Creek man’s shoulder bag ca. 1810 – 30. Wool, cotton, silk ribbon, glass beads, 25¾ inches. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Founder’s Society, DTR 781294. Purchased with funds from the Flint Ink Corporation, 1988.29. Photography: The Detroit Institute of Arts
Creek man’s shoulder bag ca. 1810 – 30. Wool, cotton, silk ribbon, glass beads, 25¾ inches. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Founder’s Society, DTR 781294. Purchased with funds from the Flint Ink Corporation, 1988.29. Photography: The Detroit Institute of Arts. (See below for more information.)

Beads tell a story of Native North American culture and resilience.

In the 35 years I have been studying and writing about North American Indian beadwork, there has been one constant: its power to awe, to overwhelm, to communicate across the boundaries of time. The best pulsates with life as the artist eloquently employs visual signs — some precise, others vague — to convey personal and communal knowledge. Although beadwork is undoubtedly its own beautifully crafted art, to fully appreciate its significance, you must understand the cultural context in which it was created and read the richly beaded imagery, layered with meaning.

A visual language of symbolic imagery — combining materials and designs specific to each tribe — underlies American Indian artistic expression. It transmits individual, family, group, regional, and sacred information. Through storytelling, Indian elders traditionally teach cultural and moral values to the younger generation. In the distant past, tribal artisans added an important dimension to oral tradition, recording the beliefs and history of their people in signs and motifs. Beginning in the 18th century, imagery that had traditionally been etched, painted, woven, and quilled was embroidered and woven in glass beads.

Central to this visual language is the belief that all the universe is imbued with spiritual energy and equally shares the world. Everything is interdependent and must exist in harmony. The major influence on Native belief is the actual land in which one lives. Specific cosmologies reflect the uniqueness of a group’s regional ecology. The natural environment — its geography, fauna, and flora — provides images through which people think about themselves and finds its way into their art. Shared beliefs include a multilayered universe with interconnected beings, the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), duality, and the need to achieve harmony and maintain balance. Symbols of these cosmological principles are the foundation of many nonrepresentational designs throughout Native North America.

Adornment has been a highly valued form of artistic expression among every Native group since pre-European-contact times. Materials were obtained from both local environments and extensive intertribal trade networks. During the early contact period, Native Americans responded to European-introduced trade goods within the context of existing sacred beliefs that valued bright, reflective, and luminescent objects. Materials with spiritual associations expanded to include silver, brass, silk ribbon, and glass. Glass beads — like crystal, shell, berries, and seeds — were perceived by 18th-century Woodland people as a supernatural substance and readily incorporated as adornment.

Most indigenous designs including plant and animal forms were frequently abstracted as geometric motifs before the influence of European culture. In the Northeastern Woodlands, however, curvilinear designs were an ancient component of tribal aesthetics. European floral patterns, introduced to 17th-century Northeast Woodland Native women by the French Ursuline nuns of Quebec, merged easily with the local curvilinear imagery. By the 19th century, flower-decorated beadwork was the predominant art form among all Northeastern and Great Lakes Woodlands people.

The shift from geometric to floral imagery, in tandem with the fur trade and white settlement, was a pattern repeated in much of the Woodlands, Subarctic, Prairie, and to varying degrees among the Great Plains, Plateau, and Great Basin tribes. Simultaneously, etched, tattooed, and painted imagery was also transferred into beadwork. Beaded pictorials — flowers, animals, landscapes — developed with the availability of glass seed beads, which allowed greater flexibility of design.

Native North American beadwork became an important means of cultural and economic resilience from the 19th century to the present. In all cases, the Native women continued to encode cultural knowledge within beaded patterns. Some tribes maintained a duality of artistic styles: one created for sale to Euro-Americans for much-needed income, the other for sacred ceremonial regalia. Beadwork (as with life) revolved around finding the balance between the secular and the sacred for both physical and cultural survival.

