Before contact with European civilization, Native Americans were making beautiful objects decorated with natural materials obtained from their own area or through trade. Trade routes crossed the Americas and extended to the Caribbean Islands, giving access to a variety of material: shell, metals, semi-precious stones, bone, ivory, porcupine quills and feathers, to name some of the most common trade items. Beads, painstakingly made from bone and shell, had many uses including breastplates and wampum.
The arrival of explorers and traders from Europe changed the materials Native Americans used, as well as influencing traditional patterns. The Spanish, English, Dutch and French offered glass beads as gifts and used as currency in trade. Native Americans quickly adopted the new material, incorporating glass beads into traditional patterns. Although the first traders offered the finest beads they could get, including amber, glass and faceted chevron beads, soon the Native Americans were asking for beads in specific materials, colors and shapes.
Most of these early beads came from the glass factories of Murano near Venice Italy and a few came from France and the Netherlands. Venetian beads had softer colors than the brighter glass beads made in Bohemia (Czech Republic) that were introduced to the American Indians in the 19th Century. Both the new colors and the more uniform size of the Czech beads appealed to Native American beaders. This resulted in a decline in the use of Venetian beads.
Because the dominant European culture and religion discouraged traditional practices and beliefs, Native Americans began to incorporate traditional concepts into their beadwork. For example, Arctic tribes transformed tattoo patterns into elaborately beaded parkas; Northeast tribes replicated their wampum designs; across the Great Plains certain colors and patterns came to have significant meanings.
As glass beads spread across North America, each tribe used them to express their own patterns and traditions. Today, bead artists borrow beading techniques and patterns from each other. Many create new beadwork patterns based on tribal culture and traditions. Many examples of old style beadwork can be found in museums. While many contemporary designs can be found on ceremonial regalia adorned on traditional dancers attending pow wows today.
Photography by: Marilyn Angel Wynn/Nativestock.com