Beadwork Origins: Native American Beadwork

Feb 5, 2012

Some of the first beadwork I can remember seeing as a child was Native American beadwork in the collections of our local natural history museum. I was totally captivated by the bright colors of the beads and the intricate patterns that were formed on the buckskin dresses and moccasins in the display cases. For weeks, I wondered about the people who created the detail on these ceremonial and everyday items, all of it made with tiny seed beads and tiny stitches.

Native American beadwork as we know it has its origins in the arrival of the European explorers and settlers. Seed beads arrived in North America around 1770 and were traded for things like buffalo hide robes and horses. As the seed beads got smaller and smaller, the art of Native American beadwork began to evolve, reflecting the traditional patterns already established by Native American weavers and artisans.

During the social turbulence surrounding Native Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating beadwork became a way for Native Americans to hold on to their cultural identity. Using the designs that had been passed down to them from previous generations was just one way for families to establish a family history - all by using beads!

Loomwork is one of the easiest Native American beadwork techniques to recognize, even though it was one of the last beadwork techniques to be developed and used by the Native Americans. This beautiful Ojibwe Pendant by Mary Thompson uses both loomwork techniques as well as classic Native American bead colors. The blue beads would have been highly prized by Native American bead artists, as they were considered to be "owning little bits of sky".

Peyote stitch was originally taught to the Native Americans by their European teachers around the end of the 19th century, and it was quickly adapted for use in covering rattles, canes, fans and other objects. While the Europeans were using peyote stitch to create flat pieces of beaded fabric, Native American beadwork used peyote stitch in the round and in tubular forms. Mary Tafoya's Peyote Tassel Earrings are made in this same tradition of tubular peyote stitch with more of those blue "bits of sky" beads!
The Native Americans of the Great Lakes region are known for their stunning bead embroidered work, and this gorgeous Flower Bracelet by Amy Clarke Moore echoes the style and nature-inspired themes of modern Native American beadwork from that region. Native American bead embroidery, also known as applique beadwork, was developed first by tribes that produced intricate quillwork. It was later refined with the teaching of European beadwork techniques.

Today, you can find many different styles of Native American beadwork, all of it infinitely beautiful in the colors, lines and designs that come from centuries of heritage and tradition. I'm just as fascinated today by Native American beadwork as I was when I was a little girl, and I treasure the modern pieces of Native American beadwork in my collection.

Are you inspired to add a few Native American-inspired beadwork pieces to your collection? Take advantage of our eProject sale and stock up on your favorite beading projects now! You'll find dozens of Native American-inspired beadwork projects in the Beading Daily shop, so why not pick a new technique, download a few projects, and continue on your beading journey? Check out the eProject sale today and add a new story or two to your own beadwork!

Do you love Native American beadwork? Have you ever been to a pow-wow or other gathering and watched this kind of beadwork being created? Share your stories here on the blog!

Bead Happy,

Jennifer


Featured Products

Ojibwe Pendant

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Price: $4.00

eProject

Loom beaded pendant

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Peyote Tassel Earrings

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Price: $4.00

eProject

Tubular peyote stitch earrings

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Comments

on Feb 6, 2012 8:54 AM

Jennifer, this was in my in-box this morning and I cannot thank you enough for this post.  Lately I have been contemplating my next jewelry move but keep going back to beadweaving.  When I was 3 years old, I traveled to Santa Fe and I was instantly hooked on Native American Beadwork.  I loved the colors and patterns.  My mom then took me to the Museum of the American Indian, then located in Harlem, several times a year.  I would spend hours lost in the beaded patterns.  It wasn't until my late 30s that I actually had the courage to take weaving classes.  This post was a very good reminder as to why I came to jewelry in the first place and it is ok to branch out, but equally ok to stay where my heart lives.  Thank You :-)  

Christine

BeckyP@18 wrote
on Feb 6, 2012 9:43 AM

Hey Jen, Do we get to see the earrings that you made for the challenge? I am interested. Becky

on Feb 6, 2012 10:17 AM

I've designed  a beading pattern utilizing several Navajo "Kachina" figures to be worked into a fringe decoration for the back of a jean jacket.  It'll take over 10,000 beads, and I'm merely waiting to get enough cash for the beads.  It's three panels each about 2 feet x 10", one for the left arm, one for the right and a panel across the shoulders.  I'd like LOTS more American Indian beadwork sources, websites, etc.  There's a documentary called, The Powwow Trail, 11 discs showing Indian Powwows and dancing styles, but it's an explosion of beadwork and colors, a history of Indians and what they had to put up with from the Americans and their genocidal government.  Available on Amazon.com.

mamamimifive wrote
on Feb 6, 2012 12:18 PM

My love for beadwork all started when my neighbor (who traded some "rocks" for beadwork) gave me a pair of Native American beaded barrettes.  Ever since, we go to the "ShoBan Festival" in Fort Hall, Idaho (10 miles from my house) as it is held around the time of my birthday.  Eventually, I asked a Native American dear friend to teach me how to do it.  That began my odyssey with seed beads.  Now I make my own barrettes and jewelry.  I love going to the "pow wow" as they have many, many vendors selling gorgeous pieces and some selling beads, too

JazLav12 wrote
on Feb 6, 2012 2:37 PM

I do mostly Native American beadwork, both for myself and custom work for other Native people.

DFlamedancer wrote
on Feb 6, 2012 5:42 PM

Native American bead work is how I got into beading in the first place, as well!  One of my mother's friend had discovered bead weaving and introduced it to me which got me going.  Of course, at that time, there wasn't nearly the interest in beading as there is today.  

Fast forward to last year and my sister-in-law took me to a local pow-wow.  Seeing all the wonderfully crafted bead work inspired me to get back into beading and I haven't looked back.  Now, I've found such incredible versatility and variety, I don't think I'm ever going to get bored!

WilmaA wrote
on Feb 6, 2012 10:14 PM

Many years ago my husband and I went to visit his cousin in New Mexico.

We heard that there was an Indian tribal gathering in Gallup so we decided to go .

There was dancing, food and bead work on display and for sale. At that time I was not a beader but I did buy a few things.

When I went to the restroom I was the only white face in the room .

The talking stopped and then started up again

I could not understand anything being said but I didn,t feel frightened in anyway.

I made me think about what it would be like to be in that situation but too also feel afraid. Willa