IACA Journal summer 2013 - page 7

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American Indian Beadwork
A LITTLE HISTORY
Glass beads were traded for thousands of years in early civilizations
worldwide. In addition to glass bead trading, ancient American Indians
also traded beads made of antler, bone, copper, shell, clay, stone and other
materials. The ancient American Indian beads were typically large in size
and used for self-adornment in necklaces, earrings or clothing.
In the northern homelands of the porcupine, American Indians originally
used the quills of this animal to decorate and colorfully adorn many items,
including knife sheaths, birch bark boxes, breastplates, horse gear and other
items of importance. The porcupine quill decorative technique had been in
place since the 6th century.
Meanwhile, the art of making glass beads was taking hold in Venice, Italy
during the 14th century. An industry was created around the glass bead,
and spread throughout Europe. The very finest beads were produced in
Bohemia (formerly Czechoslovakia, currently the Czech Republic).
The glass bead became a major currency between the
early Europeans and the American Indian. So valuable
were the beautiful glass beads to American Indians that
Manhattan Island was traded for by Dutch immigrant,
Peter Stuyvesant, of the Hudson Bay Trading Company,
in 1647 for approximately $24 in glass beads.
By the middle of the 16th century, the
Hudson Bay Trading Company was trad-
ing the imported glass beads through-
out the Woodlands and Plains Indian
territories for furs that were sent back to
Europe. The Spaniards were also trading
beads into New Mexico in order to find
the Seven Cities of Gold. Soon, Ameri-
can Indians established their own trade
networks and economy based on these
trade beads.
Tribes who created items using the
porcupine quill soon discovered the
much broader color palette and sewing
techniques used on the tiny glass beads.
The colorful trade beads began to replace
the traditional porcupine quill in the
design of wonderful moccasins, beautiful
bandolier bags, elaborate horse gear and
stunning dance regalia. The old days of
using the porcupine quill in the tradi-
tional manner was diminishing.
Over time, American Indians also added
new clothing styles, which incorporated
the use of wool or cotton, and less tra-
ditional use of clothing made of buffalo
hide. The new cloth provided an even
greater and easier opportunity to embel-
lish the object with beautiful imported
trade beads.
Today, the creation of stunning and pre-
cision beadwork continues, one bead at
a time. Many tribes still create original
designs which depict stories and images
of long ago. As contemporary designs
and patterns continue to emerge, the
design elements in the beadwork have
blended with the sharing of designs
across Tribal lines.
This great art form has come to sym-
bolize the challenging, resilient and
long-lasting heritage of the American
Indian.
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