Seed beads and the beadwork of the Plains Nations like the Lakota and Crow is the style that popular culture identifies as Indigenous North American artwork. The seed beads used in those beaded artworks, were first known as “trade beads”. They were only introduced into North America about 500 years ago and were used initially as a trade item. Prior to contact with Europeans and the introduction of seed beads, other materials were used in Indigenous art. One of the most coveted materials was, shells.
From the Quahog and Whelk shells used in the wampum belts of the North Eastern Haudenosaunee to Dentalium shells used by the West Coast nations like the Karuk, shells were valued across Turtle Island. Shells like, Oyster, Mother of Pearl, Abalone and Conch have been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Highly valued for their difficulty in obtaining and delicate nature to work with, shells had a multitude of uses and meanings in almost every aspect of indigenous life.
Though widely used, shells held different meanings for different peoples. From the political nature of the Wampum belts, to the trade value of Santo Domingo Heishi necklaces, shell beads were valued as currency, jewlery and used to remind each other of alliances and agreements. Shells were highly traded by almost all the nations across Turtle Island. Understanding their value, many nations had dedicated specialists who collected and carved these delicate a gifts from nature. These shells bead helped mark important moments in a person’s and their nations’ history. The use for shells hasn’t changed too much over time and are still widely used today.
So, the next time you see a young Indigenous woman in her dentailum shell earrings, realize she is honouring the 1000-year-old custom of her ancestors. Even the smallest detail like the shell in her earrings helps tell her story. These seemingly small details, help her hold her head high, and gain confidence in who she is. Walking proud while helping to re-invigorate her Indigenous culture.