Beginning with the Age of Exploration, glass beads were a highly regarded commodity in the New World and were often instrumental in helping to forge relationships between explorers and the Native American people.
These glass gems also spurred one of the most popular and well known Native American art forms to date…beadwork.
Interesting note: According to the manifest from the Lewis & Clark Expedition, they traveled with a load of glass beads on their journey to America's Pacific Coast.
Origins of glass beads: From the Venice to the Czech Republic
Venetian glass beads are probably the earliest, most enduring, and most widespread forms of currency and ornamentation on earth. As early as the 15th century, glass beads were traded over the entire world to aboriginal populations - they were exchanged for gold and ivory from the African continent, for spices and textiles from the Far and Middle East, and for furs and land in North America.
The older Venetian beads have a luminous, translucent quality (often referred to as “greasy”) and came in a staggering variety of colors. These softer colors made many more color combinations possible (the color palette we have today seems limited compared to these early gems).
Because making glass requires much heat (which at that time was solely provided by wood-fired workshops and kilns), when the source for firewood became depleted on the mainland near Venice, much of their operations were moved up along the Adriatic Sea into the thick forests of what was then Bohemia (known today as the Czech Republic) and Czech glass beads were born.
Glass beads came to the Northern and Central Plains tribes with the Euro-American traders at the beginning of the 19th century. The first beads traded in this area were the larger “pony beads” and the favorite colors were blue and white.
Early beaded items from America's northern midwest at this time were limited to this particular color scheme…but they were beautiful in their simplicity.
Interesting note: According to the book Beauty, Honor, and Tradition, it is said that traders on ponies brought the first beads to the Plains, so they were called pony beads. They were fairly large, ranging up to an eighth of an inch in diameter. The first beads were primarily blue, red, black, and white; many tribes preferred the blue.
It’s generally accepted that seed beads became available around the mid 19th century (around 1840 to be exact).
As they were much smaller and more colorful than the early pony beads, seed beads are credited with triggering the explosion of color that defines tribal styles as they made these unique stylistic and artistic differences possible - due to their much smaller size, these beads were easily adopted into traditional quillwork patterns.
The Introduction of Beadwork
Since the native artisans were no longer reliant upon fugitive dyes for the intrinsically fragile and time-consuming quillwork process, they quickly altered their handwork techniques to accommodate use of the new, imported glass beads with their seemingly endless array of colors.
Contact with other tribes helped spread and nurture artistic vision, and the race was on…which is probably why beadwork is one of the art forms most closely associated with contemporary Native American art.