Native American Beadwork

Native American Beadwork

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by William C. Orchard

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Native American artists are among the most skilled practitioners of beadwork, and this classic study — based on the extensive collections in the Heye Foundation's Museum of the American Indian — offers a well-illustrated look at the extraordinary variety of beadwork methods and their spectacular results.
A much-admired genre of folk art, beadwork


Native American artists are among the most skilled practitioners of beadwork, and this classic study — based on the extensive collections in the Heye Foundation's Museum of the American Indian — offers a well-illustrated look at the extraordinary variety of beadwork methods and their spectacular results.
A much-admired genre of folk art, beadwork appears on not only clothing and other forms of personal adornment but also on ceremonial and everyday objects. The ample illustrations in this survey include photographs of decorated items: baskets and bowls, necklaces, robes, cradles, and other items, richly embellished in beads made from gold and precious stones, shells, and bone. In addition, numerous figures depict details of the stitchery techniques.
Needleworkers, crafters, and aficionados of Native American culture will find much within these pages to excite their interest and enthusiasm.

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
Native American Series
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Product dimensions:
9.28(w) x 6.18(h) x 0.54(d)

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Native American Beadwork

By William C. Orchard

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14910-3




FOR the manufacture of beads by the aborigines of America, no material was more commonly used than shell, as is shown by the vast numbers which from time to time have been recovered by excavation of ruins, village-sites, and graves throughout the two continents. Even since the introduction of glass beads there are individuals in some tribes of the United States and elsewhere who still practise the art of making beads of shell with primitive implements, the only adaptation of introduced tools being that of steel instead of stone for drill-points, and perhaps hammer and pincers. Many an Indian may still be seen in the Southwest wearing strings of beautifully made shell beads of recent manufacture, particularly among the Pueblo tribes. These are regarded as of far greater value than any beads of foreign introduction for the reason that shell is a sacred material which, coming from the water, in a measure symbolizes the power of that life-giving fluid to a people living in a semiarid land whose religious practices have such an important relation to rainfall. It is only within comparatively recent years that glass beads have become popular with the Pueblos, and even now they are worn only by children to any considerable extent, although such beads found their way to these Indians with the coming of the first Spanish explorers and missionaries in the sixteenth century. A few objects of Pueblo manufacture, both ancient and modern, are decorated with glass beads, where flat surfaces could be covered. Sometimes Pueblo necklaces consist of beads, including those of shell, which the natives themselves have unearthed from ruins in their country.

The numerous forms of ancient shell beads have been so adequately described and illustrated in reports on archeological research that repetition will not be attempted. The chief forms of shell beads are discoidal, spherical, tubular, barrel-shape, ovate, rectangular, conical, truncate, and several odd forms in a wide range of sizes.

Many of the small marginella and olivella shells have been used with merely the point ground off or perhaps having an aperture made in the outer wall to permit the passage of a string. Dentalia likewise have been used as beads, with a string passing from end to end.

A large number of shell beads in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, usual with such material, were found by the Mrs. Thea Heye expedition to San Miguel island, California. Some of these are worthy of special mention by reason of their incised-line decoration. Fig. 1, a is a truncated cone bearing cross-hatching around the sides and with a narrow plain band at the apex. In b is seen another form of truncated cone with panels of crosshatching around the sides. In c and d are represented more or. less spherical beads, the former having parallel lines encircling each end, with lengthwise lines between, the latter cross-hatched to within a slight distance of the perforation at each end. In e is shown one of a considerable number of small discoidal beads incised with cross-hatching over the circumference. The sizes of this group vary from about one-sixteenth to one-quarter of an inch in diameter, and are of proportionate thickness. Many of the smaller examples are made from the narrow ends of dentalium-shells.

The decoration applied to this series of beads is remarkable when their size is considered. We have no knowledge of the manner in which this minute engraving was done. It can only be surmised that a small sharp chip of stone, possibly mounted in a wooden handle with bitumen, formed the incising tool. To accentuate the ornamentation, the engraved lines were filled with black pigment, much of which still remains.

Beads made from the ends of dentalia show that the natural perforations were enlarged to accommodate a thread to fit them for use as necklaces or other ornaments. The drillings in the larger beads, which can be more easily seen, show the use of such primitive tools as would have been used before the introduction of steel by Europeans.

