A historical look at native beadwork

By Krystan Moser
on November 11, 2015

It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but long before the age of camera phones and Instagram there was another tool for visual storytelling: beadwork. The traditional art of beadwork has become synonymous with Native Americans, but much like the tribes themselves, traditional beadwork varies greatly by region. Southeastern tribes such as the Cherokee had a very distinctive style of beadwork that many art history enthusiasts may not be aware of.

Artifacts depicting this beadwork are few and far between, but they do exist in collections at institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Peabody and even the University of Aberdeen Museum in Scotland. The past 20 years or so have seen a revival of this traditional style, led in large part by artists, such as Cherokee National Treasure Martha Berry.

According to historians, the Cherokee have used beads and other materials to adorn themselves for millennia. These beads were made from naturally occurring materials found in the eastern homelands of the Cherokee, the Appalachians or through a trade network that covered much of what is now the eastern half of the United States. Before European contact, beads were handmade from stone, shell, bone, clay, wood or other materials, and the process was labor intensive. Wampum beads were exchanged at important diplomatic meetings. The wampum bead was made from the quahog clam shell, native to what is now the northeastern United States. Belts made of wampum beads represented agreements between nations regarding war, peace and treaties. The term “belt” refers to the shape, as these belts were not intended to be worn.

This necklace was produced by the Cherokee Nation Businesses Cultural Art Team using period authentic red whiteheart beads and blue chevron beads. (Photograph by Shane Brown)This necklace was produced by the Cherokee Nation Businesses Cultural Art Team using period authentic red whiteheart beads and blue chevron beads. (Photograph by Shane Brown)

Around 1540, Hernando de Soto’s expedition took him through what is now the southeastern United States. The de Soto expedition began the establishment of contact with Europeans, and the Cherokee developed trade relationships with the Spanish, French and English. During the remainder of the 16th century, the Cherokee began to incorporate European goods into their daily lives. These goods included Stroud wool, calico cloth, silk ribbon and steel needles. European traders also brought glass beads from Venice, North Africa and other parts of Europe. The Cherokee obtained these beads through trade and began to incorporate them into their beadwork. Many Cherokees wore strands of beads around their necks. These “trade beads” were traded in Africa and throughout the Americas and the Caribbean and came in a wide variety of colors and types: black and white rattlesnake beads, blue padres, chevrons, red whitehearts and many others. Smaller glass beads were used to create intricately beaded objects such as sashes, bags and moccasins.

Homeward Bound by Martha Berry, Cherokee National Treasure. This bag, inspired by Cherokee bandolier bag from ca. 1830, was made using period-appropriate materials. (Photograph by Shane Brown)Homeward Bound by Martha Berry, Cherokee National Treasure. This bag, inspired by Cherokee bandolier bag from ca. 1830, was made using period-appropriate materials. (Photograph by Shane Brown)

Between the 18th and 19th centuries, Cherokee beadwork began to shift from simple lines to more intricate scrollwork, flowers and leaves. It was also during this time that small pouches became larger with more elaborate beadwork and a triangular flap with decorative tassels. These pouches, or bandolier bags, were worn for important historic and cultural events. One such bag was acquired by the Gilcrease Museum in 2011 and can be viewed in their permanent gallery. The bag, from around 1835, has a beaded floral motif in vibrant greens, blues and reds. This period of time is sometimes thought of as the “Golden Age” of Cherokee beadwork, and it came to an end around 1840. The Cherokee were removed from their eastern homelands to Indian Territory during 1838-1839. After removal, the Cherokee focused on rebuilding their homes and their nation, and luxuries such as bright fabrics and brightly colored beads were overlooked in favor of more pressing needs. The art form remained largely neglected until recently.

Currently, the art of traditional Cherokee beadwork is experiencing a revival. Several Cherokee artists make moccasins, sashes and bandolier bags using traditional designs. In 2008, the Cherokee Heritage Center hosted a temporary exhibit, “Beadwork Storytellers: a Visual Language.” A book by the same name was published by the Cherokee National Historical Society, with text by Cherokee scholars Barbara R. Duncan, Ph.D., Susan C. Powers, Ph.D., and Cherokee National Treasure Martha Berry to coincide with the exhibit. If you would like to see more examples of Cherokee beadwork, there are several pieces currently on display at Cherokee Casino & Hotel West Siloam Springs and forthcoming at Cherokee Casino & Hotel Roland.