Section 4: Bead Work

The decoration of hides, pots, bone tools and other objects has been a part of American Indian women’s work and leisure time for thousands of years. Many women decorated clothing, blankets, and moccasins with porcupine quills arranged in a design. The design often represented some object (such as bison or a bird) of importance to the woman or her tribe.

Young girl in beaded leather dress
Image 17: This young girl wore a beaded leather dress to pose for her photograph. The dress style and bead designs are traditional. The beaded awl case hanging from her belt signifies women’s traditional role in making clothing for their families. SHSND 1952-5317

The earliest European traders came to North America with glass beads made in European factories to trade for furs. This trade spread across the continent throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Many beadworkers of the Great Plains tribes substituted colorful beads for porcupine quills in their decorative work. When American Indians signed treaties and established their lists of annuity goods that they were to receive in exchange for their land, beads were often listed as desirable annuity goods. Reservation traders kept supplies of beads in various sizes, styles, and colors that could be sold or traded to their Indian customers.

Mr & Mrs Joe Claymore and their beadwork Fort Yates ND 1915
Image 18: Mr. and Mrs. Joe Claymore display beadwork in their shop at Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Reservation. Many of the pieces, especially the satchels and briefcases were made for the tourist trade. This photograph was taken around 1915. SHSND 1952-0440

Once reservations were established, women produced more beadwork in more elaborate designs than ever before. They may have had more time for beadwork, since the tribes spent less time hunting, drying meat, and moving camp to find food sources. During the early reservation years, women also found that their beaded objects had value to non-Indian visitors to the reservations. Frontier army officers and their wives recognized the beauty of beaded leather objects. Linda Slaughter of Bismarck knew how important beadwork was for American Indian women. She wrote that "bead work and dressing and embroidering deerskins to be made into garments were the industries of the women . . . and much of their work had artistic merit."

Indian Woman at work Zahns Photo
Image 19: A Dakota woman used an awl to punch a hole in a moccasin she was making.  The other moccasin lies on the rug at her feet.  She may keep the moccasins for her own use, or sell them at a trader's store. The rugs behind her and under her feet belonged to the photographer, Frank Zahn.  SHSND 0900-0048
miniature village
Image 20: This scene is a portion of an entire village created in miniature by Laura Ramsey, a Yankton Dakota who lived at Standing Rock Reservation. In the 1950s, Mrs. Ramsey made several miniature villages with tiny tools, animals, tipis, and other things she remembered from her childhood. Her craft is a historical reminder of the skills that women used to build and maintain their homes before they were moved onto a reservation by the federal government. Mrs. Ramsey sold this village and other beaded objects. The cherry pounder tray in front of the female doll is about 3.25 inches in diameter. The male doll is 8.75 inches high; the female doll is 8.5 inches high. The tipi is 24 inches high. All pieces are made of leather, wood, bone, feather, and glass beads. SHSND Museums 13421-13444

Education of Indian children in day schools and boarding schools usually included developing craft skills. Boys learned welding, carpentry, and blacksmithing. Girls learned to sew, embroider, and knit. Some schools hired American Indian women to teach beading to the students. Students decorated belts, moccasins, and purses. (See Image 17) Schools on the Fort Berthold reservation sent beaded pieces to exhibitions in eastern cities such as Boston. Girls learned to adapt traditional designs to European American interests.

Almost every reservation had a trader’s store. (See Image 18) Traders also recognized the beauty of beaded designs. Traders knew that people living in fine homes in Chicago, New York, and other cities would pay well for these pieces. The traders often asked the beadworkers to change their designs a little to please the collectors.

The products of skilled beadworkers became even more important as more Americans chose to spend their vacations traveling in the United States. Automobiles took tourists to reservations and nearby cities where tourists became customers for American Indian women’s beadwork. (See Image 19) Tourists purchased moccasins, toy-sized tipis, and dolls. (See Image 20) They sometimes bought more elaborate pieces such as beaded shirts.

Document 2: Buffalo Bird Woman on The Cloud Stone

Buffalo Bird Woman on Cloud Beads
Document 2: The women of Fort Berthold reservation valued glass beads, but used the beads in ways that were useful to them. Sometimes they re-made the beads into something different. (See Image 21) Anthropologist Gilbert Wilson asked Buffalo Bird Woman (Maxidiwiac), about a Cloud Stone or cloud bead. She said that sometimes beadworkers created new beads out of other materials. Buffalo Bird Woman lived at a village called Independence on the Fort Berthold reservation when she spoke to Gilbert Wilson. She had been born in an earthlodge in 1840, or as she told it to Gilbert Wilson in 1914, “My birth was three years after the smallpox year.” She held to her traditions throughout her long life, adapting manufactured goods and the new ways of white government agents and missionaries to her own ways. Buffalo Bird Woman died in 1920 Source: W557 the Papers of Gilbert Wilson, 1916, page 163. Used with permission of Minnesota Historical Society and the American Museum of Natural History
cloud stone
Image 21: This cloud stone is similar to the one that Buffalo Bird Woman described. The woman who made it melted blue glass trade beads to create a new design. American Indians often re-made trade goods into something that had more value for them. SHSND Museums 1982.285.32-3

Why is this important?Beadwork was an important economic skill that American Indian women learned from older women and passed on to their daughters and other young women. Before the reservation era, a skilled beadworker could sell her work to others in her village in exchange for meat or horses. During the reservation era, beading took on new significance as a source of cash income. Cash was necessary to purchase food, clothing, tools, and household objects. The cash income earned by beadworkers replaced traditional forms of economic activity such as hunting and gardening.

Today, both men and women apply beads to objects that are both artistic and practical. Beadwork is still an important skill. Skilled beadworkers sell decorated objects to visitors and offer beautifully decorated pieces as gifts. Beading is a tradition that has been adapted as circumstances changed for American Indians. Even though styles, tools, and even the beads have changed, beading is a way that modern American Indians connect with the traditions of their past.