As a third generation family business who has been importing seed beads from the Czech Republic since the 1940’s we are always fascinated in the history that goes along with seed beads, and how they are used in American culture.
Did you know that in the 18th and 19th centuries, prior to European colonization, Native Americans used beads made primarily of shell, wood, seeds porcupine quills, or bone? It was only after the influx of Europeans that glass beadwork became popular because they found that it was easier to use than their traditional materials. These new colorful glass beads that came already strung in hanks along with steel needles made the work much less labor intensive.
Native American beadwork designs also changed with European settlement. Traditionally, Native American beadwork featured geometric or abstract designs. European settlers, however, encouraged Native American women to make floral designs that their cultural heritage favored. Floral design wasn’t completely foreign to Native Americans though, because flowers were a part of their way of life. Medicine is a very strong component of Native American culture and flowers were prized as a source for healing medicines. While they found this to be lucrative, they resisted using floral art in a realistic form and therefore Native American artisans embedded their own cultural symbolism into the floral artwork. This allowed them to still strongly hold on to their own culture while garnering the economic benefits it allowed.
While Native American beadwork has been and continues to be beautiful artwork, it is so much more. It is the history of a culture and its development over time, and in response to external environmental changes.
Between March 15 and April 26, 2015, The Autry National Center of the American West, in Los Angeles will be hosting an exhibition entitled, “Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork”. The exhibit is based off of bead historian Lois Sherr Dubin’s book with the same name. The exhibit will feature more than 250 uniquely beaded designs including moccasins, bags, jackets and more.
Feeling inspired? To make your very own beaded floral designs, please check out our large selection of wholesale Czech Seed Beads.