Fig. 2 illustrates one of about a hundred beads collected from the Santa Inés Indians of Santa Barbara county, California, made from the hinge portions of a marine bivalve, probably the rock-oyster. All are more or less curved like that shown in the drawing, and each has a central depression. Perforations were made with a steel drill from each end, meeting in the center. In many cases the drilling reaches the surface in the depression, so that when the beads are strung the thread is there exposed. In several such beads the depression is filled with bitumen, and it is probable that all of them had once been similarly treated. The shell is white, veined with crimson, and in color presents a pleasing appearance; but uniformity of size being disregarded, the ensemble is rather disorderly.


Dentalium shells of the Pacific coast having been subjected to wide distribution through barter, they have been used as a medium of decoration by many tribes from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Some of the mid-continental tribes used them extensively, sewing them in patterns to their clothing and baby carriers, wearing them in the form of necklaces and in other ways. But besides being esteemed for their decorative value, among some of the California tribes dentalia became of even greater value as a medium of exchange. The shells vary in length from about an inch to nearly three inches; but only the long shells had a monetary value, that is, those exceeding about an inch and three-quarters, the value increasing with the length. The Hupa valuation of a large dentalium in early days was equivalent to five dollars, while the smallest represented fifty cents. A detailed description of the valuation is recorded by Goddard. A source of information on the Shasta of northern California notes:

The property given for a wife formerly varied greatly, but an average price is said to have been one or two deerskins, fifteen or twenty long dentalia, ten or fifteen strings of disk beads, and twenty or thirty woodpecker-scalps.

When used as money the shells were wrapped spirally with narrow strips of snake-skin, sometimes with fish-skin; or a short section of a small snake-skin, while soft and pliable, might be stretched on the shell. The large end was further embellished with a little tuft of red feathers from a woodpecker's crest.

Two strings of dentalium shell beads are shown in Pl. V. One has the regulation skin wrappings; the other, in all probability intended for a necklace, is interspersed with glass beads. Four of the shells are elaborately ornamented with incised lines into which black pigment has been rubbed to emphasize the etching.

Several decorated dentalium shells bearing incised designs (fig. 3) were found at an archeological site in Washington. Possibly these shells were thus ornamented and used by California Indians, later finding their way to the north through intertribal barter and finally becoming prized possessions of their ultimate owners in Washington.

Two remarkable strings of beads were collected from the Santa Inés Indians of Santa Barbara county, California. These were made from sections of the smaller ends of dentalium shells, and are remarkable for their numbers. One string is eight and a half feet in length, the other forty-one and a half feet. Containing on an average of thirty-three beads to the inch, there are approximately twenty thousand beads in the two strings. Many of the beads are less than a sixteenth of an inch in diameter. Irregular ends, which would result when the sections were severed from the shell, have all been smoothly ground, and, perhaps owing to continued use, have received a high polish. Even if spread over a long period of time the manufacture of these two strings would have proved a task requiring prodigious patience.

California has been a prolific source of small shell beads. Thousands of small discoidal beads made from the walls of olivella or marginella shells, an eighth of an inch, more or less, in diameter, have been found, in many cases retaining the slight curvature of the shell. No doubt many were made for purposes other than stringing as necklaces. Their uses are described in another section of this paper.

Other localities have yielded great numbers of similar beads, but not in such quantities as have been found in California.

Quantities of small shells of the genera marginella and olivella have been found from time to time during the exploration of mounds and graves, which have had their points ground off in order that a string might be passed lengthwise from point to lip and thus fit them for use as beads. In some instances they have been found in masses so disposed as to indicate their use as breast-ornaments or as decorations for robes, in which event broad surfaces had been covered. In other cases they have been found in such manner as to make obvious their use as necklaces. Again, they were scattered in such confusion that it was not possible to determine their purpose. Explorations by the Museum on Hiwassee island, Tennessee, brought to light several such cases. Here Harrington reported finding two skeletons covered from chin to waist with olivella shells, which led to the belief that some kind of garment had been decorated with them. Another skeleton had the upper part covered with similar shells, which bore traces of having been worked into a pattern. Still another had a shell collar, while two had strings of shells which in all probability had served as necklaces. Disintegration had been so thorough in all these burials that the shells could not be removed and yet be kept in the relative positions in which they were found. The regular disposition was such that there is little or no doubt as to how the shells were used, although nothing remained to indicate whether they had been sewn to a leather background or had been woven into a fabric.

