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Инфоурок / Иностранные языки / Другие методич. материалы / Доклад Native American Beadwork
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Доклад Native American Beadwork





Part I. Beads in the life of the Indians………………………………….………………..…4

Part II. Kinds of beads………………………...……………………….…………………...4

1.1. Indian beads from natural materials…………………………………………………...4

1.2. European beads…………………………………………………………………….….5

1.3. Shape, colour and other aspects…………………………………………………….…6

Part III. Implications of beads…………………………...…………………………….…...6

3.1. Spiritual implications………………………………………………………………….7

3.2. Religious implications, ceremonies and rituals…………………….……………...…..7

3.3. Aesthetic implications………………………………………………………...….……9

3.4. Historical and cultural implications…………………………………………….…..…9

3.5. Economic implications……………………………………………….………………10

3.6. Political implications……………………………………………………………....…11

3.7. Social implications…………………………………………….……………………..12

Part IV. Beads in the cut of European culture………………………...…………………..13

Part V. Our personal contribution…………………………..…………….………………14




Certain things catch your eye,

but pursue only those

that capture your heart”



From all over the world and for thousands of years, humans have participated in jewelry wearing. The history of ornaments is inextricably related with the history of culture and development of mankind. Through ornaments people expressed their understanding of the world. A big layer of human culture is connected with small objects - beads, serving as material for creating different jewelry. At first sight these goods don’t present any importance except their aesthetic beauty, but if we examine them closer we’ll be able to understand that they have played a significant role in the life of many peoples of the world.

I would like to focus your attention on Native American beading. I got interested in this subject when I was reading the book “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper. One of its chapters described a ceremony of the Indian funeral. Burying their friend, Indians put a beautiful belt made of beads into his grave. As far as I understood, it was an unusual belt and some important tradition.

The more I read about Native Americans and their relations with colonists, the more I realized that the value of an object has to be examined in the specific cultural context and can be measured in many different ways. So, in my report I am going to consider beads in the cut of Indian and European culture. My aims are:

  • to find out why different kinds of beads were so attractive and valuable for Indians and how colonists used beads to come into contact with Native Americans;

  • to understand the reasons forcing aboriginals of America to accept glass beads from Europeans in exchange for gold;

  • to compare the Indian and European perception of beads;

  • to prove that jewelry made from beads carried a great spiritual message for Indians;

  • to awake my schoolmates’ interest in the idea of balance with nature and the great wisdom of the Indians;

  • to draw my schoolmates’ attention to the problem of preserving Native American unique cultural heritage;

  • to maintain Indian crafts by using their techniques for making beautiful jewelry and toys with our own hands.

Beads in the life of the Indians

Beauty aside, wearing or presenting jewelry had many social, economic, political and religious implications for the Native Americans.

Jewelry was used to show connection with a particular group. Beads validated treaties and were used to remember oral tradition, as well as for exchange and currency. There were many ritual aspects of beads and pendants used in ceremonies of dance, curing and sacrifice. Jewelry was also used in many ‘rites of passage’ which individuals passed through in their lives.

Beads are perhaps one of the earliest forms of Indian art. From the young age, Native Americans are trained in this delicate craft. Their beadwork styles are passed from generation to generation, from master quill and bead workers to novice artists. Although, each tribe has long had its own style, designers could and do share their personal beliefs, emotions and experiences in their work.

Kinds of beads

Native American beadwork consisted of making, wearing, and trading beads. And this was about 8,000 years BEFORE the Europeans crossed the Atlantic!

Indian beads from natural materials

Native Americans were lovers of nature and worshiped the elements that they depended on (buffalo, rain) or were in awe of (eagles, waterfalls, canyons, natural wonders). These themes are characteristic of Native American jewelry.

Before contact with European civilization, Native Americans on both continents were making beautiful beads from natural materials obtained from their own area or through trade with other tribes. Trade routes crossed the Americas and extended to the Caribbean Islands, giving access to a variety of material: shell, metals, semi-precious stones, pearl, bone, ivory, feathers and fossils.

