|Everyone has seen Native
American Indian beadwork, because of its popularity as earrings, necklaces, watchbands,
cigarette lighter-holders, belts, purses and other small items.
Beads are a many-faceted part of native history in north America and Canada. The necklace is similar to some that were made thousands of years ago.
Making beads is an old craft. Bone, stone (turquoise and other semi-precious stones) and shell beads are still made the ancient way, little affected by modern technology. Sea shells, the commonest material for handmade beads, have been important native regional trade items for thousands of years.
Beads were carved and shaped of animal horn, turtle shell, and deer hooves, often for dangling dance tinklers or rattlers. Animal teeth and claws were bored and strung. Bear or wolf-claw necklaces were proof of a hunter's powers. Wooden beads, sometimes dyed, were carved and drilled. Hard seeds were steamed to soften them for awl piercing and stringing. Small animal bones were polished and shaped into tapered cylinders (called hairpipe bone) for neck chokers and large dance regalia breastplates. Softened, flattened dyed porcupine quills -- used here for this Tsistsistas (Northern Cheyenne) 19th-century horse mask -- were used before trade seed beads became common. Quillwork is seeing a revival today.
Cheyenne women's qulling societies undertook quillwork as a sacred task. A woman had to be sponsored and tutored for membership. The objective of these societies was technical perfction in the art. Sacred quillwork in many areas was undertaken to fulfill a vow as a form of prayer for someone. The process of making it was sacred, but the finished piece -- to be worn or used by someone -- was not considered sacred. The focus was on the vow, the thoughts and prayers and the work, not on the thing -- very different from Western society, which prizes only things and ignores the process of creation.
Fresh-water clamshells were used for the Haudenosee (Iroquois League) purple and white wampum chains that recorded treaties, sacred ceremonies, and songs before and after the coming of the Europeans. These chains or belts were treated with great respect, and highly valued by their keepers. Agreements were generally recorded this way. The result was that Europeans believed wampum belts or chains were money, and the word "wampum" even became a sort of slang for money. Actually, they were more like important original documents.
Animal sinew split fine was the commonest material used to string beads and to attach beads to hide garments, although occasionally strong twined plant fibers (such as nettle) or hide thongs were used.
The only ancient type of bead still made in quantity today by native people is the heishii, made by Navajos and some pueblo people. The ancient techniques are still used. Shells (especially olive shell), slices of turquoise, and occasionally other semi-precious stones are broken into small pieces. A hand-pump drill makes a small hole through each piece, drilling from both sides if it is thick. The heishii are then strung. The string is rolled on a piece of fine sandstone until they are smoothed into uniform cylinders around the string-hole. The smaller the bead, the more work involved, so the more expensive they are. Heishii necklaces are always many - stranded, sometimes all of a kind, but turquoise with shell heishii are also common.
Animals and other figures are carved from flat pieces of turquoise or shell. These are drilled and strung between groups of "rocky" or shaped turquoise, silver, or heishii shell beads to make "story" necklaces, where the storyteller can show children each character as she tells the story. Some say women first got the idea for story necklaces from the rosary beads of Catholic priests. Most purchased "story- type" necklaces actually tell no story, but mothers, older sisters, grandmas and teachers make one up to fit the beads. (White traders have given storyteller necklaces the unfortunate name of "fetish" suggesting both some kind of cult and psychological obsession.)
Beads are important in archaeological studies of pre-European history. They survive thousands of years well. Seashell beads are important because ancient shell beads are found thousands of miles from seacoasts, indicating trade contacts among ancient peoples. How beads are made helps show the level of technology of the ancient people who made them. Since beads are not tools, their use and production means a tribe had enough food and shelter to spend time or trade goods on ornaments unnecessary for physical survival. This means a more complex culture.
Europeans made other types of beads available. Glass (made in Venice, Italy), ceramic, and cast metal beads (silver, brass, and German silver--an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc) were trade items used from the 16th century on.
Trade beads facilitated early European penetration of the northern Woodland culture area. They were a useful item for "coureurs de bois" (woods-runners) who carried light trade goods in backpacks on forest trails and in canoes on long early northern woodland travels, pursuing beaver pelts during the 17th and 18th centuries. Lightweight, easy to pack, undamaged by water, immediately desirable to most tribes who never saw them before, beads were among the "gift trinkets" carried by most explorers and expeditions to help in making contact with tribes newly met.
With the exception of early 20th-century ethnographer Frances Densmore, anthropologists (almost all male) have ignored native use of "trade" beads, in their studies of native subsistence, craft and ornament. Native women were inspired to invent beadwork techniques unknown to Europeans, as well as beautiful and sometimes spiritually or historically-inspired culturally unique designs.
Two types of trade beads were immediately popular (and are still used by native craftspeople). The big ceramic pony beads are about a quarter to half an inch in diameter, with large holes for thongs. These are used on bone chokers and dance breastplates, as well as danglers from medallion necklaces. Red, black, and turquoise-color are the most popular. A few are still made of brass. Their name comes from the fact that these beads are well suited to thong-strung decorations on pony reins and other horse gear. Shown here is a hairpipe bone choker with red and brass pony beads and a large abalone-shell button.
The most widely-used beads today-- eagerly accepted by native women from their first introduction--are tiny seed beads. Their use supplanted the more difficult, time- consuming (and not so flexible) porcupine quillwork.
Manido-min-esag ("Little spirit seeds, gift of the Manido" the Anishnaabemowin name for seed beads) was what Anishnabe (Ojibwe, Odawah, Pottawotomi) women named seed beads. The need to have good feelings when one is beading continues this early reaction: that these little things were a gift of beauty from the spirits, handed over by the white man as an intermediary of some sort.
Almost as soon as seed beads were available, native women invented two techniques for using them: loom beading and applique embroidery. Those two techniques are still in use today. Loom-beading and a form of single-needle weaving (peyote beading) are not adaptations of techniques known to European or other cultures; they are native inventions.
Fine quality seed glass beads are made only in Czechoslovakia. They were unavailable after World War II until the mid-'60's. Larger, coarser, unsatisfactory beads were used, and older objects were "de-beaded" to make new regalia for relatives, until Czech beads again became available. Very fine, long needles are required, and fine nylon thread is used today for all seed beading.
Beadwork today uses all the traditional techniques. Most of the finest beadwork is still done only for relatives and gift giveaways. A lot of work goes into a large piece. To fully bead the yoke and upper sleeves of a fine Plains buckskin dance dress takes 20 pounds of number 12 seed beads and about a year of work. As much time is required to prepare a set of Wood- land-style mens' dance regalia: beaded leggings, cuffs, vest, breechclout-apron, strips and medallions to attach to head roach, bustle, and dance-sticks.
Of course this isn't "continuous" or factory-style work, it's done after regular jobs and housework. Still, such "large" projects are generally made only for relatives, or commissioned by dancers from well-known beadworkers. Items for sale are smaller, take less time, and provide a little extra income when sold in Indian Center craft shops or at powwows.
Beads weave through native history from tens of thousands of years ago to tomorrow's computer design technology. But there is another aspect besides techniques and designs, craft and ornament.
Beaded items for religious purposes are either made personally (medicine pouch, Pipe bag), or given by relatives, not bought or sold. Beadwork on such items often reminds the owner of a personal vision or sign or the meaning of a personal name, it is not only to make them beautiful. However, making sacred objects beautiful, especially by taking a lot of time and care, shows honor and respect to the spiritual powers, not only through words and feelings, but through artistry and work. This reality -- the work done as itself a prayer or vow -- underlies and strengthens ceremonial activities.
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