The NLaka’Pamux people of the American Plateau region tell a story about Ant, a clever man who wanted to marry the daughter of a chief. At the time, beads were dispersed all across the earth. The chief told Ant that if he could gather all the beads and sort them by color, he would give Ant his chosen bride. Ant believed the task to be impossible. He went to his grandmother, Short-tailed Mouse, for help, and she revealed the secret of gathering beads. Ant then made seven piles– one each for all the red, blue, white, black, yellow, green, and bone beads – and won the chief’s daughter. This story explains both why ants gather things in piles, and how the NLaka’Pamux began to wear beads on their clothing.
Archaeological excavations have revealed that extensive cross-continent trading networks developed in North America as early as nine thousand years ago. Many of the traded materials were coveted prestige items used to adorn clothing and ceremonial objects. Some, like shell, stone, antler, bone, tooth, and native copper, were used for beading. Symbols and designs differed across tribes, as did the extent of beadwork; for example, among northern groups, quilling – the decorative use of dyed porcupine quills – predominated.
When European traders brought inexpensive, mass-produced glass beads to the New World, Native American beadwork styles began to change. Whereas Native-made beads were labor-intensive and irregular in shape and size, the European pony beads, and later on the smaller seed beads, provided by white traders were all nearly identical and easy to acquire. Many tribes quickly incorporated glass beads into their adornment traditions, using the imported materials to execute conventional patterns and symbols.
Glass beads reached different parts of the continent at different times, often preceding the geographical advancement of the Europeans themselves. The Eastern Woodland groups were some of the first to experience a direct European influence on beadwork, using glass beads to make floral and plant motifs in the north, and ancient symbols like the Thunderbird, the Underwater Panther, and the Horned Serpent in the south. In the Subarctic regions, quillwork, which was traditionally the prevalent practice, was almost entirely replaced by beadworking; this allowed for the growth of curvilinear designs. In the Great Basin, glass beads took the place of popular materials like abalone, olivella, and clam shells, which had been traded in from the Pacific coast for centuries. Even groups without strong beadwork traditions, like the Plateau tribes, began incorporating beads into their modes of expression.
The Plains have produced perhaps the most iconic examples of Native American beadwork. Since as early as 1700, glass beads were traded among different tribal groups, and by the mid nineteenth century recognizable regional and tribal styles had developed. Early designs reflected traditional geometric patterns used in tattooing, quillwork, and painted rawhide parfleches. Later on, eastern influences led to the spread of floral designs.
During the reservation era, beadwork became the primary method of artistic expression for Native Americans on the Plains. Sacred motifs were preserved, sometimes in abstracted forms to make them undetectable to non-Natives. New imagery was also created, often depicting everyday domestic scenes and social activities. At this time women, who had been restricted to making geometrical patterns in the past, began to create realistic pictoral forms through beadwork.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Dr. Patricia Nietfeld, Supervisory Collections Manager at the National Museum of the American Indian, who generously provided tribal affiliations and other object descriptions. The other major source for this project was Lois Sherr Dubin’s North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment, published 1999 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.