Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Beadwork of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[For further information on Indian beadwork, consult the Encyclopedia of North American Indians ]



Attractive and precious objects, perforated usually through the middle and strung for various purposes, constitute a class of ornaments universally esteemed, which the Indians of North America did not fail to develop. Akin to beads, and scarcely separable from them, were objects from the same materials called pendants. They were perforated near the end or edge and hung on the person or on garments. All were made from mineral, vegetal, or animal substances, and after the discovery the introduction of beads of glass and porcelain, as well as that of metal tools for making the old varieties, greatly multiplied their employment. Mineral substances showing pretty coloured or brilliant surfaces, from which beads were made, were copper, hematite, all kinds of quartz, serpentine, magnetite, slate, soapstone, turquoise, encrinite sections, pottery, and, in later times, silver and other metals, porcelain, and glass. They were of many sizes and shapes. Among vegetal substances seeds and, especially along the southern tier of states from Florida to California , nuts were widely used for beads, and here and there stems and roots of pretty or scented plants were cut into sections for the same purpose. But far the largest share of beads were made from animal materials - shell, bone, horn, teeth, claws, and ivory. Beads of marine or fresh-water shells were made by grinding off the apex, as in the case of dentalium, or the unchanged shells of bivalves were merely perforated near the hinge. Pearls were bored through the middle, and shells were cut into discs, cylinders, spheres, spindles, etc. In places the columellae of large conchs were removed and pierced through the long diameter for stringing. Bone beads were usually cylinders produced by cutting sections of various lengths from the thigh or other parts of vertebrate skeletons. When the wall of the bone was thick the ends were ground to give a spherical form. The milk teeth of the elk, the canine teeth of the bear, and the incisors of rodents were highly valued, and, in later times, the incisors of the horse were worn. The beaks of the puffin, the talons of rapacious birds, and bears' claws were wrought into ceremonial dress and paraphernalia. A great deal of taste and manual skill were developed in selecting the materials, and in cutting, grinding, and rolling them into shape and uniform size, as well as in polishing and perforating substances, some of them very hard, as jasper. Many of the cylinders are several inches long. The tribes of N. W. California wrap dentalia with snake skin glued on in stripe, while the Pomo and their neighbours make large cylinders of a baked mineral (Kroeber).


The general uses to which beads were put are legion. They were tied in the hair, worn singly or in strings from the ears, on the neck, arms, wrist, waist, and lower limbs, or were attached to bark and wooden vessels, matting, basketry, and other textiles. They were woven into fabrics or wrought into network, their varied and bright colours not only enhancing beauty but lending themselves to heraldry. Glass beads thus woven produce effects like those of cathedral glass. Again, they were embroidered on every part of ceremonial costume, sometimes entirely covering head-dress, coat, regalia, leggings, or moccasins, and on all sorts of receptacles. The old-time technic and designs of quillwork are closely imitated. They were largely employed as gifts and as money, also as tokens and in records of hunts or of important events, such as treaties. They were conspicuous accessories in the councils of war and peace in the conventional expression of tribal symbolism, and in traditional story-telling, and were offered in worship. They were regarded as insignia of functions, and were buried, often in vast quantities, with the dead.


In each of the ethnic areas of North America nature provided tractable and attractive material to the bead-maker. In the Arctic region it was walrus ivory and the glossy teeth of mammals. They served not only for personal adornment, but were hung to all sorts of skin receptacles and inlaid upon the surfaces of those made of wood and soft stone. The Danes brought glass to the eastern [Inuit], the whalers to the central, and the Russians to the western tribes. In the St. Lawrence-Atlantic area whole shells were strung, and cylinders, discs, and spindles were cut from the valves of the clam (Venus mercenaria). In Virginia a cheap kind, called roanoke , were made from oyster shells. In the N. small white and purple cylinders, called wampum, served for ornament and were used in elaborate treaty belts and as a money standard, also flat discs an inch or more in width being bored through their long diameters. The Cherokee name for beads and money is the same. Subsequently imitated by the colonists, these beads received a fixed value. The mound-builders and other tribes of the Mississippi valley and the Gulf states used pearls and beads of shell, seeds, and rolled copper. Canine teeth of the elk were most highly esteemed, recently being worth 50 cents to $1 each. They were carefully saved, and a garment covered with them was valued at as much as $600 or $800. The modern tribes also used the teeth of rodents, the claws of bears and carnivores, and the dewclaws of ruminants. Nuts and berries were universally strung and worn, and the Mandan and other Missouri R. tribes pounded and melted glass and moulded it into beads. After the colonization cradles and articles of skin were profusely covered with beadwork replete with symbolism. The Yukon-Mackenzie tribes were most skilful in quillwork, but later decked their garments and other useful things with glass beads. All along the Pacific slope dentalium, abalone, and clam shells furnish the most valuable materials. The length of the wrought bead represented a certain amount of work and established the money value. The price of dentalium shells increased rapidly after a certain length was exceeded. These beads were decorated with grass, skin, and feathers, to enhance their worth. The California coast tribes and the ancient peoples of Santa Barbara ids. were rich in the little flat-shell discs as well as the stone drill, and they knew how to reduce them to uniform diameter by rolling long strings of them between slabs or through grooves in sandstone. The tribes of the N. portion of the interior basin were not well supplied with bead material, but early made the acquaintance of the trader. A series of Ute costumes made before the advent of glass shows much pretty decoration in dewclaws, bits of goat and sheep horn, and perforated seeds. The Pueblo Indians string the yellow capsules of Solanum, sections of woody stems of plants, seashells, turquoise and other varieties of bright-coloured stones, of which they have great store. The Hyde Expedition found more than 30,000 turquoise beads in a single room at Pueblo Bonito, N. Mex. The Huichol, with colored beads of glass, using wax as an adhesive, make pretty mosaic figures on gourds, carved images of wood, etc.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 58-59.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College