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Traditions in Indian Beading

If all you know about Native American beading involves wampum and Peter Minuit buying Manhattan from the Canarsie Tribe for $24 worth of beads, you're missing out on quite a bit. Consider, for example, the strikingly original beaded "breastplates" that some Plains Indians wore as regalia, and that are still used in some ceremonial functions today. 

These ornaments consisted of rectangular "frames" of rawhide strips strung with beads, either made of hollowed bone or slender, horn-shaped dentalium-shell beads from the Pacific Coast. (These shells were highly prized as trade objects.)


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Oddly enough, it was apparently the Comanche of the Central Plains, right in the middle of the North American continent, who invented the beaded breastplates. They first appeared between 1854 and 1867, and soon spread through most of the nomadic Plains groups, including the Sioux, Kiowa, and Apache. Dentalium beads were also used as hair-pipes, and before breastplates became popular, they were mostly strung and worn as necklaces. Think of them as the ID lanyards of their day.

The old ways

Native Americans were using beads long before Minuit and his friends came offering glass and ceramic trade beads (which soon became wildly popular because of their wonderful luster and durability). In pre-Contact days, beads weren't available at a handy online jewelry store the way they are now, so the Indians were forced to make do with the same natural materials that people the world over used: shell, stone, horn, bone, turtle carapace, ivory, seeds, wood, teeth, and claws. Often the beads were dyed, in order to add a little color beyond what Mother Nature provided. Porcupine quills were soaked in water to soften them, and cut up to be used much as glass and ceramic seed beads would be used later: to embroider clothing and footwear for ceremonial use. The original seed beads were seeds indeed, which had also been soaked in water in order to soften them so that the embroiderer's needles could pierce them.

Items that weren't so amenable to piercing had to be drilled laboriously by hand. Often they also had to be carefully and tediously rolled into shape, especially if they were made of harder materials like stone; wood, of course, could be carved. Most larger beads were destined to be strung and used for necklaces, rather than in embroidery.

Modern Indian Beading

Beading and quillwork are arts that are still very much alive in modern Native American societies. Native American artisans not only still craft ceremonial items from hand, for use in both religious and secular events (such as powwows), but they also offer a vast array of high-quality traditional beadwork for sale. Much of the beadwork is done on items of apparel, from buckskin blouses to lovely moccasins, but accessories like beaded purses, sashes, belts, and bandolier bags, are also available. Then, of course, there's the beaded jewelry that some artisans make, from hair-pipe chokers and deerskin bracelets to peyote-stitch necklaces of uncommon beauty. You can even get beaded hatbands, religious amulets, fetishes, and medicine bags, not to mention wampum belts made from both genuine quahog marine shells or acrylic beads (your choice). If you look hard enough, you can most likely find any number of beaded lanyards, the better to accessorize your work ID or, if you're a Boy Scout or hiker, your orienteering compass. Sure, there's nothing wrong with those printed lanyards your hardworking office manager provides, but nothing beats a nice piece of beadwork.

Published with permission (FCDMInc)


Summary: Indian Beading: Of all the peoples who have made beadwork a part of their culture, it's arguable that the Native Americans have brought it to its highest artistic levels. Many people think only of wampum and necklaces when they think of Indian beading, but traditionally there's much more to it than that. That's the topic we explore in the following article.

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