Native American

Handkerchief or Glove Case

Artist: Unknown
Culture/People: Huron-Wendat (attrib.)
Place: Northeast, Quebec, Canada
Media: Birchbark, silk, porcupine quill, and moose hair
Dims: 10 x 5.5 in. (25.4 x 13.9 cm).
Date: c. 1860
RTC No: NA1050
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


In the 19th century, Indigenous makers from across the Great Lakes and Northeast Woodlands adapted centuries-old art forms such as quillwork and moose hair “embroidery” into new forms. While moose hair, porcupine quills, and birchbark materials go back to the beginning of making in regions across North America where they are available, handkerchief or glove case making began in conjunction with the rise in tourism and expanding White settlement across the Northeast. This particular case is a brilliant example of this wise and innovative expansion of form.

The Huron-Wendat are recognized for this particularly floral style and detailed moose hair embroidery or applique. Both of those technical terms are not quite accurate for the process of using dyed moose hair for detailing. The colorful moose hairs are gathered together and then carefully stitched down onto the surface of buckskin or other hides for adornment on clothing or pouches, or as seen here, birchbark, creating floral or figurative details. The hair itself is typically harvested from the cheek or neck and occasionally the rear of the large animals. By the 19th-century, aniline or chemical-based manufacture dyes widely replaced natural dyes, resulting in a change to colors and brightness, providing the makers with a larger and more varied color palette.

It is thought that this particular use of moose hair adornment on small, marketable objects by the Huron-Wendat was linked to Quebec convents in the early 18th century as a merging of Native materials and French techniques. This syncretic engagement with material and process was soon fully Indigenized as Huron-Wendat makers embraced the style and became incredibly successful in creating, marketing, and selling pieces of moose hair embroidery. The business acumen of the Huron-Wendat community was impressive, reaching in the late 19th-century income from the sale of “souvenir art” nearing today’s equivalent of over $1 million in a year. The creators of the pieces adeptly blended Indigenous practices with the desires of European and American tourists to the region, seizing upon the incredible rise in tourism and related consumerism of the period, particularly as it related to increasing mobility (physically and economically of White women). Many of the pieces were “domestic” objects, like handkerchief or glove cases, trays, or purses purchased for use by women. They were brought back to homes across the United States and to Europe. That these pieces have often been negatively categorized as tourist or souvenir art illustrates how significantly false values around cultural and artistic “authenticity,” as well as gender, affect how objects have been treated by collectors, institutions, and earlier scholars.

However, the success and innovation of the Huron-Wendat community were necessitated because of the massive rupture and marginalization of this community from their land, food sources, and other means of subsistence brought on by the colonization and development of the region. This video created by Linda Sioui of Conseil de la Nation huronne-wendate illustrates this moment in her ancestors’ lives and how her community continues to thrive today.

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