One art form for which Native Americans of the USA, Canada, and Central America are most widely renowned is beadwork. This beautiful craft is highly collectible and has been at the forefront of tribal trade for thousands of years. Everything from knife sheaths to moccasins, clothing to papooses, and headbands to horse adornments could be adorned with beadwork or quillwork.
Similar to working with beads, the American Indians of the Midwest and Northeast also decorated leather clothing and other items with dyed porcupine quills, which was even more labour-intensive than beading. Each quill was stitched individually.
Intricate fine seed beading, using very vibrantly colored beads, is a delicate art requiring years to master, and completing a piece of Native American jewelry or clothing by hand with this adornment is a time-consuming endeavor.
Beads and the Native Americans
Native Americans traditionally created beads from available materials, including coral, shell, wood, turquoise, jet, jasper, and other stones. Creating beads from these was difficult, and most prehistoric and ancient beads were large and strung on pieced of thong or sinew to be worn as necklaces or similar.
With the arrival of Europeans to the North American continent 500 years ago, Venetian glass beads were introduced to the native people. Other beads were brought from Holland, England, France and Bohemia, and they became highly sought by the tribes and very popular for use and trade. The Native Americans quickly saw their potential for use beyond jewelry and trade beads eventually made their way between tribes over the entire continent. They also adopted the use of copper and silver to make beads. The practice of beadwork became much more prolific in the mid-1800s.
Beadwork by Tribe
Different tribes had their own unique style of beading:
- The First Nations people of Canada are notable for floral beadwork designs.
- The Plains Indians were renowned for intricate stitching and beaded breastplates.
- The Southwest tribes are noted for turquoise beadwork.
- The Native Americans of the East are notable for wampum belts.
- Mexican Indians create beautiful figurines with intricate fine beadwork.
Most beading was traditionally done on a leather base. Beads were sewn individually or attached using a looping technique. Stranded beads were also used to make jewelry. Today, beads are also be woven into fabric.
Today, beadwork symbolizes Native American heritage. From tribal ceremonial regalia to jewelry, bolo ties to hatbands, to beaded moccasins, belts, cuffs, chokers, and more, it remains a very popular nod to the rich and interesting traditional customs of the American Indians.
Here at Indian Traders, we have some beautiful examples of beadwork in jewelry, including earrings and Native American bracelets. These have all been handcrafted by authentic Native American artisans of the Southwest. When you purchase from Indian Traders, you help support local American Indian businesses and communities.