Native Village
Youth and Education news
 APRIL 1, 2010 Volume 4

Origins of American Indian Beadwork
Condensed by Native Village

Beads from Fort Ancient Culture

Before Europeans invaded the New World, Native Americans were making beautiful objects decorated with local natural materials. Beads were painstakingly made from bone and shell and had many uses including wampum, a form of money. 

Trade routes across the Americas and the Caribbean Islands also provided access to shells, metals, semi-precious stones, bone, ivory, porcupine quills and feathers.

When European explorers and traders arrived, they brought items that changed Native art. The Spanish, English, Dutch and French offered glass beads as gifts and as currency in trade. Soon, Native Americans were asking for beads in specific materials, colors and shapes. 

Most early beads came from the glass factories of Murano, Italy. A few came from France and the Netherlands. In the 19th century, brighter glass beads from Bohemia were introduced. These new colors and more uniform size appealed to Native beaders, and the use of Venetian beads declined. 

Because European culture and religion discouraged Native traditions and culture, Native beaders used traditional concepts in their work.  Arctic tribes, for example, used tattoo patterns in their elaborately beaded parkas.  Northeast tribes replicated their wampum designs. Certain colors and patterns in Great Plains beading has come to have significant meanings.

The old style beadwork can be found in many museums.

Today, artists borrow beading techniques and patterns from each other. Many create new patterns based on tribal culture and traditions.  Contemporary designs are now party of ceremonial regalia

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