Many of the beads that were used in traditional Native American beadwork were beads that had been carved out of different animal horns, turtle shells, and even deer hooves. Some other popular choices of beads were animals’ teeth and claws. Wooden beads, sometimes dyed, were carved and drilled. Hard seeds were steamed to soften them for awl piercing and stringing. Small animal bones were polished and shaped into cylinders for neck.

Wampum was the most important bead in American history. The word "wampum" comes from the Narragansett word and means 'white shell beads'. Wampum beads were made from the growth rings of the Quahog shell. They were sacred and used in all public events.

Thus, the desire for harmony with nature defined Native Americans’ special appreciation of beauty. Being products of Mother Earth, beads from natural materials appealed to them most of all.

European beads

The arrival of explorers and traders from Europe changed the materials Native Americans used, as well as influenced traditional patterns. Europeans made other types of beads available. Glass (made in Venice, Italy), ceramic, and cast metal beads (silver, brass, nickel, copper and zinc) were trade items used from the 16th century on. Native Americans quickly adopted the new material, incorporating glass beads into traditional patterns.

Native American beadwork changed and evolved over time when settlers started arriving and bringing multicolored glass beads. With the new glass beads Indian women were able to obtain through trade, came examples of Native American beadwork that were even more beautiful and extraordinary than previously. Many European women liked the intricate designs of glass beads and precious stones and some of these became quite a valuable commodity for the Native tribes.

Although, the first traders offered the finest beads they could get, including amber and faceted beads, soon the Native Americans were asking for beads in specific materials, colors and shapes.

Shape, colour and other aspects

Native peoples attributed high symbolic value to glass beads that Europeans could not understand. In the Northeast, round, polished, glassy beads were associated with seeds, berries, shells, crystals, life, light, sight, and related concepts because of their form. They resembled the clarity and hardness of natural crystalline minerals, their polished surface was reflective like water and had a conceptual relationship with 'seeing the soul'.

Coastal Native American women had beads made in the shapes of ovals, barrels, circles, cones, diamonds, triangles, and squares. Bone beads were carved in the form of animals, birds and fish. These images of natural world were and are an important part of Native American beliefs. Many of these animals and natural features held great cultural and spiritual significance for the artists. For example, BEAR meant power, protection and strength, EAGLE - courage, wisdom and keen sight, WOLF - a guide, intelligence, steadfastness, protection, BUFFALO - abundance, generosity, survival, HUMMINGBIRD - joy, healing, soul carrier, HORSE – swiftness, SNAKE – defiance.

Colours were also of great importance for Native Americans. Surprisingly, they didn’t value gold because of its colour, they thought it to be the most worthless of all, and rated blue and red above all other colours.

White wampum was the emblem of health, peace, purity and good intention. Purple and black wampum conveyed serious or civic affairs, sometimes indicating disease, sadness, distress or hostility, at least in referring to the background colours in belt patterns. A wampum belt painted red was sent as a summons for war.

So, unlike peoples of other cultures, Native Americans valued beads more for their symbolic associations of the form, material, color and other aspects, than for what an item was worth. Jewelry made from these beads carried a great spiritual message.

Spiritual implications

Indian beading was traditionally performed by women as acts of extreme respect and reverence to the natural world. Many of the patterns and images they used were highly symbolical, to say nothing of the beading process. Using Native American beads was considered sacred to these people, and the act of stringing the beads was itself a form of prayer and reflection.

Each tribe put its dearest values and most deeply held beliefs into its artwork. Making sacred objects beautiful, especially by taking a lot of time and care, showed honor and respect to the spiritual powers, not only through words and feelings, but through artistry and work. That is why beaded items for religious purposes (medicine pouch, pipe bag) were made personally, or given by relatives, not bought or sold. Beadwork on such items often reminded the owner of a personal vision or sign or the meaning of a personal name.

The examples of great spiritual significance of jewelry made from beads may be bone chokers - shortened necklaces carved from bone and horn. Bone chokers were believed to insure spiritual protection of the voice. By wearing a bone choker, the spirits of the animal it came from could save from all kinds of sicknesses. It was also believed that the spirit would provide you with great speaking ability when wearing a properly made bone choker. During tribal meetings, almost all present who would speak, would wear a Bone Choker believing that it would give them the power to speak from the heart. Only the chokers created by the tribes’ specialists had the greatest spiritual power.

