Plains Indian Beadwork

The RCMP Quarterly July 1957

Plains Indian Beadwork

By Mrs. J. A. Herman p. 23 – 27 p. 24

Mrs. M. B. Weeks – Regina author and authority on Indian work who, with the writer, assisted Curator Band in unpacking and assembling the collection – points out that from the earliest days Indians have been makers, workers and traders in beads. The beads first used by Indians were carved out of shells. The quahog or clam shell so numerous on the Atlantic coast and, somewhat less extensively, the tooth shell or Dentalium on the north-west coast and the abalone on the California coast were used. Tribes living away from the sea coast obtained the coveted purple and white shells through trade. As the Crees were reputed to be shrewd traders, they no doubt obtained large supplies through barter; but they also manufactured their own from any hard substance that came to hand. These beads although less valuable than wampum as the shell beads were called, were nevertheless highly prized.

Wampum was of two kinds – white and black or dark purple. The black beads had twice the value of the white. Wampum was formerly used as a medium of exchange among the Indians and was also worn as an ornament to denote the wearer’s wealth, social position in the tribe, and standing with regard to the Great Spirit’s favor. The use of wampum constituted a bond of union among them such as scarcely was supplied by language, religion or racial customs. Wampum beads were simply cylinders of shell about one-eighth of an inch in diameter, and about one-fourth of an inch in length, which were polished smooth by being rubbed against stones, and bored by means of a flint awl. Stringing beads crude and uneven of their own manufacture on threads of sinew, Indian women with the use of bone needles wove stories of victorious wars, exciting hunts, ancient legends, and important tribal events into the beadwork which adorned the clothing of the Indian braves, or sometimes ornamented the articles used for offering in worship to the Great Spirit, and often-times recorded messages of peace and war on beadwork belts sent to distant tribes.

With the coming of the white man, Indian women were supplied with china beads. Delighted and dazzled with the rainbow colors of the beads which they thought possessed magical properties, the Indian women were inspired to express themselves more vigorously through beadwork art. Many excellent examples of Algonquin designs have been more vigorously carried with the tribes in their westward journeys. These aboriginal artists developed and enriched the patterns to such an extent that the beadwork of the Crees is more highly valued by connoisseurs than that of any other tribe.

The designs worked can be roughly divided into two classes – geometric and floral. The geometric patterns show squares, arrow heads, knife, tent and other such designs which are somewhat reminiscent of Caucasian decorative art symbols. The floral designs copied from flowers, berries, and vines along the trails, as well as patterns found on the calicoes and shawls brought in by the traders, are not as old and original as the geometrical decorations, but have a romantic and delightful significance in Indian beadwork art. The curves in the floral designs, both single and double, were often used to represent the different branches of a family and other such significant facts. White beads often meant peace; red beads signified war; black beads recorded disaster; blue beads conveyed religious meanings. Plants considered valuable because of their food, medicinal, or religious properties, were often depicted in beadwork. The violet flower has a romantic history of its own, as have the arrow head, marsh marigold, wild buckwheat plants and many others.

To quote Mrs. Weeks: “In Cree beadwork each bead is sewn to the cloth separately which gives the completed work a pleasingly smooth appearance, especially when the background is white. The rich color combination in either floral or geometric patterns stand out vividly against the white background so common in Cree work. In Sioux beadwork, five or six beads are threaded onto a thread already attached to a canvas – then laid flat and fastened. This process is continued back and forth until each row is finished. The work when completed has a rigid effect which is most attractive. The Sioux favored solid areas of strong color such as deep blue, crimson red and deep wine. Glass beads are not satisfactory in copying old designs, Czechoslovakian or Austrian beads can more nearly approximate the old beads which were bought by Indian women from the Hudson Bay Company. The designs were worked out as the beadworkers went along – charts were never used. Animal, curve, floral and geometric designs were created and blended into an over-all picture as they originated or following a pattern of heraldic or traditional prototypes held fast in the women’s memories.”

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