A leather robe collected in the latter part of the sixteenth or early seventeenth century, said to have been the " habit of Pohatan, King of Virginia," which is now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England, is ornamented with small seashells (Marginella nivosa) which have had their points ground off and have been sewn to the garment with threads of sinew. The design represents animal and human forms, and circular patterns (Pl. VI). There is every reason to believe that at least some of the material which Mr. Harrington found in Arkansas was originally of this form of decoration. Very little, if any, of this kind of work, aside from the Ashmolean garment, exists today. Several specimens of a woven technique made by modern Indians, however, are in the collections of the Museum of the American Indian, which may represent survivals of an old art. Three specimens collected from the Modoc of California are in the form of neck-ornaments, each having a different method of attaching the shell beads, as shown in figs. 4—6. Fig. 4 illustrates the weaving on soft-tanned leather thongs with fiber threads to fasten the shells, while the specimens represented in figs. 5 and 6 are supplied with a cord base and small threads to attach the shells to the cords. As the movements of the attaching threads are somewhat intricate, the drawings will indicate their trend more graphically than a description. Another ornament made of shells was collected from the Tigua Indians of Isleta pueblo, New Mexico (Pl. VII). In this the cords and threads are made of a soft cotton material of native spinning. The movements of the several threads are complicated, as is the case with the Modoc specimens, but are clearly shown in the drawing (fig. 7).




Lovelock cave, Nevada, has yielded specimens that reveal two interesting methods of attaching olivella-shells to strings for probable use as necklaces or bracelets. Fig. 8 shows how two strings have been used as a base, with a single string passed through a shell and knotted to the double string. A number of shells have been attached in this way with a knot between each two shells, all drawn tightly together so that the knots are covered by the lip of the shell. Fig. 9 illustrates the common crochet stitch in which the thread is made to loop through one loop after another. The shells are attached by passing the thread through from point to lip between loops. In this case the shells are not close together, but are separated by two or three loops. The threads are well made of some unidentified fiber.

It is evident from the quantities recovered that olivella shells were very popular wherever obtainable. They have been found in profusion in both the eastern and the western area of North America, and sparsely in the Middle West of the United States, where no doubt they found their way by intertribal barter.

Other fragments were found in Lovelock cave with the shells strung on strips of leather and on fiber cords. The points of all the shells were ground off to permit the passage of a string. Two other interesting techniques were found in the same cave, consisting of some strung beads which were made from the outer wall of the olivella.

Fig. 10 illustrates a number of rectangular beads with grooved cuts across the convex side of the pieces of shell, instead of circular perforations. The grooves are cut deeply enough to penetrate the shell in the center of the curve. A strand of sinew was used to tie the beads, one overlapping the other, to a pair of fiber cords, a knot between each two beads. A pendant made from musselshell is at one end of the two strings.

The other technique is shown in eight fragments of what may have been a necklace. The combined length of the pieces is 21 inches, and there is every indication that they originally formed one piece. The beads are discoidal, three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, with circular perforations. They are threaded on a fiber cord in such manner that one overlaps the other (fig. 11), and are held in place with a stitch similar to that shown in fig. 9.


Shell ornaments of the kind known as runtees, believed to be an English corruption of the French arrondi, "rounded," have been found in widely separated localities in the East. They vary from an inch to an inch and three-quarters in diameter, and from an eighth to three-sixteenths of an inch or more in thickness. They are supplied with two lateral perforations. There has been some discussion as to the use of these objects, some authorities considering them more of the character of pendants than of beads. During the exploration of a Munsee cemetery in New Jersey a number of runtees were found in positon on two skeletons, clearly indicating their use as beads in necklaces. On the other hand, in the Museum collections there is a Huron necklace consisting of wampum. beads with a runtee so disposed on the string as to justify its designation as a pendant (Pl. VIII). Another Huron wampum necklace (Pl. IX) has a discoidal shell ornament, without the lateral perforations, which also is obviously a pendant. The terms bead and pendant, therefore, are arbitrary, and as it is not possible to segregate the two classes of objects either by size or by use, we shall treat the runtees as beads.

Seven runtees of approximately the same size were found with a burial in Cayuga county, New York, ornamented with an incised design as shown in fig. 12, in which the parallel lines at the side indicate the thickness of the ornament and the position of the lateral perforations. Judging by the accuracy with which the conventional design on these runtees was produced, it is evident that they were made after the Indians had obtained iron implements, the pattern resulting from the use of a pair of dividers. The central point is very distinct on all the specimens, as are the points on the inner ring where the leg of the instrument was placed to incise the arcs that form the star-like design. The cross-hatching between the lines made by the dividers was apparently scratched with a sharp-pointed implement. The perforation of each of these runtees is true and bears every indication of having been made with a steel drill, but how the implement was rotated we have no means of knowing. Nevertheless, the use of implements supplied by Europeans, rather than detracting from his artistic ability, enabled the Indian to conceive new if more conventional decorative patterns.


Excerpted from Native American Beadwork by William C. Orchard. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Native American Beadwork 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must for crafty people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is cool.