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Ethan Rodriguez
Ethan Rodriguez


Crow Indian BeadworkIn the days when the buffalo were many, the Crow Indians were renowned for their beadwork. In colorful full dress and astride magnificent horses with beautifully adorned riding gear, they were a striking procession as they rode across the open plains.



An abundant land had provided them with pigments for rawhide painting and porcupine quills for quillwork. The introduction of glass seed beads by 18th-century European traders made possible a third art form - beadwork. The beads were much simpler to work with than quills and eventually replaced the traditional rawhide painting and quillwork.

Overlay StitchThe first technique involved an overlay stitch. The beads were threaded on sinew and positioned in place. Then, with a second thread, the rows of beads were secured by taking an overlay stitch between every two or three beads. The beadwork was held flat against the material. Crow women used this stitch primarily in beading curved lines or in tacking down the single lines of white beads which outline darker areas.

See Santa Fe\u2019s premier gallery specializing in 18th and 19th century Native American artifacts and historic pieces, including Plains & Plateau beadwork, historic and contemporary pottery, Katsinas, Indian jewelry, war shirts, dresses, moccasins, pipes, and weapons.

5: Different communities wear beads in their own wayNot all beadwork was worn around the neck; others were worn as bracelets, on the head as adornments, on the waist or legs. Beadwork, in other cases, also incorporated charms for personal protection. Beads were also used to decorate various clothing and utilitarian items.

One of the best known art forms practiced by American Indians is beadwork. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, native populations of North America created their own beads. As none had metal tools, the construction of beads was a long process. Using little but tools made of stone or wood and abrasives such as sand, prehistoric Indians would fashion beads from native materials Most of the beads made by Native Americans were relatively large and were constructed to be worn strung on necklaces or thongs. It was not until the arrival of trade beads from Europe that the Indians could obtain small beads in sufficient quantities to make the beaded designs we know today.

This is not to say that beadwork emerged on the scene without a precedent. The people of the northeastern United States and the Midwest already were decorating their leather clothing and accessories with dyed porcupine quills. Compared with beadwork, quill work is very time consuming and tedious. Each quill must be attached to the background with a small stitch. Despite these constraints Native American artists invested many hours to create intricate and beautiful quill work pieces.

At first, beads were entirely of the large variety intended for necklaces. Native Americans, however, soon realized the possibilities created by the availability of small, brightly colored beads. Suddenly they could create new designs with a broader palette. The comparative ease by which beads could be used for decoration created a veritable explosion of beadwork in North America. Traders soon moved to satisfy the market for smaller beads.

Native American beadwork, like quill work before it, is a decorative art form. Utilitarian goods such as clothing, dwellings, horse gear, and utensils were at one time ornamented with quill work and beadwork. Over time, the older ways of life have disappeared. Even though clothing and dwelling styles have changed, and the original needs for horse gear and certain utensils have vanished, decorative beadwork continues to flourish.

As Indians came in contact with white settlers, clothing styles changed. For example, articles of clothing previously made from buffalo skins began to be made out of wool or cotton. Although the basic materials changed, Native Americans continued to decorate their clothing with beadwork. During the mid-1800s, trade goods, such as beads, were readily available. Due to forced relocation and life on the reservation, many Indians had time on their hands. These factors led to a proliferation of beadwork during the mid-nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century there has been a growing interest in the renewal of Indian customs and practices among Native American peoples. With this renewal has come a blending of some tribal distinctions. Historically, tribal distinctions were evident in the design elements found in ornamental beadwork. In the 20th century, particularly after World War I, styles of clothing emerged that began to cross tribal lines. During the same period, tribal distinctions in beadwork began to blur.

Today, beadwork has come to symbolize the Native American heritage. Beaded headbands are often worn on hats. Some Indian men wear beaded bolo ties and belts, and some Indian women wear beaded jewelry. However beadwork is most often found on regalia worn at powwows or dance contests. A powwow is a celebration of Indian culture, through dance, music, food, and other traditional activities. Dance regalia makes extensive use of beadwork. Dancers often wear beaded moccasins, cuffs, chokers, arm bands, belts, and suspenders.

