Beading is one of the most characteristic and enduring art forms of Native Americans. Unfortunately since the 1960’s it has been imitated in oriental factories and imported very cheaply, almost completely drowning out high quality native beadwork. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 goes a long way to remedying this, making it a federal felony to claim that any artwork is American Indian when it doesn’t fulfil the criteria, and thereby making the genuine article a thing of greatly enhanced value. Unfortunately the Act couldn’t be retrospective; tens of millions of dollars of potential revenue for native people had already been lost by the time it was passed.
Beads and strung decorations were originally made of natural materials: stone, amber, shell, turtle shell, coral, bone, horn, hoof, claws, wood, hard seeds – almost anything that was durable and could be pierced. One exception to the need for piercing was when the beads were pressed into wax. Artwork of this type is done by the Huichol tribe of Mexico, who make such things as ceremonial masks.
There is only one type of ancient bead which is still produced in large quantities by Native Americans. This is the heishi bead which is a very small disc- or tube-shaped bead made of shell or stone that has been drilled, ground down and polished. Heishi beads are usually strung in necklaces, often many like ones together.
So-called ‘story necklaces’ continue to be a popular style of necklace which uses heishi beads. Typically it has animal or human figures, made of turquoise or shell, strung at intervals between the heishi beads, allowing a storyteller to show children each character as they go through the story. Even though the idea for these necklaces is supposed to have come from Catholic rosaries, the finished result has sometimes been classed as ‘fetish’.
Glass beads, which are the ones most used for beading today, and also metal and ceramic beads, were imported from Europe and found to be very useful as trade items. They were ideal for the ‘coureurs de bois’, entrepreneurial woodsmen who carried light trade goods in backpacks on forest trails and in canoes, and who needed appealing trinkets to offer to the native tribes. These new-style beads were quickly assimilated into Native American culture, rather like the horse, although archaeology makes it clear that beads were used for trade between tribes long before Europeans arrived.
Of the glass beads, the most widely used ones today (eagerly received by native women from the outset) are tiny seed beads made in Czechoslovakia. Beads from elsewhere are coarse by comparison. Particularly because they are so small, using them is complicated, delicate, and requires a lot of time and patience.
Beads which are to decorate leather are usually sewn onto a cloth backing which is subsequently stuck onto the leather. They can be sewn individually, or in short strings anchored down at every interstice or every other interstice, or in loops. The other main method is to thread them in strands, when they would be used especially as fringes or necklaces.
The most complex and ambitious beadwork is usually done as a gift, for a relative or someone to whom one would be showing great honour and respect. An entire year’s worth of part-time labour can go into one artefact, time which could never be recovered commercially. It tends therefore to be smaller items that are made for selling. The designs on these are often standard and repeated, but the items which are not for sale are more likely to be true works of art.