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Tuscarora WoodWorks brings ancient images into modern life

Before he quit his corporate job, when he was just developing his woodworking skills with a scroll saw and some homemade designs, Rayekwiratkyehná:we:k Robert D'Alimonte named his business Tuscarora WoodWorks.

"I thought 'woodworks' was a wide enough net that it would always encompass what we do, so that name would always apply,' he said, sitting in his workshop. "I figured, there's all kinds of wood; I'll be doing wood forever."

Then he and Yaihrátha Murisa Printup, his partner in business and in life, share a laugh.

The planks of fragrant wood -- pine, birch, walnut, cherry and oak -- are just a starting point for the materials D'Alimonte and Printup cut, engrave, carve or print with images that evoke traditional Haudenosaunee culture. These days, they use glass, acrylic, aluminum, fabric, ceramic, stained glass, cork, and even the classic materials of leather, antlers, quills and beads.

In addition to engraving custom plaques and trophies, including those presented by the Buffalo Bandits lacrosse team, they make coasters, cutting boards, ornaments, keepsake boxes, glassware, key chains, picture frames, many types of jewelry, mugs, water bottles, mouse pads, votive holders, canvas bags, dog tags and ID lanyards. They make socks decorated with lacrosse images and scarves with graphics of clan animals and the familiar Hiawatha belt. Over the summer, they made thousands of fidget spinners with clan animals and the iconic turtle.

"We do a lot here," said D'Alimonte, looking around the workshop, which has a small but well-stocked sales area in the front.

The current workshop, on the grounds of Jay's Place at 5446 Walmore Road, is the second they have occupied. The first was just 16 feet by 32 feet, not nearly big enough to hold the machinery and materials. The business moved into the new spot in March, and it's already filled to the rafters with tools of every kind, as well as laser engravers and special printers that embed images into fabric and ceramic.

D'Alimonte, who is in the Beaver Clan and grew up in Buffalo, spent 20 years as a software architect and project manager with health care companies in the area. Around 2003, he started making art. Soon, he was using a scroll saw to turn out wooden ornaments to sell at craft shows.

Haudenosaunee artist Stanley Hill, grandfather of Robert D'Alimonte, began carving traditional motifs into antler at age 55. (Photo by Jerry Jacka/Courtesy of Robert D'Alimonte)

His inspiration was his grandfather, Stanley Hill, a lifelong ironworker and co-owner of a company. In 1970, when Hill was 55, his son, James, 19, was killed in a car accident. "When he passed away, my grandpa decided to take stock of his life," said D'Alimonte.

Hill sold his shares in his company and devoted his life to  carving antlers with images of the legends of the Iroquois, including the Three Sisters, the Great Tree of Peace, the Creation Story and the Corn Spirit.

"He was really successful at it," said D'Alimonte. Hill passed away on Dec. 14, 2003; D'Alimonte treasures the final pendant his grandfather made.

"He was 55 when he discovered his talent," said D'Alimonte. "I was in my late 3os, and I said, if he can do it at 55, I can do it now. So I started on that path, but it took me 10 years from 2003 to 2013 not only to build up my tools but my skill set."

At first, the wooden ornaments he sold were based on commercial patterns. But he said, "I soon realized that to distinguish myself from everybody else who had a scroll saw, I had to create my own patterns." With his background in IT, he was comfortable with computers and drawing programs, so he made his own unique patterns for the ornaments.

"I was doing that for many, many years," said D'Alimonte, until he became "completely fed up with the corporate life. I was doing well with benefits and pay and security, but I needed to be happy and to own my time." In 2013 he opened Tuscarora Woodworks full-time and began to branch out. His Native name means "He shapes the wood."

He and Printup, a member of the Turtle Clan, met in 2015. Her Native name means "she waters," for her loving care of animals.

She started in art and graphic design at Niagara-Wheatfield High School, then studied graphic design at Niagara County Community College. She worked for 11 years at Smokin' Joe's Trading Post, doing graphic design, shipping and receiving and some data entry.

She and D'Alimonte met in 2015, and she started part-time at Tuscarora WoodWorks. The two became a couple in early 2016, and she joined the business full-time.

Yaihrátha Murisa Printup used the likeness of her own grandmother in her design of the Grandmother Moon mug created at Tuscarora WoodWorks. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"I am very inspired by our culture and I like to bring that out in my work, and tell other Natives and non-Natives what our symbols mean," Printup said. "We have lost so much over the years with the boarding schools that stripped away the culture."

"Many people in our communities are always continuing to grow in their knowledge, and we can see in their business the evolution of this growth," said Jolene K. Rickard, PhD, an associate professor in the History of Art and Visual Studies department at Cornell University and director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program.

Rickard said that Tuscarora WoodWorks' creation of useful, decorative and amusing items is just the latest form of a long-established tradition.

"Artists in Haudenosaunee communities have been making this work for a long period of time," Rickard said. "The application of these ideas in material culture and the way in which they are commodifying it is something that people in our communities have always negotiated. So this really isn't a new phenomenon for any of our people."

In fact, Rickard said, "The Tuscarora were quite adept at creating a market for our beadwork, from the 1800s on forward. So this is just part of the continuity of that tradition."

Images with meaning

A Skydome design appears on Tuscarora WoodWorks' jewelry, keepsake boxes, picture frames and other items. Every part of the delicate tracing has meaning, including the two curlicues on top that represent the celestial tree that was uprooted to allow Skywoman to come to North America, called Turtle Island because it was made of mud piled on the back of a large turtle.

