Native American Beadwork

Native American Beads

Beads had many different uses among the Native Americans. Beads have been used for adornment and recording treaties and songs. Bead-making is an ancient craft among the Native Americans and still represents a large part of their culture today.

Native American beads are most often made of bone, shells, turquoise and other semi-precious stones. Beads were carved from animal horns and tortoise shells and hooves. Claws, teeth and even seeds were strung to be worn around the neck. Seashells were common bead materials as well.

Beads were important trade items as well. Beads and beadwork could be traded among tribes and eventually with the Europeans. Seed beads and pony beads were the most popular trade items.


Seed beads are still the most popular today. They are very tiny beads, usually pierced by porcupine quills and were believed to be gifts from the spirits. Pony beads are larger, ceramic beads that are about an inch in diameter. The are used on chokers and breastplates.

Today many Native American beadwork is done in the traditional ways, mostly for friends and relatives rather than for money. The beadwork was, and still is, usually done by the women.

Heishii, made by the Navajo people, is the only type of ancient Native American bead still made today. Holes are drilled in pieces of shell and turquoise and then they are strung. The stones are then rolled on a piece of sandstone until they are smooth cylinders.

Heishii beads have been used to make “story necklaces,” in which a storyteller can show children each character as the story is told.

Source:Native American Beads