American Indian Beadwork

A Little History: Glass beads were traded for thousands of years in early civilizations worldwide. In addition to glass bead trading, ancient American Indians also traded beads made of antler, bone, copper, shell, clay, stone and othermaterials. The ancient American Indian beads were typically large in size and used for self-adornment in necklaces, earrings or clothing.

In the northern homelands of the porcupine, American Indians originally used the quills of this animal to decorate and colorfully adorn many items, including knife sheaths, birch bark boxes, breastplates, horse gear and other items of importance. The porcupine quill decorative technique had been in place since the 6th century.

Meanwhile, the art of making glass beads was taking hold in Venice, Italy during the 14th century. An industry was created around the glass bead, and spread throughout Europe. The very finest beads were produced in Bohemia (formerly Czechoslovakia, currently the Czech Republic).

The glass bead became a major currency between the early Europeans and the American Indian. So valuable were the beautiful glass beads to American Indians that Manhattan Island was traded for by Dutch immigrant, Peter Stuyvesant, of the Hudson Bay Trading Company, in 1647 for approximately $24 in glass beads.

By the middle of the 16th century, the Hudson Bay Trading Company was trading the imported glass beads through-out the Woodlands and Plains Indian territories for furs that were sent back to Europe. The Spaniards were also trading beads into New Mexico in order to find the Seven Cities of Gold. Soon, American Indians established their own trade networks and economy based on these trade beads.

Tribes who created items using the porcupine quill soon discovered the much broader color palette and sewing techniques used on the tiny glass beads.

The colorful trade beads began to replace the traditional porcupine quill in the design of wonderful moccasins, beautiful bandolier bags, elaborate horse gear and stunning dance regalia. The old days of using the porcupine quill in the traditional manner was diminishing.

Over time, American Indians also added new clothing styles, which incorporated the use of wool or cotton, and less traditional use of clothing made of buffalo hide. The new cloth provided an even greater and easier opportunity to embellish the object with beautiful imported trade beads.

Today, the creation of stunning and precision beadwork continues, one bead at a time. Many tribes still create original designs which depict stories and images of long ago. As contemporary designs and patterns continue to emerge, the design elements in the beadwork have blended with the sharing of designs across Tribal lines.

This great art form has come to symbolize the challenging, resilient and long-lasting heritage of the American Indian.

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