Indigenous Beadwork: Where does it come from?

Beadwork is some of the most well known art forms of Indigenous peoples of North America. Many people are astounded by the intricate, sophisticated and detailed designs that go into each piece. One has to wonder, where did this art form originate?

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The beadwork of the Plains Nations like the Lakota and Crow is the style that most people identify as native beadwork. However, there are as many different Indigenous-beading traditions, designs, styles and stitches, as there are indigenous nations.

From the wampum belts of the Haudenosaune to the dentalium strands of the west coast nations, from the floral beadwork of the northern Cree and Anishinabe to the shell and turquoise heishi bead necklaces of the Navajo and Pueblo, the distinct nature of their beadwork, helped tell the stories of the people.

Wampum beads, made from fresh water shells, were used to make jewelry, as currency and to make Wampum Belts; treaty agreements between nations
Wampum beads, made from fresh water shells, were used to make jewelry, as currency and to make Wampum Belts; treaty agreements between nations

 

Beads were carved from what was available to the people. By using natural materials like shells, coral, turquoise and other stones, copper and silver, wood, amber, ivory, and animal bones, horns, and teeth, a person was telling the story of where they were from and to what family they belonged to.

 

Navajo pinion beads with Turquoise and Shell Birds
Navajo pinion beads with Turquoise and Shell Birds

These hand made beads were a common trade item since ancient times. It wasn’t surprising to see abalone shells from the west coast in Cherokee beadwork or quahog wampum from the east coast in Chippewa beadwork.

 

The glass beads that today are central to Native North American beaded artwork, were not used until colonists brought them from Europe 500 years ago.  They were also used in trade, and were used like currency with the Europeans.

 

Plains Cree Beaded Cuff, made with modern day Delica Beads
Plains Cree Beaded Cuff, made with modern day Delica Beads

 

So the next time you are wearing beaded mukluks or beaded earrings, know that you are wearing a little bit of the history.

 

Who knew a history lesson could be so beautiful…and so wearable!

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