Before the coming of non-Natives, Native American beads were handmade. Drilling holes in seeds represents an ancient technology that grew into drilling and hand-rolling freshwater and saltwater shells. Strings of beads were measured from hand to elbow to provide a rate of exchange. Trade routes formed throughout the western hemisphere, and beads were distributed from the northern Arctic to the tip of South America. Among the most valuable ancient beads are the 5,000-year-old jade necklaces of the Olmec from Central America and the steatite beads inlaid with shell produced by the Chumash of southern California.
One of the largest bead production centers was located on the islands off the coast of present-day Santa Barbara. Like an ancient Native American "mint," the Chumash distributed millions of beads made mostly from a half dozen species of seashells. Bead routes followed the coastlines and the inland waterways, then went from spring to spring across the desert to the culture centers of Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and thousands of other ancient villages that now are in ruins.
When Christopher Columbus and other Europeans arrived, they brought glass and metal beads that were mass-produced, mostly in North Africa, Holland, and Venice. Native Americans soon discovered creative ways to use the more colorful glass beads. They began decorating their clothing and household items with beads, sewing them on with a needle and thread. Each bead was carefully selected by color and size to create patterns and designs. Every tribe developed its own unique style.
In the Northeast, Iroquois beadworkers used larger pony beads and created three-dimensional effects called embossed beadwork, while loom bead-work flourished in the Great Lakes. In the Southeast, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee women produced elaborate shoulder bags and sashes that are still highly prized. On the northern and southern Plains, production was greater than any other region. War shirts, dresses, and blanket strips were heavily beaded. Personal items included pipe bags, tobacco bags, teepee bags, paint bags, and strike-a-lites, small bags with tin cone dangles that held flint and steel for starting a fire. The Southwest and California show strong Plains Indian influences, while some adapted their own basketry designs. The Plateau region of eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana developed flat bags, averaging 12-by-14-inch panels, decorated in contour beadwork in which the beads follow concentric outlines. Some artists paint pictures in beads that feature human figures, bears, deer, horses, and even full landscapes with mountains and waterfalls. Northwest and California bead-workers often add shell pendants, as well as creating unique forms of beaded bottles and baskets. Rainforest beadwork from Central and South America often incorporates feathers and plant fibers for elaborate and colorful displays.
Contemporary beadwork is made mostly for other Native Americans who need beaded outfits for ceremonial dances. Beaded belts, necklaces, and little bags are distributed through trading posts and galleries to the general public. Elaborate beaded dolls and cradles often are the blue-ribbon winners at Indian Market, the Heard Museum Show, Southern Plains Exposition, and other Native American art shows. The future of Native American beadwork looks bright.
Coe, Ralph. 1985. Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965–1985. Seattle: University of Washington Press.; Dubin, Lois Sherr. 1999. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams.; Monture, Joel. 1993. The Complete Guide to Traditional Native American Beadwork: A Definitive Study of Authentic Tools. New York: Collier Books.; Penney, David. 1992. Art of the American Indian Frontier: The Chandler-Pohrt Collection. Detroit, MI: Detroit Institute of Arts.