Native American Beadwork

Design Idea A974 Necklace

by Anne Marie Hunter, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

Used for decorative and cultural expression, beads have been meaningful icons to Native American peoples for thousands of years. One of the most prominent art forms of the Native Americans is beadwork. These artistic creations are also known as Indigenous American art or First Peoples' art. This spectacular beadwork greatly inspires jewelry design today.

Native American art includes hundreds of different cultures and spans from the early 21st century back to prehistoric times. In some tribes, artistic expression was integrated into the creation of objects for daily or ceremonial use. Decoration of moccasins, clothing, dwellings and bags gave pleasure to those who saw and used them. Additionally, the nomadic existence of some Native Americans limited their material possessions and functional objects were created to serve a variety of secular needs and sacred meanings.

Making beads is an ancient craft. Thousands of years before Europeans stepped onto North American soil, native people were carving, wearing and trading beads made of shell, pearl, animal claws, wood, seeds, bone, porcupine quills, clay and more.

Quillwork is an art form unique to Native Americans and was the prototype for woven and embroidered beadwork. It is an intricate process of stitching or embroidering dyed, hollow quills of porcupines onto hide in detailed patterns.

Several native cultures considered quillwork a sacred task. Quilling societies within tribes were established to sponsor and tutor women for membership. Sacred quillwork was undertaken as a vow to fulfill a prayer for someone or something. The focus was on the vow, the thoughts and prayers behind the work, not on the thing.

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Beads made from river-grown freshwater pearls were also popular among North American people before the arrival of Europeans. And, until the introduction of glass and seed beads, shell beads were esteemed above all others. The best-known shell bead was a small, center-drilled white and purple bead made from the quahog clamshell and commonly known as wampum among Eastern Woodlands tribes, such as the Iroquois. Strung on leather or woven into belts and other objects with sinew thread, wampum was sometimes worn as decoration, but developed a far greater significance as currency and for commemorating ceremonial events.

From prehistoric times, a widespread trade network existed across the Americas. Nations often overlapped geographically and influenced the evolving creative beading process. There are as many different Native American beading traditions, designs, styles and stitches as there are tribes and nations.

Native American Beadwork Native American Beadwork

Still flourishing today, beadwork traditions throughout North America include the sinuous floral style of the Eastern Woodland tribes, the geometric style of the Plains Indians, the dentalium strands of the West Coast tribes, heishi bead necklaces of the Southwest tribes and more. American Indian beads were a common trade item across the Americas for centuries, so it is not surprising to see abalone shells from the West Coast in Cherokee beadwork or quahog wampum from the East Coast in Chippewa beadwork.

Though beads of all materials were appreciated and traded among the various nations, the introduction of glass trade beads by Christopher Columbus in the 15th century had a significant effect on beadwork styles and designs.

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European traders traded seed beads, horses, guns and alcohol with Native Americans for North American furs, such as beaver. Glass beads were popular for their color and ease of use, often replacing hand-carved beads of bone, shell, copper and stone which are so labor-intensive to create. In addition to Italian glass beads, Europeans introduced cast metal beads such as German silver, silver and brass.

For the last several hundred years, seed beads have been the most widely used beads by Native American artists. The Anishnabe referred to seed beads as "Manido-min-esag," or "little spirit seeds--gift of the Manido" and considered them a gift of beauty. Almost as soon as seed beads were available, native artists invented new beading techniques including loom beading, the peyote stitch and appliqué embroidery. These beautiful techniques had spiritual and historical origins, unique to each nation's own culture. Beads also supplanted the more difficult and time-consuming quillwork.

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With the introduction of consistently sized, small seed beads, the methods many Native Americans used to decorate clothing and objects changed dramatically. Rows of beads stitched could be used to cover large areas in the geometric and abstract designs characteristic of the earlier quillwork. Instead of using larger beads sparingly to outline areas, seed beads could be used to cover entire surfaces.

Beadwork is a strong, living tradition among many Indigenous people, practiced by both men and women. Current beadwork is a fusion of techniques that have evolved over thousands of years from countless global influences. Many beaded items today are made as gifts, ceremonial pieces, dance regalia or inspired by a spiritual vision.

To learn more about Native American beadwork, we recommend the following Native American beadwork books that include patterns and beadwork techniques.

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