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First Nations Beadwork

February 15, 2015 , In: Art History, Culture, Indigenous, Inspiration
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I’d like to take you on a brief tour of beautiful beadwork by Northeastern American and Canadian Indians. While not exactly jewelry-related, it certainly is all about beads!

Beaded Bags, Wabanaki type, vase or inverted keyhole shape. Glass beads, black velvet fabric, various materials used for the edge binding. The bag in the center is 6.2 inches high by 5.2 inches wide. From Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork, by Gerry Biron.

Prior to European settlers arriving to this continent, decorative work was primarily created with porcupine quills, feathers, birchbark, shells, stones, paint, hide, and sinew, to name a few materials. Later, Europeans introduced glass beads, which came to be a highly valued and integral part in subsequent decoration in the Americas. In the Northeast, we find a large variety of floral and woodland-inspired patterns, and a common motif, the “Double Curve”.

I will start with a few examples of quill work from the 18th and 19th centuries. Due to the nature of the material, though still highly detailed and intricate, the style of the work tended to be rather geometric, even in the depiction of floral motifs.

Huron Birchbark Cigar Case with Quilled and Porcupine Embroidery featuring Indians in a canoe while others walk in a forest filled with realistic wildlife. From Bidsquare.
Woodlands Native American Micmac Porcupine Quillworked Birch Bark Box 
(1800 to 1900 Native American), from CINOA.

Anishinaabe outfit, c. 1790, Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan: Birchbark, cotton, linen, wool, feathers, silk, silver brooches, porcupine quills, horsehair, hide, sinew. From Infinity of Nations, at the National Museum of the American Indian.

 
And now on to beadwork

Here we see the explosion of color and free-flowing expression of decorative elements.

Beaded Gloves, found on Pinterest.
A James Bay Cree beaded octopus bag. Beaded on velvet, with cloth lining and trim, similar patterns of floral sprays on either side, the tabs displaying distinct vine and blossom motifs, with bead and wool tassel fringe. From Bonhams.  
Detail of a Gauntlet, found on Pinterest. the double-curve motif is evident in the arrangement of the leaves and branches.
A great example of the double-curve motif… Beaded Bags, with the traditional double-curve motif, front and back views, Mi’kmaq type. Glass beads sewn onto red wool serge of the type seen on Canadian military uniforms. Circa 1840s. The beads on both bags are strung on horsehair. From Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork, by Gerry Biron
Contemporary beaded dress: “This photo was taken at the FSIN Pow Wow in Saskatoon Saskatchewan. These ladies in their Ladies Traditional Dance regalia found a some time to catch up and share a moment with each other among the huge crowd of dancers.” – CindyLou Photos, from This Beautiful World
Contemporary artist Rhonda Besaw’s peaked cap, a Mi’kmaq style headdress. This pattern shows a play on the double-curve motif 
Mohawk style accessories, by contemporary bead artist Niio Perkins

Beautiful beaded wampum bag and neck piece by contemporary bead artist Niio Perkins

Little traditional-style purse, by contemporary bead artist Niio Perkins. The fiddle-head, which here echoes the double-curve, was a popular motif.
Another little purse by contemporary bead artist Niio Perkins
 
I hope you have enjoyed this brief survey of First Nations bead work. It barely scratches the surface, there is much more to explore. For more information, here is a wonderful blog to help you get started: 
 

Finally, here is a brief video featuring a few contemporary First Nations people who bead….

 

 

Karen Totten

Karen has worked professionally as an artist and designer for over 30 years in a variety of creative disciplines: architectural design, illustration, art direction, mixed media art, interaction design. She currently works full time as a User Experience (UX) Design Principal for an international consultancy. When not flying to work every week, her other passions are ceramic art, sketching, and occasionally, jewelry design. “For me, the creative life, from UX to fine art, has always been one of exploration and adventure. As the daughter of an air force navigator, I grew up a traveler. To this day I am intrigued by stories and motifs that transcend time, culture, and geography.“
  1. Reply

    Nice research, Karen! Thanks for spending your snowy, frigid day on it… Amazing body of work and you only touched the surface!

  2. Reply

    What a fantastic, enriching post! Thanks so very much for sharing the info and fabulous photos!

  3. Reply

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I grew up in New York State. My family heritage is Mohawk, way back in the day and I've always; been so proud of these people. The Mohawk tribe, of course was part of the Iroquois Nation. their beautiful designs have always been special to me and it is so nice to meet someone else who appreciates the work involved and the meaning behind the designs. Thanks for sharing with so many others..

  4. Reply

    Wonderful post Karen. Thanx for sharing.

  5. Reply

    Thank you for all the information on Indian beadwork and arts. I really enjoyed all the beautiful examples you included. It's great to see the modern styles too.

  6. Reply

    I really enjoyed your post, Karen. I taught in a private tribal school for a year and in a public school on Yakima Nation land for over 20 years. But of course these are west coast tribes, it was interesting to read about some east coast designs. Thanks for the time you put into the research for this piece.

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