James Bay Cree woman’s beaded hood (Subarctic) ca. 1860s. Cloth, thread, glass beads. 25 inches. Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. Los Angeles and Seattle: Autry Museum of the American West with the University of Washington Press, 2014. Photography: Courtesy Lois Sherr Dubin
James Bay Cree woman’s beaded hood (Subarctic) ca. 1860s. Cloth, thread, glass beads. 25 inches. Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. Los Angeles and Seattle: Autry Museum of the American West with the University of Washington Press, 2014. Photography: Courtesy Lois Sherr Dubin. (See below for more information.)

Native North America’s cultural continuum rests upon a dual foundation of flexibility and spirituality. For millennia, Indian people have understood the relationship between compromise and survival: the need to adapt in response to changing situations. As W. Richard West Jr. (Southern Cheyenne), the president and CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West, wrote in the preface to the book accompanying the flower beadwork exhibition Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork: “During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — an era of immense pressure, indeed cultural emasculation that pushed Native communities to abandon tradition, including its arts forms, and assimilate into Euro-American culture — the art of beadwork was a compelling instrument of preservation for cultural traditions and Native identity.”

Masterfully designed and crafted beadwork is not just beautiful. It tells an important story through its visual imagery, animated by epic narratives that keep timeless and vital beliefs alive.

Choosing specific examples from the creative riches of Native American beadwork poses an overwhelming dilemma. The difficulty of singling out certain pieces notwithstanding, here are a handful that exemplify the visual beauty and the captivating stories that make the study and appreciation of beadwork such a rewarding lifelong pursuit.

From the Southeast — most probably Georgia or Alabama — the Creek man’s shoulder bag dates from 1810 – 30 and was inspired by British soldiers’ ammunition pouches. The beaded circle-and-cross motif enclosed within a sun (the Great Spirit) on the bag’s flap represents ancient Native motifs. Sacred and cultural messages were consciously embedded within the exquisitely crafted and unique Southeastern style of curvilinear floral imagery, some of which derived from petroglyphs. An elder of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation explained to me that after contact, floral beadwork enabled cultural survival: “When we worked with flowers, we made the missionaries happy. But hidden in the flowers, as well as other images, the beliefs were kept alive. ... One bead color touching another meant something. ...  The spiritual teachings still circulated.”

A Piegan man’s buckskin war shirt also communicated information through its finery. A Plains man’s standing within his tribe was associated with his success as a warrior, which was frequently displayed through his regalia’s artistic presentation. On this particular piece, which probably dates to the late 19th century, central medallions or disks on both the front and back represent the sun and the four cardinal directions. Ermine (weasel) skins line the shirt’s sides and encircle the front medallion. (The ermine was acknowledged as a fierce fighter and source of good war medicine.) Broad bands on the sleeves and shoulders and medallions on the chest and back are characteristic of 19th-century northern Plains shirt styles. The medallions, also called shields, were believed to serve as protective devices, similar to the designs upon buffalo hide shields in earlier times thought to give the shields power to deflect arrows and eventually bullets.

Cheyenne cradleboard ca. 1880. Denver Art Museum Collection: Native arts acquisition funds, 1949.61. Photography: Paul Jones/© Denver Art Museum
Cheyenne cradleboard ca. 1880. Denver Art Museum Collection: Native arts acquisition funds, 1949.61. Photography: Paul Jones/© Denver Art Museum. (See below for more information.)

This James Bay Cree woman’s beaded hood from the eastern Subarctic was worn to church in the 1860s. ... The hood — a traditional item of Cree ceremonial clothing — sports European-influenced beaded floral patterns containing sacred beliefs that the Cree were increasingly forced to conceal. The division of flower imagery into three vertical layers is a transformed Cree interpretation of Sky, Earth, and Lower Worlds. Spirit beings (manitous) are portrayed as roses and sinewy stems rather than identifiable animal deities. Wearing the hood gave spiritual protection, while the use of floral imagery ensured that cultural beliefs were altered rather than destroyed. The center section includes the four cardinal directions and equinox embedded within a stylized flower image. The hat signaled cultural resilience during the increasing pressure for Native assimilation.

