Indigenous Beadwork and Decoration

When you are scrolling through Facebook, Instagram or even TikTok do you sometimes come across Indigenous or non-Indigenous peoples promoting their beadwork? Well in this blog we discuss the history behind Indigenous beadwork while also providing you, the reader, with a close-up look at some of our collection here at the St. Andrews Heritage Centre!

Indigenous beadwork has been traced to 8,000 years before the Europeans arrived in North America. Beadwork Pre-contact was done using natural materials like stones, shells, seeds and porcupine quills. Beading and other decoration would have been stitched onto animal hide using sinew and bone needles. Sinew is a fibrous tissue that attaches muscles, bones, and tendons altogether. Sinew was taken from animals that were hunted as the whole animal was used to sustain indigenous lifeways.

What is Beadwork?

Beadwork is done in various styles depending on the Indigenous group, for example, Haudenosaunee used different beadwork techniques than the Cree. Glass beads and embroidery with multi-coloured threads are an indicator of European trade. Indigenous beadwork has many different meanings and holds a lot of significance for the Indigenous people. Beading served as an outlet for creativity, to honour their ancestors,  to express themselves and to identify themselves.

Beadwork is a creative outlet as many different people bead differently. One thing that remains common throughout all beadwork despite the person doing the beading is the placement of spirit beads. Spirit beads are beads that the artist can unintentionally or intentionally place throughout the artwork. Spirit beads are a part of the beader’s spirit that lives within the beaded piece; this means that typically only the beader can see their spirit beads. This makes every single piece of Indigenous beadwork special!

Why is it hard to find beadwork in archaeological records that predate European contact?

It is hard to determine what bead styles would have been used by Indigenous people before European contact, as much of the materials that were used were organic and thus easily biodegradable. If the environment doesn’t have the right conditions for preservation then organic materials like leather and sinew rapidly deteriorate. This means that finding material records from Indigenous groups can be difficult. Moreover, many Indigenous groups were semi-nomadic. Settlements only lasted for brief periods of time, therefore, fewer human-made items would collect in these areas.

Our Beaded Collection

The St. Andrews Heritage Center houses several beautiful pieces of Indigenous and Métis beadwork, The images attached below are some of the pieces we have on display!

Low Ankle Baby Moccasins

  • These Children’s Moccasins are dated to the 1950’s, as indicated by the sizing and colors of the beads. There is the leftovers of the pattern stencil which is found on the vamp of the Moccasin.
  • These moccasins are hand-made and hand-beaded. They are missing the leather strap that would have tied them around the ankles.
  • The beadwork on both moccasins is damaged. There is discoloration on one moccasin and a hole where the right foot big toe would have been.
  • The beading style is Northern Cree, based on the way in which the whole the bead work is rounded on the vamp of the moccasin. The bead work design is speculated to be that of a lily or an iris because of the diamond shaped flower in the middle. Like other Cree peoples, the Northern Cree are also known for floral designs in their beading.

Ankle High Cree Moccasins

  • These are Cree-Métis moccasins. The stylistic elements of these moccasins indicate to them being Cree, as Cree people have pointed toe moccasins. The height of these moccasins also indicates that these moccasins are summer or fall moccasins since these would not have been long enough to have tromped through the snow. These moccasins have no fur lining which indicates that these moccasins wouldn’t have been worn in the wintertime. Winter moccasins are typically lined with fur on the inside to keep feet warm during harsh and cold winters.  
  • The beadwork style on these Moccasins also indicates Cree-Métis because of the Flowers. Cree and Métis people were known in the Red river as the “flower people” due to the beading style.

Competition Mukluks

  • These competition Mukluks were made in the 1900s, the identifier of this is the fake fur on the outside and other design elements.
  • These moccasins are machine stitched and the inside of the moccasin is lined with green and white canvas which would not have been used for moccasins during the 1800s. The beadwork on the moccasins however is hand-stitched because of the lay of the beads.                 
  • These Moccasins are suspected to be from the Northern Cree Tradition, perhaps coming from Norway house. 
  • The pictured mukluks are suggested to be made for competitions due to the grand designs and the pompoms. Supporting the Competition theory is the fact that often in Competitions up North, pompoms are used to decorate tuppies which were used for dog sled teams. 
Tuppies are blankets that were used by Dog sledders. These blankets were for show rather than warmth or comfort. Photo credit:

Beaded Pipe Bag

SIde 1 of the Pipe Bag
Side 2 of the Pipe Bag
  • The is artifact pictured is the front and back sides of the same Indigneous beaded pipe bag. This artifact is dated from the late 1800s to the early 1900 judging by the geometrical designes as well as the size and coloration of the beads.
  • This artifact is suspected Plains Ojibwe or Dakota due to the Geometrical shaping of the beadwork. There is a small hole in the top of the Pipe bag which indicated that it migh have been tied to something or tied shut.
  • Pipe bags are used to carry ceremonial pipes from ceremony to ceremony. These bags were to make sure all pieces of the pipe were kept together. In Indigenous culture, pipes are not kept in one piece when they are not being, this is because it can be seen as disrespectful to the spirit within the pipe.

Métis Beaded Jacket

  • The beadwork on these two jackets is different.
  • The jacket in storage (pictured below) has floral beadwork with the colours red, blue, green and yellow. The jacket (on the right) that is on display has pink and light blue, purple and white beads.
  • Both have different floral designes and patterns which also makes them different.
  • The two jackets are smoke-tanned moose hide jackets, they are Cree-Métis style jackets which were made in the 1950s
  • The jackets come from The Pas in Manitoba and were made by Mrs. Evelyn Ernie Jebb Sr. from Opaskiwaiak Cree nation.
Jacket 2 which is in storage.

Beadwork in the 21st century

Beadwork is not a dead cultural activity, many Indigenous and Métis people still use beadwork the same way which their ancestors had used it. Indigenous and Métis people use beading now in the 21st century to reconnect with their ancestors, culture, and to provide generational healing.

If you are wanting to support Indigenous Beaders in the St. Andrews area consider following and supporting: