Native American Beading

Design Idea A974 Necklace

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

A single bead. A pearl, a claw, a shell. Used for decorative and cultural expression, beads have been meaningful icons to Native American peoples for thousands of years. Though culturally diverse, with unique customs and beliefs, North American people have shared a common love for beads.

In prehistoric times, beads were hand carved from countless natural resources. For the Native American, the fiber of life begins with an appreciation for natural gifts, along with an understanding of the forces of nature in creation and expression. The process reveals a connectedness to both nature and the spirit.

Carved Bone and Wood Beads In North American Indian languages, there is no word for art. For eons, artistic expression was integrated into the creation of objects for daily use. Decoration of moccasins, clothing, tipis and bags gave pleasure to those who saw and used them. Additionally, the often nomadic existence of 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. The oldest known North American bead is one found at an archaeological site at Tule Springs, Nevada. Made of white caliche rock, this bead is believed to date back to 11,000 BCE.

Fredrick Dockstader writes in Indian Art in America , "Their work ... grew out of the natural resources provided by their Creator. In turning these resources into artistic objects, they returned the compliment."

Quillwork, a decorative technique created by North American Indians, was the prototype for much native 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 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.

Beads made from local freshwater pearls were also popular among prehistoric cultures. 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. 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.
Carved Bone and Horn Beads and Components

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 Beading Still flourishing today, beadwork traditions throughout North America include the sinuous floral style of the Woodland tribes, the geometric style of the Plains Indians, the dentalium strands of the West Coast Indians, heishi beads necklaces of the Southwest Indians and more. American Indian beads were a common trade item from ancient times, 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 beads by Christopher Columbus in the 15th century had a significant effect on Native American life, as well as beadwork styles and designs.

European traders traded seed beads, horses, guns and alcohol with Native Americans for North American wildlife. 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. Often referred to as "Manido-min-esag," or "little spirit seeds--gift of the Manido," seed beads are considered a gift of beauty from the spirits. 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 the nation's own culture. Beads also supplanted difficult and time consuming quillwork.

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

Beadwork is a strong, living tradition among many Native American people, practiced by both men and women. Current beadwork is a fusion of techniques evolved over thousands of years from countless global influences. Many beaded items today are made as gifts or inspired by a spiritual vision. Today's Native American bead artists create beautiful sacred objects as a prayer or vow, which are often worn or displayed to enhance the meaning of ceremonial activities.

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