For thousands of years, American Indian tribes have manufactured beads, stringing them into colorful and elaborate patterns on clothing, jewelry, belts, bags and headbands. In the 1600s, shell beads known as wampum were used as currency in New England. The patterns on the beads have symbolic political and social meanings.
White beads represent purity or friendship. Black or purple beads are used in the background on belts and can represent political strife or distress. Presenting red wampum beads to another tribe could be a declaration of war. Color can indicate tribal origin; Blackfeet beadwork contains a lot of yellow and orange, and Lakota use blue.
Strung together, the combination of colors can tell things about the wearer. In early America, shell beads might be combined with glass or metal beads in recognizable shapes such as people or animals, used to tell tribal legends or cement treaties between tribes.
Patterns could indicate that the young person who wears it has reached maturity or gone through certain rites of passage. In certain New England tribes, a young man would present wampum to his prospective wife, with a proposal message represented by the beads.
Triangles can represent wigwams, squares campfires. Earth elements such as the sun or sky are also represented. Today, beaders learn the techniques of their ancestors and develop new ones of their own.
Each tribe has its own patterns and styles of beading, passed down through generations, and is distinct from all others. Some individual native beaders use their distinctive patterns as a signature for their work.
- Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Tony Alter