The graceful Skydome design, shown here on a picture frame, represents the Haudenosaunee creation story. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Under the half-circle Skydome are three ovals that represent many images -- the turtle's back, the Three Sisters of corn, beans and squash, or the three breaths the Creator used to give life to humans. "Many things are in threes in our culture, so it had many meanings," said Printup. "But it's our creation story represented in that symbol."

Tuscarora WoodWorks products are sold "all over Turtle Island," Printup said. The business has several wholesale customers, including the Seneca Nation, which sells WoodWorks merchandise in its One Stop gas stations that are owned by the people.

The vast majority of their sales are online, driven by an active social media presence and the company's web site. They sell by phone and to people who visit their shop. "We have lots of friends and family out here, but our support is across the Confederacy," said D'Alimonte. "I'd say 99.9 percent of our business is Native-to-Native trade. Once in a while, we'll get a non-Native request for something, and we're happy to do it, but it's truly amazing that we can sustain our lives through other Native people. They appreciate the work, and you really can't get this work anywhere else."

Connections and creations

Customized trophies are a significant part of the business. They have made the trophies for the Buffalo Bandits lacrosse team for a few years, and this summer they made a championship trophy for a national wheelchair lacrosse league, with wheels that spin. "They loved it," said D'Alimonte.

They have made the 3-foot circular Haudenosaunee seal, an intricate design that includes wampum figures, clan animals and the Tree of Peace, for offices at Onondaga, Tonawanda and Oneida.

But their biggest project was the 10-foot by 4-foot wooden sign made over the summer for the Seneca Nation when it renamed the Cattaraugus Community Center the Nelson "Bally" Huff Arena for the Hall of Fame lacrosse player who died in 2013. The solid wood sign has the name of the arena, two crossed lacrosse sticks and a Skydome design.

The sign took two people to move and filled most of the workshop's floor space, Printup said. "We had to drop everything to do it, but we were happy to do it for something personal like that," said D'Alimonte. He recalled that when he was in college, Nelson Huff's daughter, Wendy Huff, helped him with an internship. "We're all connected in different ways in the native world," he said.

"A lot of people think all Native Americans are the same culture, with the headdresses, so it's good that we're able to put our culture out there and teach people that we are different," said D'Alimonte.

Wood ornaments are made in the shapes of clan animals and adorned with the design of the Hiawatha wampum belt. While Tuscarora WoodWorks will use other nations' images and icons in special orders from those nations, they do not sell them themselves. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The business uses only Iroquois images and designs unless they get a special order from another nation, said D'Alimonte. "Once in a while we get a request from another nation to do something non-Haudenosaunee, but we'll only do it for them, we don't appropriate their culture. Even through they are Native as well, that's their culture. We will honor their symbology but we won't go off and make them and sell them ourselves, because that's  happened to us so much that we are very sensitive to it."

A recent order from Seminoles used a panther image, said Printup. "They told us what they wanted and the meaning behind it, then we made it for them."

Last year, D'Alimonte and Printup sold their creations at more than 15 craft shows, but this year, they committed to go to only four. "We wanted to move the business away from craft shows, because it's costly and time-consuming," said D'Alimonte.  "When you're out there, you're not making stuff, you have to bring your entire inventory and you don't know what's going to sell."

On the other hand, they both enjoy the interactions with customers that they get at craft shows. "When we're in the shop, it's mostly just the two of us, and you forget how much you love talking to people, seeing their reaction to the products," he said. "You miss that."

A hot product

For Printup and D'Alimonte, the summer of 2017 was a whirlwind due to the fidget spinner. For a lark in late June, D'Alimonte made a wooden one in the shape of a turtle and had Printup videotape him spinning it. "We put it on our social media and within an hour CBC Canada was contacting us, saying, 'We came across this interesting video of a wooden fidget spinner,'" said D'Alimonte.

The network posted a story "and it kind of blew up for us," he said. "We ended up getting orders for thousands of them. We expanded to other ideas too, lacrosse spinners and clan spinners." In December, he said, "We are filling our final order for fidget spinners."

'You never know what's going to sell," he said. "And it seems that the things you least expect will be popular are the most popular items."

Fidget spinners flew out the doors of Tuscarora WoodWorks in the summer of 2017. Here, D'Alimonte holds one decorated with the SkyDome design and his own clan animal, the beaver. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The couple has big plans to expand their business. They are building a house down the road, and plan to eventually build a manufacturing and sales facility nearby. "We want to have a properly sized storefront, and we want to carry items from other artists and craftspeople," said D'Alimonte.

They plan to sell the work of other artisans, and have space for classes on crafts and on running a business. Down the road, they'd like to add a craft supply store that would sell beads, leather and other supplies.

In all these endeavors, the couple want to bring in community partners -- crafters, teachers and vendors. "We want to partner with everybody, we don't want to do it all ourselves," said D'Alimonte.

"We want to help and support other people in the community," said Printup.

In the meantime, they are working on a podcast to share some of the lessons they have learned and encourage others to follow their creative path. The NativeMade podcast, which is expected to launch at the end of the year, is designed to feature "Native makers and shakers," said D'Alimonte.

"Our goal is to inspire, inform and educate," he said. "It would be a forum to talk to other native makers, whether they are working as a hobby, or they are doing it part-time, or they want to go full-time. We have gone through some of those battles and we want to help other people."


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