NEW YORK – Traditionally, Native Americans have no concept of art for art’s sake. They simply reveal the innate beauty of everyday objects.
Historically, each tribe expressed itself in its own way. Members of the Great Sioux Nation, nomadic hunter-warriors who roamed the northern Great Plains, believed that beaded belongings were not only beautiful, but brought them honor.
Creating each decorative item began with a hunt. Transforming elk, buffalo or deerskin into attractive, pliable hides, however, was women’s work. Only after soaking, cleaning and rendering them satin-soft (sometimes using cooked deer or buffalo brains), did they sinew-sew them into garments or functional items.
For 200 years or more, Sioux women adorned these creations with materials at hand, like shells, seeds, animal teeth, talons or naturally dyed quills, their specialty. Quillwork, the forerunner of beadwork, required cleaning stiff, hollow porcupine or bird quills, softening them in saliva, trimming their barbs, then flattening them – oft by pulling them between their teeth. When woven, plaited or twisted into embroidery-like patterns, they enhanced everything from quivers and war shirts to pipe bags and pouches. These rare, early pieces are exceedingly collectible.
In the 1840s, white traders , arriving on horseback, introduced large, European powder-blue and chalk-white glass “pony beads.” Other shades, including black, red, and semi-transparent “greasy” yellow (think rancid butter), followed. Initially, these crude beads, worked with bone awls, home-tanned hides and sinew-thread, bordered Sioux natural or brighter aniline-dyed quillwork. Over time, however, they became integral parts of quill designs or appeared entirely alone.
A decade later, traders introduced far tinier, brighter “seed beads,” largely imported from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. Early arrivals, hand-cut from long glass tubes, were typically narrow, irregularly shaped and sharp-edged. Later ones, produced through more advanced methods tended to be uniformly sized with rounded edges. These miniatures not only offered attractive coverage of large areas. Their numerous shades and sizes also inspired far more imaginative creations.
These designs, which typically feature thousands of beads, were usually worked in slightly arched lazy (lane) stitchery. This involved threading identical-size beads on identical-length strings, tying them off, then, with simple running stitches, attaching them in parallel rows. Though looser than traditional one-by-one, overlay beading, this method proved a real time-saver.
All pre-1880s Sioux beadwork is extremely desirable – especially items featuring strips of machine-made, yellow trade cloth, once a Native American status symbol. Bead loss, quill damage, or hide stiffness, discoloration or mold, however, may affect their value.
By the 1890s, the Reservation Period, various subcultures of the Great Sioux Nation, speaking different dialects and following differing lifestyles, developed distinctive, more elaborate beading styles of their own. The Dakota Sioux, for example, favored freestanding star, flower and leaf motifs against unadorned grounds. The warlike Lakotas preferred triangle-based geometric motifs like stepped or serrated “tipis,” diamonds and hourglass forms. Eventually, through tribal trade, intermarriage and conflict, these styles merged.
Sioux design elements, when symmetrically doubled, form elaborate patterns against light grounds, with open areas featuring decorative lines or crosses. More intricate motifs, like dragonflies, horse-tracks, three-pronged forks, turtles or feathers, actually combinations of basic lines and geometrics, may embellish areas where denser patterns were desired.
Sioux designs typically feature white, periwinkle, blue, yellow, mauve and green beadwork. Because red symbolizes lifespans, virtue and good luck, this favorite often enlivens women’s saddles, moccasins and cradleboards. Bead color variations abound, however, because they were produced through diverse technologies.
Despite forceful government efforts to eradicate Indian culture at the turn of the century, Native American bead working flourished. In time, the Sioux, like other tribes, supplemented their incomes by marketing heavily beaded pieces, like men’s vests, purses and girls’ dresses, to tourists. Serious collectors, however, may prefer items that the Sioux themselves used and wore.
Native American culture remains dynamic, reflects veteran beader Kelly Murdock-Billy. “It’s uncanny how the styles of Native American regalia and beadwork change. Every five to ten years, powwow fancy-shawl dancers and jingle-dress dancers wear all-new beaded designs, the treasures of tomorrow.”