The Art of Beading

JANUARY 31, 2022 -- The art of beading and adorning items has been around for centuries, from pre-historic time to present modern day. The art of beading in North America tends to represent Indigenous People’s culture and ethnicity. One can identify the various Indigenous Peoples simply by their sophisticated designs that they developed in their beading patterns.

Prior to European contact, Indigenous People of the Americas adorned their clothing, ceremonial items, households and animal tack with intricate designs and patterns that reflected the environment in which they lived. Beads were made of shell, bone, pearl, teeth, stone, gold, jade and turquois. When Europeans arrived, they brought with them many types of beads for trading, one of which was the tiny seed bead, with which most people are familiar. They were called Manido-min-esah, which means little spirit seeds. Another type of bead that would be familiar to many is Wapum; they are purple and white beads made from shells and they look like small tubes. Wapum were used as currency during trading, recording history, political agreements, marriages and storytelling.

The Grades 4/5 class at Albert Community School took the opportunity to learn about the art of Indigenous beading—from the material used to make beads to how they were used. The Grades 4/5 class also had a basic introduction to the Medicine Wheel philosophy. With their knowledge of colour of the four directions, they developed their own patterns and colour designs to make a lanyard for themselves or to gift to a special someone for Christmas. The Grades 4/5 project was used with pony beads. This was to familiarize them with patterning and the art of beading. The next step is to use the Manido-min-esah to develop more sophisticated patterning skills and the handling of smaller beads.

Beading has always been a complex form of art. The meaning behind the cultural designs are from simple to esoteric. Beading has always been overlooked and erroneously classified as an Indigenous “arts and crafts” project. Natalie Agecoutay-Sweet, Indigenous Advocate, would sit and watch her Kokum bead necklaces and chokers, and was thrilled when, later, she taught her how to bead on tanned leather and then to bead and sew moccasins and mukluks. Natalie isn’t as skilled as her Kokum would probably have liked her to be, but the memories are sweet and cherished. Beading is more than an “arts and crafts” project; it is a meaningful, important, traditional act of love and skill passed on from one generation to the next.