Monday, 21 January 2013

North American Art Beads

A Yakima bridal headdress. The bride's wealth is reflected in the use of highly valued Dentalium shells. The Chinese coins and imported blue glass beads came into the Northwest with the trans-Pacific fir trade during the mid-nineteenth century
For thousands of years prior to European colonization, Indian civilizations made the North American continent their home. Anthropologists place the more than three hundred North American Indian tribes into broad cultural groups, organized by geographic areas: Woodland (southeastern and northeastern), Great Lakes, Plains, Intermontane, Southwest, California, Northwest Coast, and Subarctic. The linking of cultural characteristics with environments developed as an aid to interpreting the diverse lifestyles and material cultures of a wide range of tribes. 
North American Indian languages appear to have no word for art; artistic expression was fully integrated into many aspects of life and not treated as a separate activity. Objects were crafted to serve a host of functions, both secular and sacred. The extent of their complexity and that of the overall artifact assemblage depended on the lifestyle of the group and the resources available to it.

Although each group of Indians produced objects specific to its customs and beliefs, all North American Indians seem to have shared an appreciation for beads. At least eight thou-sand years before Europeans crossed the Atlantic, Indians were making, wearing, and trading beads of shell, pearl, bone, teeth, stone, and fossil crinoid stems. 

Three-stringed bracelet of white, opaque, wound-glass trade beads, collected in the Upper Missouri Valley in the 1850s. They are typical of the large, coarse beads carried by early Plains traders. Imported glass beads, first introduced to North American native populations by Christopher Columbus in 1492, had a significant economic and aesthetic impact on Indian material culture. The earliest glass beads were gifts from explorers and missionaries, but in the sixteenth century the small seed beads became an important medium of exchange in the expanding North American fur trade. The availability of these small beads, along with the introduction of trade cloth and thin steel needles, led to the decline of age-old decorative techniques, including quillwork, and the rise of beadwork as the predominant Indian craft. 

While some beadworkers followed earlier geometric quillwork patterns, many Indian women borrowed heavily from European motifs. Embroidery, needlepoint, lacework, and even Oriental Caucasian rugs, brought to the New World by immigrants and carried across the continent by settlers, provided designs that were translated into beadwork.

 Dakota (Sioux) necklace of Venetian beads, fossil crinoid stems, and bear claws strung on leather thongs, c. 1850. Grizzly bear claws were highly prized and worn only by leaders.
The blend of Indian imagination and European designs and materials reached a particularly successful synthesis on the Plains about 1870. The Crow and other tribes created beautiful beaded adornment for themselves and their horses.

The intermingling of Indian and European beadmaking concepts is perhaps best exemplified in the story of wampum—the most important shell bead in North American history Although wampum existed before the arrival of Europeans, it was the introduction of steel tools by the Dutch that greatly expanded wampum production into an industry that had broad political and economic ramifications for both Indians and colonists.

Beads of Indigenous Materials

While North American Indians typically made beads from local materials, they eagerly sought imported stones, shells, and metals to make rare beads that would be prestigious. Extensive trade networks crisscrossed North America. Native copper from Lake Superior, sometimes in the form of rolled tubular or rounded beads, was traded several hundred miles away in the Midwest and Woodlands from as early as 3000 B.C. 122 Prehistoric Southwestern cultures traded turquoise throughout the western regions and into Mexico. 

The red ochre backing identifies these as the moccasins of a shaman. The circle is a recurring (Blackfoot) Plains motif; it has neither beginning nor end and symbolizes the sun, the moon, the calendar year, and life itself.Marine shells from the Florida coasts were traded north, made into beads in Illinois, then distributed to the agricultural societies of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois river valleys about A.D. 1100. Dentalium shells from the Pacific Northwest were traded throughout the Plains, and Minnesota pipestone (catlinite) was widely traded through the Great Lakes and Plains regions for more than two thousand years.

Beads made from locally available freshwater pearls were popular among prehistoric cultures of the Mississippi and other major river valleys of the Midwest. Both marine and fresh-water pearls were reportedly seen by early European explorers in many parts of the New World, including Virginia, Maine, and California.

