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Native American Heritage Month: History of Beadwork

Two children stringing multi colored pony beads onto colored pipe cleaners.

Native American culture is rich with tradition and history. What better time of year to honor and learn about part of that history than Native American Heritage Month?

At SPARK, we have been learning the colors in the Dakota language and practicing our bead designs. We've used several techniques to create vibrant bead designs. Many little hands have enjoyed using pony beads and pipe cleaners to make patterns, necklaces, and bracelets. Other visitors have enjoyed creating flowers with the help of a pattern, which they can cut out. We have also used markers to practice our beading with an intricate print outline. The markers are used to dot patterns as if they were using beads. This technique would be a good way to prepare a beading pattern before getting started on sewing a beadwork design to a jacket or blanket.

Many Native American tribes were nomadic, meaning they moved to locations frequently due to the migration of animals or the seasons. Due to all this moving, art was not a decoration hung on the wall like in a stationary culture. This led to the beadwork designs becoming more intricate and a sign of expression and art on anything that was needed. These objects were used and worn and worth moving from place to place. Beaded objects included clothes, shoes, tents, and horse tack, among others.

A child reaching into a bin of beads.

Beadwork began by using porcupine quills, stones, shells, or bones with holes to thread and make designs. Quills were useful because they are naturally hollow, strong, and immediately ready for threading. They were dyed with mineral, or vegetable dyes and each quill was hand stitched onto the item being decorated. Quillwork was an art form that was popular for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived. Europeans brought with them metal glass beads, which quickly became more commonly used.

The arrival of the Europeans changed the value of beaded items. They became symbols of wealth, ceremonies, and agreements. Some beaded items were created for spiritual use in celebrations. Due to the structure of the creations, beadwork is flexible when finished while showing an image. This detail and versatility allowed for any item to be beaded and used as a show of wealth or a symbol for ceremony.

An adult tying a beaded bracelet to a child's wrist.

Beadwork is still a practice kept alive today. Many of the methods have been passed through families and have been a preservation of culture. As metal and glass beads became more accessible, the patterns and designs became more intricate and were used more as shows of wealth. New methods have been created, as well as old practices being continued.

Where have you seen beaded artistry?

Information Gathered From:

Colors in Dakota

Colors in Dakota with pronunciations.
Colors in Dakota

SPARK is proud to to celebrate Native American Heritage Month in partnership with the Rochester Public Schools’ American Indian Education Department and support from Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the Rochester Area Foundation.

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