Karen Ann Hoffman, Turtle Clan

Title: Karen Ann Hoffman, Turtle Clan,
Oneyote^a˙ka (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin)

Image size: 29 x 39 inches

Medium: Colored and graphite pencils, acrylic, watercolor and ink

“I love Iroquois Raised Beadwork,” says Karen Ann Hoffman. “My teachers are Samuel Thomas and Lorna Hill from Niagara Falls, Ontario. I first met them in a raised beadwork workshop when they came to Oneida, Wisconsin in the late 1990's.” She beaded before then, but “no one in Wisconsin was doing raised beadwork in those days.”

After taking her first raised beadwork workshop she fell in love with the artform. “I loved its beauty, its symbolism and its connection to our worldview and history,” explains Karen. “I was amazed that such a small thing, a bit of glass, a strand of thread, could hold so much.”

One of the things that touches her about Iroquois raised beadwork is “its unbreakable link to our past and its suggestion of our future as Iroquois people. Sometimes, when I'm beading, I swear I can hear the old beaders whispering in my ear. Encouraging me to ‘do it right, do it well and honor our past and future.’”

Karen is currently enraptured by the notion of writing without words and has devoted herself to relate the Iroquois stories that she has learned and “write them in beads.”

She is working on a series of seasonal legends. “I think about the essential meaning of those seasonal stories and try to come up with a few symbols that will capture that story in raised beadwork. Then, I work those symbols into a piece of beadwork and hope the old beaders and the beaders yet to be born will read those stories and enjoy those old stories again,” says Karen.
“I hope the old beaders will give me a gentle nod of approval – that they will tell me I've gotten the meaning right – and that the future generations will know something of the old ways when they see these pieces.”

Karen works in what she calls a dichromatic pallet. “The primary size 8 Czech seed beads are clear with an ‘AB’ rainbow finish. I will choose one (or possibly two) additional colors to use as accents to the work.” She likes this limit on color selection and sees it as freeing rather than limiting. Karen explains that by “eliminating the ‘distraction’ of multiple colors, I am able to concentrate fully on shape and design. I am able to focus on these two elements to transmit complex meaning in my beaded storytelling.”

“I find the old pieces from the mid-1800 to be highly inspiring. I try to ensure that all my work has a direct connection to our past and use the mid-1800's as a stepping stone across that pond of time,” says Karen.

In the background of her portrait, I incorporated a design from one of her beaded mats that records the story of the great white bear. Karen relates the account of that tradition below:

We Iroquois are great hunters, but we are also great farmers. The Three Sisters (corn, squash, and beans) live with us and protect us. A long time ago there was a great garden outside one of our communities. Lush plants of corn, beans and squash were growing to feed the people. But the people were not the only ones feeding on this garden. A great bear also visited. That bear was devastating the garden and the people feared they would starve if the bear continued to feast on the produce.

All the best hunters of the community attempted to kill this bear, but they had no success. You see, this was a monster bear. A great, white bear and none of the hunters could kill him. That bear continued to decimate the garden and the people feared the worst – with no cache of food from their gardens, they feared their children would starve during the winter.

After a while, word of this bear reached other Iroquois communities and four brothers stepped forward. “We will go to our relatives' village and hunt this monster bear,” they promised. The brothers left their wives and children. They took their dog and made the trek to their relatives' village. When the brothers arrived, they said to the people, “We will hunt that monster bear so that your gardens will thrive and your children will not be hungry this winter.”

“Nephews,” said the people of the gardens, “thank you for your offer, but our best hunters have already tried and they were not able to kill this bear. Your hunters are very good,” said the Nephews, “but we have something they do not. We have our little white dog. Our dog has black circles around his eyes and we call him, Four Eyes. Once he starts on a trail, he never, ever, gives up. We and Four Eyes will hunt your monster bear.”

Upon hearing this, the people agreed that the brothers and Four Eyes should go after the bear. Now, one of the brothers was very fat and a bit lazy. He was always eating and looking for ways to get his brothers to do some of his work. He grumbled as they left on the hunt, "brothers, can't we have something to eat before we leave? I'm tired and it may be a long hunt, won't you carry me?”

“Come on,” said his brothers, “we must leave now and help our relatives. If you are that tired, we three will carry you.” And so three of the brothers carried their fat brother and began the hunt.

Four Eyes soon picked up the scent of the monster, white bear. Four Eyes excitedly barked trail and raced off after his quarry. The three brothers, still carrying their fat, lazy brother, gathered their weapons and followed Four Eyes.

Four Eyes and the brothers chased that bear. 
They chased him through the garden. 
They chased him through the woodlands. 
They chased him through the valleys and the foothills. 
They chased that bear, and chased that bear, and chased that bear, and chased that bear. 
All the while, Four Eyes was barking louder and more excitedly as he closed the gap on his prey. Finally, Four Eyes bayed loudly. The brothers knew the time was at hand but they were exhausted from the long, long pursuit and from carrying their fat brother. “Put me down!” declared the fat brother. “I will finish the hunt!”

You see, the fat brother was a little lazy, but he was also clever. He knew that if his brothers carried him on the trail, he would be fresh and rested at the critical moment of the hunt. So off the fat brother and Four Eyes ran! They charged ahead of the three tired brothers and killed that bear. The fat brother looked around and realized that they had chased that bear all the way up into the skyworld. He realized that now, he, his brothers and Four Eyes were far, far above the earth. They were very high up in the night sky.

Well, because it is wrong to kill anything and waste it, the fat brother began to butcher that bear. As he butchered, the blood of the bear dripped down onto the trees far below and that is why the leaves of the maples turn red in the Fall. And because it is wrong to waste food, the four brothers and Four Eyes had a great feast to celebrate their hunt. As they roasted the meat of that great white bear over the fire they had built in the sky, the fat from the bear sputtered down and that's why there is snow in the winter.

After the feast, the brothers and Four Eyes fell asleep. The brothers slept deeply until they heard Four Eyes begin to bark trail. When they awoke to the barking, they realized that the Great Bear had reformed himself. The Bear's, bones, blood and fur had reconstituted himself and the bear was once again wandering about, roaming across the night sky.

As for Four Eyes, well, once Four Eyes starts on a trail, he never, ever gives up...so Four Eyes was off after that bear again, this time, chasing him across the nighttime sky. The brothers picked up their weapons and followed after Four Eyes and the Great White Bear. They still hunt him in the night sky.

You know this story is true because we can still see the brothers on their Great Bear Hunt in the sky when we look at the Big Dipper. We can see the dipper ‘upside down’ in the Fall as the blood of the bear again pours down and colors the leaves of the maples. We see the snow fall when the brothers' feast is cooking during the winter. We see that bear reconstitute himself in the sky when the Big Dipper rights itself in the spring's nighttime sky and when the earthbound bears emerge from their hibernations. Finally, you know this story is true because if you look very closely at the second star from the end of the Big Dipper's handle, you will see that it is, in fact, a binary star. That binary star is Four Eyes, still barking trail on the Great White Bear in the sky, because, you know, once Four Eyes starts on a trail, he never, ever gives up.

Karen holds a Masters Degree in Human Development from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and her award winning beadwork has been exhibited at the following venues:

Her work is also represented in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum-Indigenous Clothing Collection. She was also a member of the Skanikwat Project, Nakuru, Kenya, Africa. The project, led by Sam Thomas, used tribal beadwork as a medium to foster peace across languages, races, religions, and continents.