3 Interesting Facts about Native American Beadwork

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1. There are as many different beading materials, designs, traditions, and stitches as there are Native American tribes and nations.

Initially, the beads were carved by Indian craftspeople from natural sources such as shells, ivory, turquoise, coral, other stones, copper, silver, amber, wood, as well as animal bones, teeth and horns. The famous glass beads did not appear until colonists brought them over from Europe approximately 500 years ago. Those beads quickly became a popular part of the culture of the American Indian; and, today, glass beads, especially fine seed beads, have become the primary materials preferred by numerous traditional beaders crafting from a variety of tribes.

2. What types of beadwork are there?

Much beadwork is well known, including the bone hairpipe chokers and peyote stitch beading by the Plains Indians, the turquoise and shell Heishi necklaces by the southwest Indians, the floral work by the northern Indians, abalone shells in the west coast Cherokees beadwork, and much more.

Native beadwork is very delicate and time consuming and can be described as: (A) beaded leather normally used on moccasins, clothing, or containers where the beads are sewn individually onto leather or more recently cloth or attached in loops or rows; or (B) beaded strands that are used for jewelry and as ornamental coverings to wrap around an art or ceremonial object where the beads are strung together into a mesh or strings using thread, wire, or sinew. Usually this is done painstakingly by hand, but some tribes use special bow looms to turn strands into beaded belts or rectangular strips.

3. Beadwork and Wampum

“Wampum” comes from the Narragansett word for ‘white shell beads’, either white from the Whelk shell or purple-black from the growth rings of the Quahog shell. Wampum was mass produced in coastal southern New England mostly by the Pequots and Narragansetts and became a formal currency that European traders and politicians used to gain Native American favor or territory. The use of wampum as money, even among the English, continued until the American Revolution.

American Indian beads were used as a trade item that went back into ancient times and before the Europeans arrived. Shell beads in the Northeast have been found which are 4500 years old, which were larger than most and were uncommon due to the fact that drilling into the material was extremely difficult using ancient stone drill bits. Proto-wampum, an earlier bead, was often traded in ceremonies because of the connection of shells with water and water’s life giving properties.