Speaking of spiritual implications of Native American beading, it should be emphasized that the finished product was not considered to be as valued as the process of creation itself, but was viewed as a beautiful product of this custom.

Religious implications, ceremonies and rituals

Beadwork done as a prayer or vow played a crucial role in the ceremonies and traditions of the Native American people. Indians often integrated beads and pendants into ritual expression and took great pains in the preparation of their appearance and accessories.

Dance ceremonies celebrated the change in seasons, harvest, births, marriages and other events. They were often accompanied by chanting and throwing out wampum to onlookers. Beads were often distributed and redistributed during Native American dance ceremonies.

Ceremonies of healing and curing often required the use of specific types of jewelry or ornamentation. Shell beads of many animals were utilized in healing rituals. Beads made from turtle shell were very popular as these reptiles symbolized good health and long life. Jewelry worn and used in dance ritual were often relinquished or destroyed in sacrifice.

Funerals used pendants and amulets made of precious beads to ease the passing of the deceased back into the earth.

Rites of passage where also given further weight by the use of special Native American beads that anchored the wearer to the natural world in a special and divine way.

Beads were an important courting gift. When a man courted a woman, he brought her engagement presents like silver combs, mirrors, and almost always, necklace beads. The retention of the wampum by the bride was considered a sign of consent.

The following ritual seemed to me one of the most important. It is called The Blessing Way and it is a ceremony of giving a gift for the baby. Women were offered these gifts as they anticipated the child's arrival. The gifts were beads and blessings in the form of motherly advice and wishes for mother and baby. The beads were thread together into a necklace. The mother-to-be wore her Blessing necklace to the birth "protected" by the women of her village and their well wishes. After the birth, the mother gave the necklace with her newly added bead to the caretaker to be passed on to the next mother. Each baby born was symbolically linked to the community, women strengthened their union with each other and the preceding generations. Nourishing Native American spirit, this ceremony celebrated the process of life.

As you see, being perceived as a sacred prayer, beadwork and use of beads underlay and strengthened ceremonial activities which embraced people for a common purpose.

Aesthetic implications

The most common use of beads for the majority of peoples that inhabited our planet was enhancing their household goods, homes and bodies. Native Americans were not an exception. Indian beadwork can be seen on items ranging from basic clothing, handbags, pouches, moccasins, headdresses and different pieces of jewelry often worn by both men and women.

The amount of beads worn by the Seminole women was a phenomenon to all who saw them. It could reach 12 pounds or so of beads and a dress could be decorated with about 6 kg of beads. Imagine how difficult it was to conduct daily tasks, while wearing that weight! Actually, beauty demands a great sacrifice.

Besides jewelry, beads were inlaid into household objects of wood. Wampum inlaid wooden items included tomahawk handles, pendants and native bread mixing bowls.

Historical and cultural implications

Native American peoples had no written languages, so beads were used as a means of transmitting messages through symbolic designs. Signaling peaceful, warlike, or other intentions between tribes or tribes and colonists, belts were made using beads of different colours and designs.

Native American beadwork like woven wampum belts served as a device for recording important events. The arrangement of beads in the design formed the basis for preserving the memory of an event and passing down that knowledge to the next generation. A typical large belt of six feet in length might contain 6000 beads. More importantly, such a belt would be a great sanctity, because it contained so many memories, its symbols when read by the elders, spoke volumes.

Wampum was used for storytelling. The symbols told a story in the oral tradition or spoken word. With "story" necklaces the narrator could show children each character or make up his own tale to fit the beads.

The American William James Sidis wrote in his 1935 history: "The weaving of wampum belts is a sort of writing by means of colored beads, which could be read by anyone acquainted with wampum language, irrespective of what the spoken language is. Records and treaties are kept in this manner, and individuals could write letters to one another in this way."

