Plains and Plateau Beadwork

The North American Plains culture area is that vast expanse of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, extending as far north as southern Canada and as far south as southern Texas. What unites this huge region is the nature of the landscape itself -- flat or slightly rolling surfaces covered with grasses and interspersed by rivers and steams along which grow trees. Overall, however, the area varies climatically as a result of the different latitudes and elevations it encompasses. The western Plains are higher and drier and are covered with shallow-rooted short grasses, while the better watered lands of the east -- the American Prairies -- are home to tall grasses.

Two basic Plains cultural traditions had developed by five hundred years ago. In the west were groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands and moved across the Plains gathering plants and hunting bison, deer, and other mammals. In the eastern Plains semi-sedentary farmers of corn, beans, and squash dwelt in permanent earthlodges or grass houses for part of the year. Seasonally they took off on bison hunts.When the horse reached the Plains in the 16th century, it forever changed the way of life of both the bison hunters and prairie farmer-hunters. With the horse, people could move greater distances faster, hunt bison more efficiently, live in larger groups, and carry more possessions. The Plains peoples on horseback with their tipis and beaded buckskin clothing have become the stereotypical North American Indian culture, even though that way of life lasted for perhaps no more than a century. This exhibit illustrates some of the beautiful beadwork and quillwork art done by the Plains peoples and their neighbors to the northwest in the Plateau region.

The Plains and Plateau cultures developed some of the finest art traditions using both rawhide (the well-cleaned, but stiff and untanned skin) and treated hides from animals such as bison, elk, and deer. Rawhide, a strong, tough substance, was used to make numerous items, including containers, drums, and shields, whereas such articles as tipi covers and clothing, which needed to be soft and pliable, were made from tanned leathers. Most often a mixture of the animal's internal organs -- brain, liver, etc. -- acted as the tanning agent, and usually, the skin was smoked to add further pliability and color. Buckskin, the treated deerhide, was most often used for clothing, as it was thin and soft. Decoration was applied through painting, quilling, and beading.

Quilling,the sewing of flattened porcupine quills onto the object, was the original decorative tradition until European trade beads of glass and china reached the plains sometime in the late 18th century. Quills were dyed with mineral or vegetal colors and were softened in the mouth or in a container of water at the time they were used. The rectilinear nature of the flattened quill and the way it was sewn on the hide usually resulted in linear and angular designs, and only occasionally in a curvilinear pattern such as you see on the moccasin illustrated on the right (7 1/2" long).The earliest trade beads were as large as 1/8 inch in diameter, but by 1800, the smaller "pony beads" and "seed beads" found their way to the Plains peoples. The earlier beaded designs kept to angular patterns, influenced by the traditional designs done with quills. The use of a sewing method called the "lazy stitch" also resulted in similar geometric designs. In this technique, as many as ten beads were strung in a row, with the thread sewn down to the skin only at each end. The Cheyenne moccasins exhibited on the right (8 1/2" long) and the Sioux doll at the top of the page are both decorated with the lazy stitch.

To create the curvilinear and floral designs, such as you see on the Arapaho moccasins on the right (10 1/4" long), women used a more time-consuming method called "spot stitching". Here both individual and rows of beds were sewn down to the hide in spots.

Long, fringed bags of soft buckskin were used to hold smoking tobacco and pipes. Tobacco was smoked only on special occasions and in important ceremonies as a sacred act, when the smoke carried prayers to the creator. The bags were always beautifully decorated. On the right is a bag (24" long) from the Umatilla of the Plateau culture area. The two Sioux pipe bags on the right measure 37 inches and 35 inches, including their fringe. Note that the Umatilla bag has a floral design done with the spot-stitched technique, whereas the Sioux bags have angular, geometric patterns done with the lazy stitch. Both of the northern Plains bags have buckskin fringes wrapped with porcupine quills.