Previous Article Next Article FNPI Search Home Previous Year Next Year Year List

The History Of Beads

Ray McCallum

The glass seed beads, sometimes referred to as trade beads, played an important, if not somewhat of an ignominious role in the colonization of North America.  Columbus' first trade with the people of the Americas was done with the use of red hats and string beads to gain the confidence and admiration of the indigenous people.

In the years following Columbus, the conquistadors set the pattern for trade with the use of trade beads. Along with the pots, pans and muskets, the bead became an indispensable part of the goods to be traded for items of greater value.

The history of beads dates as far back as 40,000 years with the advent of modern people. They have been made by every culture since then.

Every society has had the basic technology to make beads consisting of items from plant seeds to various stones. Plant material required the least technology to produce beads and was a widely available medium. In contrast, the material from gems, semiprecious stone and bone required a labour intensive production process.

In North America, the use of beads and their manufacture was limited to a difficult production in gold, jade, bone, blue-green stone turquoise and hand polished shell beads. Thousands of years prior to European contact, geographical location determined the kinds of beads produced. Prehistoric Southwestern cultures traded turquoise throughout the western regions and into Mexico. Marine shells from the Florida coasts were traded north and made into beads in Illinois. They were distributed to the agricultural societies of the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois River valleys about A.D. 1100.

All types of raw materials were used for ornamentation and to decorate clothing in North America. Objects were crafted to serve a host of functions, both secular and sacred. Prior to European contact, the use of porcupine quills by most woodland and plains cultures was common. Dyed in various colours, quills were used on baskets, footwear and clothing. Other means of decoration on clothing came in the way of painting and animal fur arranged to create patterns.

With the advent of European trade, the First Nations market opened with the advantage going to the Europeans. In Canada, French merchants supplied manufactured beads of such varied colours that they became the principle medium circulating to all the First Nations people along the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers.

Later, the Hudson Bay Company added beads as part of their standard trading commodity. Over the course of 300 years, the Hudson Bay Company traded with trappers and middlemen, who in turn supplied the northwest frontier with beads.

Through the fur trade, glass beads had a significant effect on First Nation life. The availability of these small beads, along with the introduction of trade cloth and steel needles led to the decline of age-old decorative techniques, including quillwork. Beadwork rose to become the predominant craft.

While some beadworkers followed traditional motifs from quillwork patterns, many others recreated themselves by incorporating their own ideas into European designs. This blend of European designs and materials became particularly successful on the plains in about 1860. Many plains groups created beaded adornment for themselves and their horses. First Nations cultures developed in ways that reflected their natural environment.

The designs created by First Nation's people throughout North America are as varied as their geographical locations. People of the woodlands used floral patterns in beadwork where the curvilinear

The History Of Beads

Ray McCallum


motifs had traditional roots in quills.

Just as floral designs expressed the nature of woodland people, the geometric expressions defined the character of plains people. The beadwork of the plains was decidedly abstract and consisted of triangles, rectangles and diamonds that were often bilaterally symmetrical. There were at least a few basic patterns -the border and hourglass, border and box, feathered circle, checker box steps and bilateral-symmetrical designs.

Elaboration of designs came with the availability of trade beads. Traditionally decorated portions on clothes became larger and short narrow strips became wide bands. The specifics of geometrics are many and the symbolic design depended largely on the maker, community and region.

Although First Nations people were identified by geographical styles, they were not confined to one stylistic expression. Styles and designs often crossed inter-tribal lines. The woodland people who created floral beadwork also incorporated geometric designs. Likewise, while geometric designs were predominant on the plains, floral beadwork was also seen.

The technique of beadwork is fairly basic and straightforward. It requires neither extensive training nor is it difficult to accomplish. However, it does require patience as beadwork can be very monotonous.

Historically, beadworking was part of a social pastime where friends and family would bead together at the same table and discuss the issues of the day or just socialize. Today, cosmopolitan issues generally overtake friends and families and the individual must find time for the craft.

There are a few techniques in use in the creation of beadwork. Many more other techniques are being applied to beadwork that were not common historically. For

(continued on page 26)

The History Of Beads

Ray McCallum

First Nations people, the basic methods of stitchery have supplied at least 500 years of various ways to reinterpret themselves through beadwork. Now, when people think of First Nations, the association with beadwork goes hand in hand.

Although all First Nations have a concept of themselves as a people, tribal characteristics took on new meanings with the arrival of the trade bead. Glass beads replaced the quills and natural beads as the medium of choice owing to their availability, flexibility and variety of colour. Stylistic influences were reinterpreted from Euro-American expressions and designs.

The elements that make up a cultural society include continual growth and expansion borrowing a bit here and a bit there. To state that beads and Euro-American influences took away the national identity from First Nations is to deny their intelligent capacity to grow.

The ignominious bead that first insinuated itself through Columbus has become a cultural icon that continues to display the flamboyance of First Nations cultures to this day.