Beaded Birds

Iroquois beadworkers have been creating colorful beaded bird-shaped pincushions for over a century. This is an especially elaborate bird made in 1907.

Iroquois beadworkers have been creating colorful beaded bird-shaped pincushions for over a century. They had been making beaded purses and pincushions for one hundred years before they began making birds. They first began to sew beaded images of birds on the face of pincushions in the 1860s, but three-dimensional birds were not made until the 1890s. They are still being made 125 years later.

Of the dozens of types of Iroquois beadwork, beaded birds account for only about 3% of the beadwork created. They are popular souvenirs to collect, but relatively few have been made, perhaps because of the difficulty of their construction. The construction is very time consuming because of the many steps necessary to make a bird. They are a combination of a pincushion stuffed with sawdust, wool, cotton, or polyester, with individual European glass seed beads sewn over the surface perhaps to indicate feathers or maybe merely just for decoration. Many birds have little beaded topknots too. The wings and tail are three pieces of cardboard covered with fabric on both sides that must be sewn to the pincushion body after beaded designs are applied to them. Hangers, made with one or more strings of seed beads, allow the birds to hang or to fly free like live birds. These ornate additions make them even more complex to complete.

The gold fabric covered bird with the blue necklace shown at the top is adorned with five separate beaded balls and a perch. Creating each ball is very time consuming also. This is an especially elaborate bird made in 1907, the date beaded on the underside of its tail. It is 8 inches tall and 6.5 inches long. Such birds are valued up to $500.00.

This beautiful pink bird was made in 1903.

The pink bird above, also with five balls, was made in 1903 with the date beaded on the underside of its tail. This bird was purchased by my grandmother who bought it at the Afton Fair in central New York State. In the time before automobiles, she traveled to the fair on the train, as did the Mohawks who went to the fair to sell their beadwork and baskets. The Mohawks had traveled from their reservation near Montreal several hundred miles to the north.

Mohawk birds can be identified by the position of their wings that are held at their sides, and they are often sitting on a perch.  They are also, on the average, larger than those from the other Iroquois communities known to have made beaded birds.

The wings of Tuscarora birds angle up and are sewn together where the tips come together.

Tuscarora sewers living in eastern New York near Niagara Falls created very different birds. The wings of Tuscarora birds angle up and are sewn together where the tips come together. Rarely do they carry more than two balls or berries. They do not have perches. They were often sold to tourists who visited Niagara Falls. This late 19th century bird pictured above has FROM NIAGARA FALLS beaded on the top of its tail. It is 4 inches tall and 6.5 inches long.

The red bird shown below was made by Dolly Printup Winden in the 21st century. She identified it as a Cardinal. It is 7 inches long, an especially long Tuscarora bird. She was a well-known Tuscarora sewer. Several Tuscarora sewers continue to make beaded birds today.

This bird was made byDolly Printup Winden in the 21st century.

Birds are infrequently made by contemporary beadworkers in any of the nineteen Iroquois communities. Seneca beadworkers have recently begun to make birds of their own design.

Historic birds can be found on online auctions and in antique shops, but to see recent birds, potential purchasers must go to Indian festivals or Indian museum gift shops. They range in price from $200 to $300. Prices, of course, depend on the ornateness of the piece (higher bead count, higher  asking price).

Birds are important to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) because their songs are good to hear, and their color is enjoyable to see. They are a part of the natural world inhabited by all living beings including humans. There are several Iroquois stories about birds including one on how the birds got their individual songs and another story on how they got their colorful suits.  And, it is the Eagle who sits on top of the Tree of Peace, which is an important symbol of the identity and power of the Haudenosaunee.

A beaded bird on top of The Tree of Peace watches for threats to the Iroquois.

Samuel Thomas, recognized master Iroquois beadworker, has created several beaded pieces that incorporate a beaded bird on top of a beaded tree. The bird is responsible for watching for threats to the Iroquois from his elevated position on the top of the Tree of Peace.

Iroquois beadwork is an authentic cultural art form that reflects a beautiful philosophy held by the Haudenosaunee.

Dolores Elliott is a retired archaeologist who has researched the art and artifacts of the indigenous people of the Northeast for the last 50 years. Since the 1970s, her research has concentrated on the beadwork created by the Iroquois. As a museum consultant she has mounted over a dozen exhibits. She has written fourteen publications about Iroquois beadwork, and she organizes an annual International Iroquois Beadwork Conference. For more information check out She can be contacted through email at

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