Native American Beadwork - The Pizzazz!

Native American Beadwork ...

Want to invest in a piece of handcrafted Native American art...
want to invest in an eye-catching, unique piece...
and one, of course, that will appreciate in value

Beadwork and Quillwork on a headdress

Historically, Native American beadwork consisted of making, wearing, and trading beads of shell, pearl, bone, teeth, stone, and fossils.

And this was about 8,000 years BEFORE the Europeans crossed the Atlantic!

The Best-Known Beads - Wampum

Universally, the best-known shell bead to Native Americans was wampum: small, cylindrical, drilled white and purple beads made primarily of the quahog clamshell. For non-Native Americans who watched too much TV, wampum meant "Indian money," but it so much more than that...Wampum was sacred to northeastern Indians long before the Europeans arrived.

Native peoples had no written languages, so messages were transmitted through symbolic designs. Native American beadwork as woven wampum belts came about for recording important events and were made using beads of one color with designs in another color. This signaled peaceful, warlike, or other intentions between tribes (or tribes and colonists).

The white clamshell beads represented peace, promise, and good intention; the purple represented hostility, sadness or death. Red painted wampum was sent to other villages to indicate war. Councils could not meet without the proper seating arrangements as described in a wampum string. Adoptions, mourning, speaking at council meetings, treaties and contracts all called for wampum.

Info snippet: Did you know...the very first "United Nations" agreement, where national growth was NOT by conquest or forced subjugation but where independent nations joined together, was between the 5 original Iroquois Nations! The belt BELOW memorialized Houdaunosee, the League of the Pine Tree and was formed before European contact. This idea of peaceful federation influenced the formation of the federation that WAS TO BECOME the United States. The idea of a peaceful, cooperative over-government, uniting disparate but still sovereign (for local issues, customs, and government) nations and populations is the most important contribution of Native Americans to others of the world today!

There is more detail and history of the Iroquois Nation and how the Iroquois Confederacy's political structure influenced the Founding Fathers. Click on the link below and read the paper written by an Onondaga/Mohawk, during her 3rd year of law school at Arizona State University College of Law.

The Iroquois Confederacy and the Founding Fathers

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Look at this American Indian Beading collection of family made bead work kept as part of a collection of Sioux History. Most all these are made of cut glass beads.

Then There Are Glass Beads:

Since the European countries didn't want to use coins in the colonies when dealing with the Native Americans, they adapted wampum as currency. It was legal tender in all thirteen original states up to the mid-18th century.

Info snippet: Did you know... Manhattan was sold for a bead necklace!

As European explorers started inland, one of the significant items used for gifts were glass beads. Using glass beads in trade for Indian friendship was prevalent when European countries sought control of North American territories. These beads became very popular with the Indians, and later became important in the fur trade.

Info snippet: Most of the early glass beads came from Murano, Venice and had softer colors.

Lewis and Clark found the so-called Russian (a smooth or faceted blue glass) bead to be especially valued by the Indians on the Columbia River in Pacific Northwest. In the western Great Lakes region about 1675, the French introduced smaller "pony beads," that were easily transported by traders on ponies.

Around 1840, colorful, tiny seed beads all in the same size, usually two millimeters or less in diameter, were traded in bulk. These seed beads dramatically changed the ways of decorating Native American Indian clothing and objects. By 1800, glass Native American beadwork replaced quillwork as means of ornamentation and has continued to be an important part of Native American artwork.

Forming a Cultural Identity and Tribal Native American Beadwork Traditions:

Around the mid-1800's with more conflict occurring between Native Americans and the white society, Native people experienced a renewal of cultural pride.

By using "new" materials such as bead colors, sizes and appearances along with other imported and local materials, dresses became way to identify tribal membership.

Many tribes are known for their intricate beadwork, but this craft is primarily associated with the northern, central, and southern Plains Indians. While Native American beadwork is used in jewelry such as for earrings and beaded medallion necklaces, it is more often used to decorate bags, horse gear, moccasins, and clothing.

Tribal styles emerged in Native American beadwork societies which were based on earlier quillwork societies. These societies had a selective membership consisting of the most gifted artists in each community, and served as a forum in which to share new ideas. The style that emerged was endorsed by the society and adopted by most of the women in the tribe. The style included cuts, materials, colors, designs and techniques.

These emerging tribal Native American beadwork styles were passed from generation to generation, from master quill and bead workers to novice artists. Today, wearing a dress that reflects an historic tribal style is still a way for a woman to express tribal identity. Although each tribe has long had its own style, designers could and do share their personal beliefs, emotions and experiences in their work.

The Cree, Ojibwa, and Shoshone are famous for their detailed flower designs usually done on a white background with red or pink flowers (most often a rose) and sometimes intricate curling stems in green.

The Arapaho, Blackfoot, Crow, Assiniboin, Gros Ventre and Yanktonia Dakota tribes are known for geometric patterns. They had checkerboard motifs in squares and triangles with fully beaded backgrounds in yellow, light blue, red and sometimes white. The Blackfoot were the leaders of this style, and usually preferred a yellow background.

Tribal Specifics:

The Native American beadwork styles of the central Plains produced by the Teton and Yanktonia Dakota (Sioux), Cheyenne and Arapaho consisted of large pieces with a background in white or blue beads and figures in blue, green, red, yellow and white.

Lakota women prefer beading using the "lane stitch", also called "lazy stitch" which results in Native American beadwork designs that resemble those made with porcupine quills. By stringing multiple seed beads on a needle before attaching the thread back down on the hide, an artist is able to cover a large area faster than using quills.

