Introduction Patagonia Andes Amazon Mesoamerica / Caribbean Southwest Plains / Plateau Woodlands California / Great Basin Northwest Coast Arctic / Subarctic Contemporary Art
Burden strap

Burden strap associated with Tekahionwake (E. Pauline Johnson, Mohawk, 1861–1913)
New York
Hemp, moose hair, glass beads
503 x 6 cm
Collected and donated by E. Pauline Johnson

“Oh, why have your people forced on me the name of Pauline Johnson? Was not my Indian name good enough? Do you think you help us by bidding us forget our blood? By teaching us to cast off all memory of our high ideals and our glorious past? I am an Indian. My pen and my life I devote to the memory of my own people. Forget that I was Pauline Johnson, but remember always that I was Tekahionwake, the Mohawk that humbly aspired to be the saga singer of her people, the bard of the noblest folk the world has ever seen, the sad historian of her own heroic race.”

Like most Native American objects, the burden strap—gas-ha-ah in Kanyenkehaka, the Mohawk language—is utilitarian, yet decorated to distinguish its nation and other affiliations. Primarily finger-woven of cured basswood strips, Indian hemp, or elm, burden straps help carry heavy loads by distributing the weight over the back. At first glance, it appears as though the strap should be worn like a headband. In fact, it is designed to rest along the hairline. Today people use burden straps to portage canoes.

Emily Pauline Johnson was born and raised at Chiefswood, her family’s estate on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. She was the daughter of a Mohawk hereditary chief and an English lady. She gained fame in the late 19th century by composing and performing her original poetry in Canada, the United States, and England.

When the Six Nations left New York state after the American Revolution, Pauline’s paternal grandmother wrapped a silver communion service in rags and carried it the whole distance to Canada using a burden strap. One of the soldiers escorting the family actually speared through the bundle in a bid to get the old grandma to move faster. To this day a piece of the set, which was given to the Mohawks by Queen Anne, has a mark where the bayonet scratched the silver.

—Paula Whitlow (Mohawk)

Back to Top