The history and artistry of of Plains Indian beadwork


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By Susan Curtis

“Army Blanket Regalia,” gouache painting by Laurie Houseman-Whitehawk, 1985. The dancer’s costume is decorated with geometric and bear paw patterns favored by Plains Indian beadworkers. (Great Plains Art Museum)Plains Indian beadwork encompasses the relationships of technique, design, color and dimension. Stunning examples of this art are the subject of the current exhibition at the Great Plains Art Museum. Included in the exhibition are selections from the museum’s permanent collection that depict Native American beadwork, historical examples of beadwork from the University of Nebraska State Museum and contemporary pieces worked in traditional techniques and designs. In the museum on July 12, from 2 to 3 p.m., Mark Awakuni-Swetland will present an informal talk and demonstration of some of the different techniques that he uses in his traditional beadwork objects. He will also provide visitors with an opportunity to try these techniques.

Plains Indian beadwork encompasses the relationships of technique, design, color and dimension. Thousands of years before European contact, North American Indians were making, wearing, and trading beads of shell, pearl, bone, teeth, and stone. The oldest known bead from North America is one found at an archaeological site at Tule Springs, Nev. This bead, made of white caliche (a sedimentary rock made of hardened calcium carbonate), is believed to date to 11,000 B.C. Although each Native American group created and decorated objects that were specific to their beliefs and customs, all groups seem to have shared an appreciation for beads. The majority of beads they used were made from local materials. However, Native Americans sought out imported stones, shells and metal to make rare beads that would be prestigious. Dentalium shells from the Pacific Northwest and catlinite from Minnesota were widely traded through the Plains region for more than 2,000 years. Portraits by Mort Graham of Sitting Bear, Chief Crazy Horse, Standing Bear and Red Cloud, included in “The History and Artistry of Plains Indian Beadwork” exhibition, depict these beads created from native North American materials.

This appreciation for beads helped the Spanish explore and colonize North America. One of Chris­topher Columbus’s first acts when he reached the Bahamas in 1492 was to present glass beads to the Arawak Indians. Glass was a material unknown in North America and the beads were eagerly accepted. Using glass beads to win Indian friendship became a common practice in the days when England, France, Sweden, Holland and Spain all vied for control of North American Territories. When glass beads were introduced as a trade item in the Plains after 1850, Native Americans sought them out and often replaced their native-made beads of bone, shell, copper and stone with the new glass beads. Glass beads offered a wider range of colors than native materials and required no preparation to use. Blue beads were especially prized because this color could not be produced with native dyes.

American Indians used beads in two basic ways: stringing and beadwork. Stringing beads on a piece of sinew or thread was used to make necklaces and fringe. The beads used for stringing could be different sizes, shapes and materials. Beadwork involved embroidering the beads on a piece of leather or cloth or making a fabric of beads by weaving them on a loom. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to experience the feel of the brain-tanned leather used for Plains moccasins and clothing and practice stringing, embroidering with beads and weaving beads on a loom.

Lakota Sioux blanket strip, circa 1890, glass beads on leather. This blanket strip is similar to the one worn by Sioux Chief Stinking Bear in his 1899 portrait by Elbridge Ayer Burbank. (University of Nebraska State Museum, Anthropology Division)

With the introduction of consistently sized, small seed beads, the ways Native Americans decorated their clothing and objects changed dramatically. Instead of using larger beads sparingly to outline areas, seed beads could be used to cover entire surfaces. Included in the exhibition is a fully beaded Sioux blanket strip, similar to the one worn by Sioux Chief Stinking Bear in the 1899 portrait by Elbridge Ayer Burbank. Native American women in the Plains began to use glass seed beads to replace their traditional quillwork designs. Quillwork was a time-consuming technique requiring the porcupine quills to be softened in water, flattened, dyed and appliquéd between two rows of stitching. Rows of beads stitched down only at the ends (known as “lazy stitch”) could be used to cover large areas in the geometric and abstract designs characteristic of the earlier quillwork. The circa 1890 tipi bag included in the exhibition is a good example of the transition from geometric designs originally done in quillwork to designs completed in beadwork.

Unlike European art that included paintings and sculpture designed to be regarded as art, Native American art was an integral part of everyday life. Moccasins, clothing, tipis and leather bags were functional objects. But their decoration enhanced the object and gave pleasure to the people who saw and used them. Additionally, the nomadic existence of tribes who followed the seasonal movement of the buffalo limited their material possessions. Decorated objects could fill both functional and aesthetic roles. Plains beadwork was mainly created by women, who took great pride in their work. With the introduction of glass seed beads, they began to create moccasins completely covered with beads and dresses with heavily beaded yokes that could weigh as much as 50 pounds.

Beadwork styles and designs were influenced by intertribal trade and gift giving. For example, the sinuous floral styles of the Woodland tribes were incorporated into the geometric styles of the Plains. After contact with European fur traders and settlers, Plains Native American women incorporated motifs from embroidery and the geometric patterns found in Oriental rugs. Beginning in the late 19th century, many beadworkers created works for sale, and they often adapted their traditional designs and colors to meet market demands.

Today, beadwork is a strong, living tradition among the Plains tribes, practiced by both men and women. Mark Awakuni-Swetland, assistant professor of anthropology and ethnic studies (Native American studies) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and instructor for the Omaha Language class, bases his beadwork on traditional designs researched through museum collections. Several of his beadwork pieces are included in the exhibition, including a bandolier bag, breechcloth, belts and Omaha hand game set. Historic objects in the exhibition include moccasins, pouches, leggings and knife sheaths. These three dimensional objects will be exhibited alongside paintings and prints illustrating how European and Native American artists depict and interpret beadwork.


The exhibition, “The History and Artistry of Plains Beadwork,” continues through Aug. 30, 2009, at the Great Plains Art Museum, 1155 Q Street, Lincoln, Neb. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1:30 to 5 p.m. Call (402) 472-6220 for more information.


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