Sioux artists are well-known for their fully beaded yokes. Historically, the background is often light blue, representing a lake. The designs on the yoke are reflections of clouds and the narrow white band is the shore. In the center, a beaded U-shaped design represents a turtle. The Sioux believed that turtles had the power to protect a woman's health.

Historically, Sioux artists favored "saved-list" blue wool dressed decorated with rows of dentalium shells. Another item worn by a Northern Plains woman would have been a prestigious Navajo trade blanket from present-day Arizona.

In Canada, the Assiniboine bead artists used designs such as stars, mountains, and buffalo tracks.

Extensive Native American beadwork is found on many Plateau dresses today, keeping the tradition alive.

The Shoshone were considered intermediaries in the region's elaborate intertribal trading network. Consequently, they borrowed ideas from their trading partner tribes, mainly the Northern Plains.

Cheyenne artists often decorate capes with three banks of beadwork: one across the chest, one along the shoulders and one across the back. Traditionally, the area around the bands was painted with yellow ochre.

By the late 1800s, the Ute (trade intermediaries along with the Shoshone) shared many artistic traits with Southern Plains peoples. For instance, some of the dresses had three beaded bands on the yoke, similar to a Cheyenne dress.

The Comanche also had three beaded bands on the cape of a dress. The difference between the Comanche and a Cheyenne-styled dress was the beading technique used.

The Comanche used the "flat gourd stitch" where they attach each bead individually to the dress allowing the beadwork to lay flat.

The Kiowa had a beading style all their own. They used an abstract floral appliqué-style beadwork. The separate cape of the dress is also extended and held in place by a belt.

Check out Amazon for additional information...

Info snippet: See the picture below for a Sioux fully beaded man's vest, 19th century that sold in January 2007 for over $30,000 by Pook & Pook Auction, Downingtown, PA!

Elk Teeth:

Info snippet: Did you know... the teeth of elk sewn on womens dresses were a sign of fertility and wealth. Only the two eye teeth of an elk could be used, so to have a dress covered with them was a status sign of a good hunter in the family. Today they are expensive to have!

Imitation elk teeth carved from bone were used since opportunities for elk hunting had declined by the end of the 19th century. By then, most Native Americans were confined to reservations or reserves in the U.S. and Canada.


Cowrie and dentalium shells were valuable trade items to Native Americans. In 1850, one record states that 10 dentalium shells were equal to one buffalo robe. Dentalium shells, also called tooth shells, were harvested by Native peoples on the Pacific Coast and later brought in from Europe.

Woman sometimes substituted cowries for elk teeth. The shape of the cowries is close to that of the teeth.

And Now:

There is a variety of Native American beadwork and varied materials used as beads. Contemporary artisans might include copper, silver, wood, animal bones, or glass. The ability to make beautiful accessories is remarkable and make striking wearable art! The possibilities are endless and these artisans are willing to push the envelope.

From a young age, Native Americans are trained in this delicate art. Native American beadwork can be seen on items ranging from basic clothing, handbags, pouches, clothing, moccasins, headdresses and different pieces of jewelry. Unfortunately, Native American beadwork is not simple. In fact, it can take several months to complete a single beadwork.



  • Czech cut beads are used quite a bit now. They are more uniform in size than vintage/antique beads. Some of one color may be narrower than others and that is particularly true of vintage/antique beads.

  • The smaller the size, the more beads and the more time spent to complete the piece. Good quality seed beads are not cheap and the older beads are very expensive.

  • Bead size is determined by the number of rows of a given size bead that will cover one square inch. The larger the number, the smaller the bead. Sizes between 10 and 20 describe seed or cut beads; numbers between 6 and 9 are pony beads.

  • Good quality seed beads come from Japan as well as the Czech Republic. But, each year a limited variety of colors are made. An artisan may collect beads for years so they can have the color variety.

  • Thread used traditionally had been sinew. Today, many beaders use polyester thread or mercerized cotton thread waxed with bee's wax.

  • If the item will lay flat without loose beads or irregular stitches, it's a good quality item. The thread is tight and beads evenly spaced. Unless different size beads were used intentionally, the beads should be fairly uniform in size.

  • These works aren't signed. Some consider their original pattern to be the signature; others use a particular type of knot.

    Thanks to a renewal of cultural pride, some Native American artisans are rediscovering and using some of their tribal artistry that has been all but lost to history. One such artist, Martha Berry, a Cherokee, is making some magnificent Native American beadwork.

    If Native American beadwork is something you're interest in for collecting or either buying for yourself or giving as an Indian gift, become familiar with it. Visit museums to study the various types of beadwork, materials, tribal affiliations and designs. Antique shows may also a good venue - go through the booths of vendors selling these items. If they are passionate about what they have for sale, they will answer your questions. And, of course, inter-tribal powwows are excellent venues to look and ask.

    You can also go The Indian Arts and Crafts Association for a listing of registered and certified Native American Artisans.

    Above all, anything being marketed as "Native American Indian made" must legally be just that. The spirit of the law is that any artwork or craft fashioned by a Native American, the artisan must be a member of an Indian Tribe, and their membership has been verified and certified.

    These Native American artisans are practicing their designing and manufacturing perhaps as a livelihood.

    And, through their activities, they are keeping their culture, history and spirituality alive.

    Native American Arts has free e-books covering the subjects of Collecting and Fraudulence that are excellent! Please check back often as I add designed and manufactured Native American beadwork applied to various items!

    Let me know if you are interested in contacting a designer or Native American Co-Op selling Native American beadwork. Use my contact form and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.

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