Beadwork and Ceremony

The beautiful bright purples, yellows and reds of the Nez Perce. The yellow, red, black and white of the traditional medicine wheel. The lilac and blue of the camas flowers of Kalispel art. The muted pink, teal and green of the Crow. Whether made on a loom or stitched using the single or two-needle method, Native American traditional beadwork is a sight to behold. Each artist has his or her own style and artistic flair, yet each also bears the memories, patterns and designs of grandmothers and grandfathers of generations past, and tribal designs that exist in memory ancient and perennial. Beadwork can be utilitarian – a necklace to be worn, an Eagle feather, beaded around the stem, for a graduation cap or a ceremony, a barrette to hold the hair back. Yet all these things are also ceremony, and the passion and power put into beadwork is also ceremony and craft as well as art. A woman beads dance regalia for her nephew and he dances in the traditional tribal dances of a hundred years, powwow after powwow, weekend after weekend. Another woman beads a bird, and posts it to her social media. Other people see it, and admire its beauty, her artistry, and her craft. Both men and women bead, for any number of reasons, both ceremonial and utilitarian. The art itself will always be important, but the ceremony of creating the art is equally important, and can be spiritual for those who find it so.

If you’ve always wanted to start making Native beadwork, now may be a good time. You will need a ream of thread and 11-13 size needles. You will want thick-backed, burlap-esque material from the fabric store to back your beadwork. Start by printing off a picture of what you want to bead. It’s better to start small for new beadwork artists. Then sew the piece of paper directly onto the burlap backing, trim around it, and lightly glue the edges with Elmer’s glue to prevent fraying. Using one needle, string good-quality Czech beads onto your thread, and use a second threaded needle to tack them down. Repeating this process can be soothing and peaceful, and as the design in front of you comes to life. It can, adversely, be frustrating, irritating and time-consuming, but ultimately, the practice can have relaxing and meditative qualities. 

When your beadwork is finished, take a hot glue gun and glue your piece to a brown-paper bag, iron it with the beads facing down, and cut around it. Then you can sew it onto a hat, a piece of leather, or make it into a barrette, necklace or medallion. 

Indigenous beadwork takes time to create, and that makes it all the more precious to those who wear it, whether in ceremonies or in their daily lives.