When the phrase “American Indian Beadwork” is used, the image that comes to most people’s minds is that of a pipe bag or warshirt covered with geometric beadwork. Of course, those are completely valid images, and some examples represent the art at its very highest level, but they represent Plains beadwork, which is only one part of the greater category. Tribes from the Plains had their own distinctive styles and techniques for beadwork, as did cultural groups from the Eastern Woodlands, Southeast, Southwest, Subarctic, Plateau, Prairie and Northwest Coast.
The earliest beading tradition resides in the Northeast, where items decorated exclusively with beadwork were collected as early as 1807. This great antiquity has led to many different variations in styles amongst the numerous tribes of this densely populated region, but there are some common denominators that differentiate the work done in the Eastern Woodlands from that done by artists of the Plains tribes.
As with the tribes of the Plains, the glass beads used by the native artists of the Eastern Woodlands were imported to America from European production centers such as Bohemia and Venice. (The answer to the commonly asked question of how the Indians made their glass beads is, of course, they didn’t.) Being so close to the main East Coast ports of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, it stands to reason that tribal groups in the Northeast would have earlier and better access to a variety of bead colors and sizes. From an early date, probably in the late 1780s and early 1790s, beadworkers of the various Woodlands tribes (mainly Iroquoian and Algonquian) made use of very small, brightly colored seed beads, in sizes as small as 20 beads per inch. The opening of the Erie Canal in the 1820s made visitor access to Native lands, as well as transport of these seed beads, even easier, and an increased non-native market for beaded items led to the use of larger seed beads that could cover more space more quickly. By the 1900s, the small beads were out of favor, replaced by those in the 8-14 per inch sizes.
In stark contrast, the early beads used by the Plains tribes generally appear around 1830, and are of the larger “pony bead” style, which are usually size 8-10 per inch. (Part of this is likely due to a lack of metal needles on the Plains, which were necessary for manipulating the tiny seed beads.) They were also in very limited colors, generally white, black and blue. (Woodlands beadwork of the 1830-40 era also incorporates pony beads, but normally only as edging rather than as part of the main design.) The tiny seed beads so favored in the Northeast do not show up in any meaningful profusion on the Plains, even fifty years later. Reservation-era Plains beadwork makes use of beads in the 10-12 per inch sizes, with very uncommon exceptions.
Though both Plains and Eastern Woodlands beadwork makes heavy use of the lazy stitch technique, where a line of beads is sewn down in spots to give a series of low loops, their use of this stitch was quite different. Woodlands work started as completely flat, but by the 1840s had developed a dimensionality that came from placing the ends of the lazy stitch loop close together, which caused the loop of beads to stand up off the surface of the object. The high loops could be grouped together to create convex designs, which was especially effective in rendering flowers. This “embossed beadwork” eventually became a trademark of many tribal groups, especially the Mohawks of Kahnawakee, whose huge pillows and purses of the 1890-1920 period were covered in huge layers of embossed beadwork.
It was quite different on the Plains, where lazy stitch was one of the generally preferred methods for covering an entire surface with a single layer of beads. The lazy stitch sections were laid flat against the surface and then sewn down, leaving a beaded design that was uniform and regular. Design elements and background colors were both done in beads, while the background of Woodlands pieces was generally left unbeaded. Some tribes also used spot stitch to cover large areas, a technique that was not used at all in the Woodlands.
In both Plains and Eastern Woodlands beadwork, the earliest designs mimicked quillwork designs of earlier generations. The difference was that early Woodlands beadwork was lacy and open, while that of the plains was done in solid blocks of color. As time went on, the greater variety of bead colors available to beadworkers of the Woodlands, as well as easy access to high-quality needles, sent the designs created by the artists in many different directions. Pieces from the same community could be quite different in appearance, though the forms were generally the same. The years between 1830 and 1870 were especially notable for the huge variety and incredible creativity expressed in the small beaded pouches that became the favored form. After the 1860s, when European floral embroidery designs were introduced, nearly all Woodlands beadwork became rigidly floral to meet the demand of the non-Indian buying public.
With rare exceptions, floral beadwork was never a popular style on the Plains as it was in the Woodlands. Geometric designs were predominant, with each tribe having their own distinctive motifs and styles. The Northern, Central and Southern Plains styles encompassed many tribes, and within these separate regions were numerous tribal variations. Pictorial designs were also not uncommon on the plains, while such elements are extremely rare in Woodlands beadwork.
Though very early Woodlands beadwork was done on deerskin, most 19th Century work was done on fabric and sewn with cotton thread. In contrast, it is uncommon to find a Plains beaded item that is not done on some sort of animal hide, and sewing with sinew was common.