Continuity and Change: Native American Beadwork

By Kletchka, Dana Carlisle; Friday, Rhonda | Art Education, May 2000 | Go to article overview
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Continuity and Change: Native American Beadwork

Kletchka, Dana Carlisle, Friday, Rhonda, Art Education

Beads enjoy a meaningful and diverse history in Native American cultures, where they are utilized as items of personal and cultural expression, as indications of social status, and as embellishment for ceremonial garments. Considered beautiful and spiritual, beads endow objects with special meaning through specific colors, shapes, and patterns that are significant to each cultural group.

For hundreds of years before European contact, Native Americans made beads from shell, bone, pearls, and teeth. Eventually, dyed porcupine quills became a common form of decoration, but colorful, ready-made glass beads introduced by European explorers quickly replaced quills as objects of adornment. These large beads, generally 1/8" in diameter, are referred to as pony beads because they were suitable for horse gear and they arrived via pony pack trains. Eventually, tiny glass seed beads (3mm in diameter) became popular and are still used in Native American beadwork. These are affixed to leather and other surfaces by sewing with a needle or awl (a piece of animal bone) and thread or sinew (animal tendon), generally using one of several common types of stitches. The lane stitch (often referred to as the "lazy" stitch) places long rows of stringed beads on a thread with several beads between each stitch. The peyote or gourd stitch, common in Native American textiles, strings one row of beads through a needle, then strings a second row, picking up a few beads from the first row by passing the needle through a second time.

These objects represent traditions that many cultures struggle to maintain and preserve. Native American art techniques, symbols, and objects continue to grow and change with every generation, even as new artists look back at the work of their ancestors for inspiration. Beads continue to be treasured by many Native American cultures throughout the United States.


Students will:

realize the cultural and historical significance of beads in Native American culture.

discover the variety of materials used to decorate objects before the introduction of glass beads.

learn how the arrival of Europeans influenced the patterns, materials, and production of Native American beaded objects.

compare the use and form of beaded objects from different Native American cultures.

understand the continuity of the beadworking tradition as a form of beauty and cultural identity for Native Americans.

learn that the patterns, colors, and materials used in these objects impart a symbolic and spiritual importance.


woodlands, ca. 1850


Gift of the University of Tulsa, Bright Roddy Collection


Native American cultures first encountered glass beads in the 1400s when Christopher Columbus brought small European beads as gifts and barter for native cultures. Before that time, Native Americans sewed beads made of shell, bone, teeth, stones, and pearls onto special items of clothing. Perhaps the most important type of bead in Native American history is wampum: small, cylinder-shaped beads made from shells. Purple wampum is produced from the outer shells of Quahog clams found on the East coast, while white wampum usually comes from the inner structure of Atlantic whelk shells. Because purple wampum was rare, it was worth two to seven times more than its white counterpart. The process of making wampum was difficult after grinding or sanding the clamshells, the maker cut and polished each bead by hand. The uses of wampum by tribes in the eastern United States reflect its significance: strings of wampum were often present during important meetings and marriages; wampum was woven into patterns on belts that recorded agreements; and it was often a part of the mourning process when someone died. Eventually, European colonists began using wampum as a form of currency, a practice that continued as late as the early 1700s.

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