A beaded and fiber-twined bag, dating from 1870 – 80, was carried by a young man of the Mesquakie tribe from the Great Lakes region. It illustrates a great cosmic tale on both sides of a 3-inch pouch: The universe is divided into an interrelated Upper (Sky) World, Under (Water) World, and This (Earth) World. People from the Great Lakes, observing the area’s intense thunderstorms, huge flashes of lightning, and great waves, believed that under the water was a panther and above was a thunderbird. Thunderbirds and underwater horned panthers fought constantly, causing the storms. Maintaining the balance on earth was humans’ overriding responsibility. As a container for Earth World medicines — roots, herbs, and leaves — the bag is a metaphor, a “cosmic diagram” of the multilayered universe in which humans participate by wearing the bag and act as the mediators in the middle. The designs on the front and back represent the duality — the central concept of balance — that is fundamental to many Native American tribes’ way of thinking.

Elaborately beaded cradleboards were made as family items of respect and prestige. Their vertical form allowed the babies to view the world from the same perspective as their parents. The beaded deer figures on this 1875 Cheyenne cradleboard — drawn from the traditions of men’s pictographic war records — are visual prayers probably symbolizing the mother’s wish that the boy for whom it was made would one day have the valued traits of deer. As Denver Art Museum associate curator John Lukavic says, “The deer design represents the need to keep yourself physically fit and always alert (the tail is always raised)”: important qualities for a future warrior. The brass-tack cross designs are stars.

The hearts within each deer are denoted by small red triangles. The animals and the geometric figures are grouped in fours, the sacred number of the Cheyenne.


More information on the items pictured:

Creek Man’s shoulder bag (top image): Southeast — Georgia or Alabama, 1810–30. The bag’s form was inspired by British soldiers’ ammunition pouches; the beaded circle-and-cross motif enclosed within a sun (the Great Spirit) on the bag’s flap represents ancient Native motifs. Sacred and cultural messages were consciously embedded within the exquisitely crafted and unique Southeastern style of curvilinear floral imagery, some of which derive from petroglyphs. An elder of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation explained to me that after contact, floral beadwork enabled cultural survival: “When we worked with flowers, we made the missionaries happy. But hidden in the flowers, as well as other images, the beliefs were kept alive. ... One bead color touching another meant something, ... The spiritual teachings still circulated.”

James Bay Cree woman’s beaded hood (middle image): Subarctic, 1860s. Worn to church as well as traditional Cree ceremonies, the European-influenced beaded floral patterns contain sacred beliefs that the Cree were increasingly forced to conceal. The division of flower imagery into three vertical layers is a transformed Cree interpretation of Sky, Earth, and Lower Worlds. Spirit beings (manitous) are portrayed as roses and sinewy stems rather than identifiable animal deities.  Wearing the hood gave spiritual protection while the use of floral imagery ensured that cultural beliefs were altered rather than destroyed. The center section includes the four cardinal directions and equinox embedded within a stylized flower image. The hat signaled cultural resilience during the increasing pressure for Native assimilation.

Cheyenne cradle (bottom image): 1875. Elaborately beaded cradleboards were made as family items of respect and prestige. Their vertical form allowed the babies to view the world from the same perspective as their parents. The beaded animal figures on this Cheyenne cradleboard — drawn from the traditions of men’s pictographic war records — are “visual prayers” symbolizing the mother’s wish that the boy for whom it was made would one day own many horses. Owning many horses brought prestige. The brass-tack cross designs are stars. The hearts within each horse are denoted by small red triangles. The animals and the geometric figures in brass and in beadwork are grouped in fours, the sacred number of the Cheyenne.


 

From the August/September 2016 issue.

 

Explore:ArtHistory