Skywoman Creation Story
Photograph of mural installation by Erwin Printup Jr., for an exhibit on Haudenosaunee beadwork at the Castellani Art Museum in Spring 2016
This mural installation by Erwin Printup Jr. accompanied the Made of Thunder, Made of Glass II: Continuing Traditions in Northeastern Indian Beadwork exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum, which was open from February 7 to June 26, 2016. The murals (three in total) installed in the exhibit incorporate traditional symbols from two Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) stories: Skywoman (creation story) and the Grapevine legend. In addition to providing visitors with an introduction to traditional Haudenosaunee designs, the 'visual storytelling' of the murals also helped encode the space and share the stories' message with community members.
The idea for designing a mural came through discussions with Erwin Printup Jr., the artist who designed and installed them, Bryan Printup, a beadworker featured in the exhibit, and Gerry Biron, a beadwork historian, collector, and artist. In an early discussion for ways to better design the space to be more culturally meaningful, Bryan brought up the Creation story installation near the stairwell of the Iroquois Indian Museum. While we could not have the same 'vertical' dimension to the installation, we brainstormed ways to incorporate the 2D exhibit layout into the 3D vertical-dimension of the story.
With that idea in mind, we then turned to Erwin as we knew Erwin's work often drew from legends which he learned from other storytellers, teachers, and local researchers on Tuscarora Reservation. Erwin continued to amend and adapt his original drafts throughout the installation of the temporary murals (made of a mixture of electrical and vinyl tape). Below are the legends as (re)told by Erwin, and the main symbols used in creating the murals to tell the traditional stories visually.
Erwin Printup Jr. is a Cayuga, Bear Clan artist from Tuscarora Reservation, whose illustrations often draw on traditional Haudenosaunee legends and symbols. Erwin was the illustrator for Chief Jake Swamp’s book, "Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message", and his work is featured in the Tuscarora exhibit at the New York Power Vista and the Tuscarora Nation House. Three generations of Erwin's family - his mother, daughter, and niece - are beadworkers featured in the exhibit.
Creation Story Legend (told by Erwin Printup Jr.
“Basically it starts with…the first time I heard about it there was sky woman and she descended from the sky world…that there was a great tree of life that illuminated the whole upper sky world. There’s different variations of how she was digging at the roots, but she created a hole and fell through it and as she fell she grabbed onto different plants she brought down to earth as she fell…
As she descended to the earth...as she’s descending the birds and animals below all said “we have to catch her; if we don’t, she’ll drown in the water.” So the turtle said… “Well I can support her.” Then the muskrat and beaver said “Well we know there is mud down there, and maybe if we put it on the back, it will help make her feel at home on the turtle’s back.” So it became sort of a contest between the animals – the bigger animals dove down and drowned. (But) the smallest one…I think it was the muskrat…dove and was barely alive when he popped back up, but came back with a little bit of mud in his paw, and placed it on the turtles back…Part of that story was no matter what size you are, even the smallest could do the greatest...
As the mud was placed on the turtles back…it was sort of magical and the turtle started to grow and grow. The birds flew up…that was sort of a contest to catch her…I think it was the geese who caught her, and lowered her down onto the turtle’s back. When she landed she was grateful and she started dancing on the mud, and that’s what made the big marks on the turtle’s scales.”
Creation Story Mural
The three half-circles are a sky-dome design, each depicting the sky-world that encompasses all of creation and its inhabitants. Sky woman is represented as a flower in full bloom, as her name across the different Haudenosaunee languages often translates to 'Ripe Flower' or 'Mature Blossom' (e.g.; Atsi'tsiaka:ion, Awenha'i, Awenha:ih). As the entry mural to the exhibit, the flower in full bloom - and its path within - signifies not only the beginning of the creation story itself, but also the creation of the exhibit and the works within.
Within the exhibit hall, a Great Turtle mural completes the Sky woman creation story, with the 'stamped shell' design from her dancing creating the Hiawatha (Aienwatha) wampum belt design, signifying the union of the original five Haudenosaunee nations.