were an item in my youth. Regardless, “Iroquois Art, Power, and History,” is a beautiful text that would make a great gift for an art lover, history buff, or budding politician. It’d certainly make a fine addition to anyone’s library, as the subject matter within its pages is both engrossing and enlightening.

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. He is a recent graduate of CMN, enjoys the Powwow trail, and strives to maintain balance on the red road.