Finer Things

Seneca Women Selling Beadwork at Niagra Falls

When explorers and settlers first came to the New World, they brought beads with them. These items were small, lightweight, and (hopefully) useful trading goods. Native Americans had used beads before contact with whites, but they valued the new, unusual beads that the Europeans brought. Glass beads, usually made in Venice, Italy, were something Native Americans could not manufacture on their own, and were highly valued. Early trade beads were large, but eventually, tiny “seed” beads were introduced, and Native Americans used them on buckskin and cloth.

Different tribes developed different preferences for bead colors and ornamentation styles. Sioux Indians preferred chalk white or blue background colors, and various shades of blues and greens for design.The Crow liked blue and a color called Cheyenne Pink for their backgrounds, with red, dark blue, yellow, green, and sometimes purple design colors. Native American women invented two methods of using beads: loom beading and applique embroidery. For looms, they fastened birch bark with holes in it over bow-shaped branches and threaded rows of beads through the holes. Women created distinctive patterns from chains of beads in rows and columns; these patterns became associated with different groups so that an Indian man could be identified from a distance based on the bead color and pattern of his clothing.

Nineteenth Century Beaded Vest

Apache Bead Loom

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