There are two types of Native American beadwork: the lazy stitch and the overlaid stitch. Traditionally, Indian beading was used as a means of trade and ritual items, as well as to define one’s economic and social status.
Beadwork is one of the most popular crafts of Native Americans. Initially, among the main types of Native American beadwork items were bones, feathers, and shells. As the new colonists arrived, different materials were introduced, such as metal, glass, etc.
In general, Native American beading is divided into two groups: leather (mostly used to make clothing and shoes) and strands beadwork (jewelry). The types of beading, however, may be different as well. The first type is called the lazy stitch, which is supposed to be among the most traditional ones. It is widely used by Native Americans to make clothes and the most significant part of their long-established insignia. Beads in the lazy stitch technique are united in a row that contains up to nine beads. Various geometric patterns are made with the help of this type.
Another type of Indian beadwork is the tack stitch or the overlaid stitch. Circular patterns and very detailed works are usually done with this technique, which appears to be more delicate than the previous type of beadwork. The sense of this technique is to string beads in the pattern desired, making stitches between every two or three beads. It became popular among modern artists because the workpieces appear to be very smooth and flat.
It is noticeable that the lazy stitch type has a distinctive corrugated effect because the beads are placed alongside. In contrast, in the tack stitch technique, the beads are organized in a continuous pattern. The first type is supposed to be traditional for Native Americans who live to the west of the river Mississippi. The second type, however, is more typical for North America.
Except for playing the role of a beautiful accessory, Native American beadwork items have a strong traditional background. It possesses social, religious, economic, and political value. First of all, these items defined a person’s belonging to a particular group. Moreover, they illustrated oral stories and legends and served as a currency. Indian beading was an important issue in performing rituals, such as healing and sacrifices. People also wore jewelry during “rites of passage”, which marked significant stages of their life, for example, marriage, birth, or decease.
Native American beadwork history represents jewelry as a means to identify oneself in society. Young people received totems representing mammals, birds, serpents, or parts of animals like claws or teeth to mark the beginning of puberty. Totems not only defined, which group a person originated from, but were also used for fortune-telling.
Most significantly, Indian beading was one of the leading trade items long before the arrival of Europeans. They were given either as gifts or bridal presents to strengthen connections between Native Americans or used as items to barter. They were later exploited by Europeans to obtain Indian’s trust or lands. Beadwork quickly became a currency for natives and colonists.
Beads of shells were associated with water when beads of gold, silver, and other metals, as well as minerals – with the earth. That is why Native Americans widely used beadworks during ceremonies. They used beads in ceremonial dances to mark the change of season, somebody’s births or marriages, etc. Jewelry was used not only for curing rituals but also as amulets. For example, Native Americans believed that necklaces could protect from certain illnesses.