So, Indian beads not only conveyed aesthetic or spiritual meaning, they commemorated historical events, kept important records, were means of communication between tribes and preserving culture and traditions of the numerous tribes within North America.

Economic implications

Wampum beads were part of economy, reciprocity and gift exchange. Reciprocal gift giving cemented ties between Native Americans. The similarity in design and abundance of shell pendants, at both coastal and inland areas attests to Native American networks of regional trade and sharing.

With European contact, wampum was quickly evolved into a formal currency since metal coins were scarce. It was strung to veins and arranged in lengths of one fathom (6 feet), which contained from 240 to 360 individual beads. Individual strands were then worked into bands from one to five inches wide, to be worn on the wrist, waist, or over the shoulder. Their current worth depended on the size and colour of the beads. "Fathom" soon came to denote a specific monetary value. A fathom of white beads was worth 10 shillings and double that for purple beads. The wampum embroidered clothing of King Philip was valued at twenty pounds.

Using shell, glass and metal beads, early colonists and Native Americans could barter for the products of the other. Wampum was even mass-produced by the Dutch, and remained in use until the American Revolution.

Political implications

The very first "United Nations" agreement (the Iroquois Confederacy), where national growth was NOT by conquest or forced subjugation but where independent nations joined together, was between the five original Iroquois Nations! This idea of peaceful uniting disparate but still sovereign nations influenced the formation of the federation that WAS TO BECOME the United States.

The Peacemaker envisioned the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois Confederacy) as one united extended Longhouse in which each nation had its own hearth. This concept is written symbolically into the Hiawatha belt. To the novice, the belt looks like interlocking squares on each side of a tree, but to the Haudenosaunee, the entire story of how the Great Law of Peace developed is encapsulated within these symbols.

The Great Chain, or Covenant Belt, was presented by the U.S. government to the Iroquois in 1794 at the Pickering Treaty at Canandaigua. The human figures, each linked by a wampum belt, form a chain of friendship. The belt validated the alliance between the thirteen states and the Iroquoian confederacy.

Furthermore, councils could not meet without the proper seating arrangements as described in a wampum string. Every procedure either adoption, mourning, speaking at council meetings, treaty or contract all called for wampum.

The first war the English fought against the Native Americans was a war fought over beads. Once the English discovered how important wampum was, they began to manufacture wampum, the supply of which the Pequot had controlled up until 1633. The Indians rebelled and a war on the Pequots was declared.

Considering everything stated above, we can conclude that the sanctity of wampum belts validating treaties and contracts between Indian tribes and colonists extended to the treaties themselves. Wampum belts served as visual reminders of the event, they called to memory the arrangements agreed on. Actually, these belts were more like important original documents. That’s why the laws were sacredly respected and strictly observed.

Social implications

In addition to being used for messages, treaties and adornment, these beads had social implications. Beaded jewelry displayed the status of the wearer. A higher status was represented by the intricate necklace and pendant arrangements. For instance, chiefs, warriors or other persons in special leadership positions such as medicine men could extend the number of strands in their Bone Chokers. The other Indians wore bone chokers of one or two strands.

Jewelry was worn or exchanged by Native Americans to indicate that individual had passed through an important physical or social change. These transformations are called rites of passage. Marriage, age, occupation and lineage could all be represented by the humble bead. Groups within Native American society where categorized by totems, signified by the jewelry. Native American Indian beads where used to display their totems, and show how that connected them to their family, clan or group. For example, among many northeastern tribes, individuals acquired a spiritual totem at adolescence, often in the shape of a mammal, snake or bird, which was henceforth carried with that individual. Personal totems often coincided with those of a person’s family, clan or society. Jewelry was a means for Native Americans to show they belonged to that group.

Today, wearing clothes that reflects a historic tribal style is still a way for an Indian to express solidarity with his or her people.

Beads in the cut of European culture

Europeans saw glass beads as merely blobs of melted glass, 'trinkets', cheap and inexpensive exchange commodity. In European countries where beads were produced, they were simply priced according to the expense of ingredients to manufacture them. The colonists could not understand a high symbolic value Native Americans attributed to glass beads but they didn’t have trouble capitalizing on it.