The overlaid stitch, often referred to as the spot stitch, is a technique found throughout the United States. With this method the artist can perform finely detailed work as well as fill in large sections of background. First the beads are strung on a thread or sinew. If a design is to be made with contrasting colors of beads, they must be placed in order. Then a second thread is used to fix the beaded strand to the material. The second strand is passed over every two or three beads. In most cases the outlines for a design are made with a single strand of beads and the remainder is filled in afterwards with beadwork. This method is essential for producing the curvilinear, floral designs favored by the tribes of the eastern woodlands.

Applique techniques, or sewing beads to a background surface, by no means encompasses the full range of beadwork techniques employed by Native Americans. Rather, American Indians also have used weaving to create beadwork. Weaving can be done with or without a loom.

Although a great number of weaving techniques have been documented, there are several primary types under which most can be grouped. The first of these involve techniques for weaving on the loom. Looms for beadwork have been constructed in a number of different ways. Some Indians have used full looms. These consist of two vertical pieces across which are tied crosspieces on the top and the bottom. The horizontal, or weft, threads are then passed through the warps. Others have employed backstrap loons. A backstrap loom has no rigid pieces that run the length of the warp threads. Rather, the cross piece at the end of the loom is tied to something like a post or tree, while the other is tied to a belt that goes around the waist of the weaver. The weight of the weaver's body is used to keep the warps taut. Today, such work is often done on a commercial loom or a so-called box loom, constructed from the four sides of a wooden box. This is especially convenient in contemporary urban environments where the loom can simply be placed on a table.

Traditional arts are always in a state of change and transformation. This is particularly true with technology and materials. The existence of beadwork is just one illustration of this fact as the native inhabitants of North America adapted the new material to the existing art of quill work. With the passage of time, other innovations in materials have taken place. At first beadworkers would punch holes in buckskin with bone awls and then push the sinews through to string the beads. As contact with European Americans increased, they began to use iron awls made of discarded nails. Eventually this gave way to the use of needles. Sinew was replaced with cotton or silk thread. Recently, single ply nylon has become a favored material because of its great strength and resistance to rot. The backing material for bead applique has changed as well. Although buckskin is still used in a great many cases, it is time-consuming to prepare and is often less readily available than skins tanned with vegetable or chemical processes. For this reason, some beadworkers have turned to commercially prepared leather or even to canvas.

The weaving of beadwork also is an innovation based upon an introduced technology. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest were the only native inhabitants of the United States to weave cloth on a loom. The concept of the loom, therefore, was introduced to many of the tribes from the Europeans. In the weaving of beadwork, however, they took this concept and made it their own as they created a novel use for the loom.

The forms and designs of beadwork also have changed over time, as each artist has made her own unique contribution to the art. In recent years, however, there have been several major developments in beadwork that have accelerated this process of change. One of these is the role of the market in beadwork. As non-Indians have come to appreciate Native American art forms, there has been incentive to introduce traditional beadwork forms to new items. Now beadwork has started to find its way onto such things as seed caps, watchbands, and tennis shoes.

Probably the greatest change to have come about in the form of beadwork, however, has been the blurring of tribal distinctions in design. At one time the designs used by a group were unique to that group alone. Often permission had to be granted before a person could wear the patterns of another tribe. Once this permission was granted, the design could only be worn in the presence of the tribe in which it had originated. This sort of division is no longer always the case. Today many Native Americans feel free to employ whatever designs appeal to them. This tendency seems especially prevalent among Indians who live in urban areas. This is probably due to several factors. For one, the rate of intermarriage between tribes has increased, blurring the lines of tribal membership. The proximity in which the members of the groups now live to each other has had the same effect. In many cases young urban Indians also may learn the art from a member of another tribe. Along with the instruction comes the design influence and aesthetics of the teacher. 041b061a72


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