Native American Beadwork

Decorating household and ceremonial items is not new to the Native craftsman (though usually a woman.) For centuries tribes used various natural products to adorn items including shells, nuts, and seeds. Animals contributed also with their hide, teeth, hooves, bones, sinew, feathers, and quills (porcupine). What is new is the introduction of beads to the tribes beginning in early encounters with trappers and traders.

Many of the tribes had the equivalent of master craftsmen societies where the person had to study as an apprentice before reaching the top of their craft. Quillwork Societies were not unusual in the upper portions of North America. In fact, quillwork was unique to North American because that was the only place the porcupine lived. As the trappers and traders made their way into Native lands, two types of beads became popular trade goods: the pony bead, which is a larger ceramic bead used for chokers and breastplates. The second type of beads was the glass seed beads. The seed bead soon took the place of quills because they were easier to use. Tribes preferred different colors and developed distinctive designs.

The introduction of the seed bead caused another important event-native women had to figure out how to use them. Loom beading and single-needle weaving techniques were invented! It is important to understand that these were not techniques used by other non-American cultures; these were brand new ways to use beads. Volumes have been written about the history, the culture, and the techniques of beading. So, my goal today is to briefly introduce you to several techniques, showing you some of the examples from my collection.

Beaded Daisy Chain Stitch

The daisy chain is still in use today in the Lakota (Sioux) nation as one of the items handed out at an honoring ceremony. Here is an example of one received at an honoring ceremony for a Wesleyan Native American Pastor in Rapid City, SD.

Click here for a great tutorial by Emily Hackbarth showing how to create your own daisy chain.

Potowatomi Stitch

You can use the Potawatomi stitch to create daisy chains. If you add more beads with each stitch, you create a wider band. This website shows you how to do the Potawatomi stitch. Towards the bottom of the instructions, she provides links to some examples and you can see how to create flowers or vines with flowers.

Gourd Stitch (Also known as the Peyote Stitch)

This stitch’s name is derived from the materials on which the stitch was used. Traditionally the stitch decorated the handle of gourd rattles, feather fans, and other ceremonial items. The name “peyote” is from the method to decorate items used in the peyote ceremonies. This is a very versatile off-loom stitch. It can be done with either an odd or even number of beads and is created either flat or tubular. This amulet bag is stitched with a tubular bottom, but a flat top for the flap. Most of the time you will see the stitch used in the tubular form, such as this bracelet.


Click here for a great article by Rex Reddick in Whispering Wind magazine, Volume 33, No. 4 on creating a flat feather fan. Crazy Crow Trading Post has the article on line where you can read about how the gourd stitch is done along with some great diagrams.

Brick Stitch (Sometimes known as the Cheyenne or Comanche Stitch)

This stitch is sometimes confused with the Gourd stitch. It is also an off-loom stitch. The beads are “stacked” on top of each other much like a brick wall. A brick stitch can be worked as a gourd stitch if you turn the pattern 90 degrees! What does that mean? The holes in the beads lie vertically, while the holes of the beads lie horizontally in the gourd stitch. Here is an earring I did using the brick stitch. This beaded rope necklace is created using a tubular brick stitch. No, it is not crocheted! Click here for a fabulous explanation on the brick stitch by Kimberly Chapman.

Loom Weaving

The designs on a loom are created by straight lines of beads (reference link). You need to have a loom, many of which are very inexpensive. First the warp threads must be set up on the loom. A row of beads are strung on the weft thread. Then the beads are placed across the top of the warp threads, with a bead in between each thread. Then the weft thread is taken back through the line of beads underneath the weft thread, catching the weft thread between the warp thread. This hair barrette has loom weaving that has been finished on a leather backing with some free-style beading around the edges. You can see the warp threads in between the beads.

Lazy Stitch (also known as Lane Stitch, Applique Beading)

Another technique the Native Americans used was applique beading. Many cultures used an applique technique to stitch down fabric and embellishments. The Plains natives developed a technique that was completely original. Lazy stitch was used when stitching on buckskin. Prior methods used an awl and a hole was punched through the skin and the adornment was stitched down. Lazy stitch is done by pushing the needle under the top layer of the skin, but not all the way through it. It takes a great deal of patience and practice to get your awl under the hide and your lane of stitches lying neatly. By no means is this a “lazy way” to stitch! Click here for a wonderful article by Steve with some illustrations showing how to achieve this technique and unique look.

Combining Techniques

The artisans of centuries ago combined techniques and materials to achieve incredible works of art. Today, Native beadwork continues to evolve with fascinating pieces of art. Here are two pieces from a Lakota Sioux beadworker in the Pierre, SD, area. The eagle dream catcher combines several of the beading techniques mentioned above.

If you are interested in learning more about authentic handwork, then click here to check out Whispering Wind magazine. This is an incredible bi-monthly magazine filled with authentic craft instructions and articles concerning the material culture of the American Indian. You can also visit Kachina House for authentic Native American handwork and other articles regarding Native American crafts.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990

People around the world have been in love with Native American handwork for centuries. Because the work can often bring a high price, many people have copied the work and passed it off as being made by American Indians. It became such a problem that the United States government decided to take action. As you can read below, the government was serious about stopping those people trying to pass off items as Native made!

“The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. For a first time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties up to a $250,000 fine or a 5-year prison term, or both. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000.

Under the Act, an Indian is defined as a member of any federally or State recognized Indian Tribe, or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian Tribe.

The law covers all Indian and Indian-style traditional and contemporary arts and crafts produced after 1935. The Act broadly applies to the marketing of arts and crafts by any person in the United States. Some traditional items frequently copied by non-Indians include Indian-style jewelry, pottery, baskets, carved stone fetishes, woven rugs, Kachina dolls, and clothing.

All products must be marketed truthfully regarding the Indian heritage and tribal affiliation of the producers, so as not to mislead the consumer. It is illegal to market an art or craft item using the name of a tribe if a member, or certified Indian artisan, of that tribe did not actually create the art or craft item.

For example, products sold using a sign claiming “Indian Jewelry” would be a violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act if the jewelry was produced by someone other than a member, or certified Indian artisan, of an Indian tribe. Products advertised as “Hopi Jewelry” would be in violation of the Act if they were produced by someone who is not a member, or certified Indian artisan, of the Hopi tribe.”

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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