As European explorers started inland, one of the significant items used for gifts were glass beads. Using them in trade for Indian friendship was prevalent in the days when colonists sought control of North American territories. European traders and politicians often exploited gift exchange to gain Native American favour or lands. The Spanish, English, Dutch and French offered glass beads as presents for building goodwill with the Indians as well as inducements to religious conversion.

When Europeans realized the importance of wampum for Native people, it quickly evolved into a formal currency. While the Indians did not use it as money, New England colonies used it as a medium of exchange. Purple wampum was more expensive than white, so it was falsified and the trade was not honest.

Both civilizations produced different things from beads. But it was the art and workmanship of beadwork itself that was considered sacred in the Indian culture. This is unlike Western society where it is normal to value finished products more than the workmanship that was required to produce them.

In one word, unique and noble Native American perception of beads often contradicts European ideas. The only point where they meet is decoration and aesthetic beauty of the products.

Our personal contribution

Native American arts have been threatened by colonization, assimilation, and oppression, some of them are almost extinct. Disappearing of Native crafts may lead to the loss of entire cultures. Building respect for human rights, we must try to preserve their culture and propagate Native American idea of balance with nature in our society. I think it is through our youthful and energetic generation that the culture, history and art of all ethnic groups can be preserved.

Beading and jewelry making is a great hobby for all ages. Kids love to get their hands working, they also can contribute to preserving Native American culture. We try to find different instructions and methods of teaching these crafts, and discuss them at our home reading lessons. We’ve found a lot of information about Native American beadwork techniques and some other crafts.

I am fond of beadwork. Working towards popularizing these crafts, I show articles made from beads to my schoolmates and tell them legends connected with their creation. Last year we took part in seminars and made presentations in many classes in our Lyceum.

Among the articles made by the pupils of our group is an Indian cornhusk doll, a dream catcher, a beaded turtle and a doll. According to the Indian legend the cornhusk doll doesn’t have a face. She was too boastful of her beautiful face and forgot about her duties. So, the Great Spirit took the reflection of her pretty face. The turtle is the symbol of long life and good health. The Dream Catcher should be hung above the bed to catch all bad dreams at night. As you see every article has its own exciting story. We use these items to tell our junior students about Native Americans and their unique traditions. We are going to set up a little museum as soon as we have enough exhibits.

These items are valuable not just for their beauty but for the process of their creation. Crafting these things, we leant a lot, we enjoyed being together and thinking about important things in our life. Unfortunately, Native American beadwork is not simple. In fact, it can take several months to complete a single beadwork, but I am sure it is wise as it helps to develop patience, observation, it challenges our will and tests our character.


To sum it all up, beads are a many-faceted part of native history in North America. It is amazing that such a little thing, “a trinket” as Europeans call it, has played and is still playing such a tremendous role in the life of the whole civilization! Examining Indian beads, we look back through history at many aspects of Native American life and realize how intelligent, wise, spiritual and creative these people were.

The beauty of nature inspired many generations of Native peoples to express their views of themselves and the world around them with touching grace and artistry. I am sure that Native Americans of today have survived only because they kept holding on their culture and traditions.

My strong belief is that every beaded item is worth taking efforts and spending your time. I know from my own experience that one bead strung at a time, one stitch made at a time is like one step to your goal… And here it is! Your work has been finished. Now it is a tiny part of your soul which you can share with the whole world!

Different nations have much in common. Let’s try to be more tolerant, peaceful, understanding and kind to each other.


1) Native American Crafts

Native American Beadwork


2) The Complete Guide to Traditional Native American Beadwork: A Definitive Study of

Authentic Tools, Materials, Techniques, and Styles, Joel Monture, Wiley, 1993

3) Native American Quotes - They May Change You


4) About Native American Jewelry


5) History, Cultural Values of Beads


6) The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper, Moscow, 1949

Дата добавления 14.10.2015
Раздел Иностранные языки
Подраздел Другие методич. материалы
Номер материала ДВ-059909
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