Indians used and esteemed beads made of shell above all others, and the raw materials often traveled great distances. Shell of the Busycon, a species of conch found along the Florida coast, was traded north on the Mississippi River into the Midwest. Pacific coast shells, particularly haliotis (abalone), are commonly discovered in prehistoric sites in New Mexico and Arizona. A string of fifty beads made of olivella shells originating on the California coast was excavated from a Nevada site dating to 6000 B.c.

 which is said to have been owned by Sitting Bull, perhaps also shows the influence of Caucasian rug designs on Plains Indian bead-work. (These rugs were frequently included in the household furnishings of settlers moving west.) In the western Great Lakes region, semigeometric flower forms produced by loomwork techniques mirror the region's juncture of eastern Wood-lands and western Plains. The best-known shell bead was wampum: small, cylindrical, centrally drilled white and purple beads made primarily of the quahog clamshell. Strung on leather thongs or woven into belts with sinew thread, wampum was sometimes worn as decoration but developed far greater significance as currency and was used for objects commemorating major political and ceremonial events.

The Glass Bead Trade

Prehistoric North Americans' appreciation for beads helped the Spanish explore and colonize the New World. One of Christopher Columbus's first acts upon reaching the Bahamas in 1492 was to offer glass beads to the Arawak Indians. His October 12 log entry is the earliest record of glass beads in America:

A large crowd of natives congregated there. .. . In order to win the friendship and affection of that people and because I was convinced that their conversion to our Holy Faith would be better promoted through love than through force, I presented some of them with red caps and some strings of glass beads which they placed around their necks, and with other trifles of insignificant worth that delighted them and by which we have got a wonderful hold on their affections.

This style was best accomplished by embroidered beadwork. Floral designs were first introduced to Hama girls by French nuns in the early eighteenth century For the western Plains tribes, the use of geometric, angular patterns reflects their indigenous geometric style as well as the stark, strong forms so prevalent in dry grass-land landscapes.Using glass beads to win Indian friendship was a prevalent custom in the days when England, France, Sweden, Holland, and Spain all vied for control of North American territories. The practice lasted through the American Revolution, when gift-giving gradually gave way to trading beads for fur.
Through the fur trade, glass beads had a significant effect on North American Indian life. Early explorers found the American continent teeming with wildlife and soon established a system in which horses, guns, alcohol, and other items were exchanged for the fur pelts so coveted in Europe. When glass beads were introduced as a trade item, they were widely sought after by Indians for their colors and ease of use. They often replaced Indian-made beads of bone, shell, copper, and stone.

Indian cultures developed in ways that reflected their natural environment. Thus, the Haida of the Pacific Northwest, who lived in immense spruce and redwood forests, were prolific woodcarvers; the Pueblo people, whose lives were organized by mythology and rituals tied to maize agriculture, symbolized this ideology in much of their pottery; and the Plains people adorned their abundant supply of animal hides with paint, quills, and eventually beads. Frederick Dockstader explains in Indian Art in America: "Their work ... grew out of the natural resources provided by their Creator. In turning these resources into artistic objects, they returned the compliment.

 The elaborate geometric patterning of the eastern Plains on the Dakota (Sioux) bag. Beadworkers took pride in their ability to do fine work. If a man wished to compete with a neighbor who owned a pair of fully beaded moccasins, he could have his wife bead his moccasins on the soles as well as on the tops. (However, moccasins beaded on the soles, known as "spirit moccasins: were designed primarily for burials.) A competitive woman might bead her dress all the way to the bottom edge instead of restricting her beads to the yoke.

Intertribal trade and gift-giving often involved objects of beadwork, resulting in the frequent merging and reinterpretation of styles. For example, the floral motifs of the northeastern Woodland were transformed into stylized floral patterns of the Great Lakes. As tribes moved west in search of game and fur in the nineteenth century artisans of different tribes were in contact more often.

In the Southwest today, Navajo and Pueblo artisans create exquisite bead jewelry that reflects the influence of the ancient Hohokam, Mogollon, and Anasazi cultures. Frequently working in turquoise, jet, stone, bone, and shell the same materials used for the past six thousand years, as well as sugelite, lapis lazuli, opals, silver, and gold materials introduced within the last several hundred years Native Americans of the Southwest still maintain a vital bead industry. 

Writer - Lois Sherr Dubin
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