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American Indian Art

Sioux Beaded Dress

Natives made and decorated objects to express tribal identity, community, family, spiritual beliefs and practices, as well as religious societies. Most Native peoples of the Plains and Plateau lived a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle in the pre-reservation period and they could not afford the luxury of having art for arts sake. Thus, possessions and objects served a purpose and they needed to be light and transportable. The natural abundance of wildlife and vegetation in their surroundings gave rise to the development of what we recognize today as classic forms of Plains and Plateau art and objects and their diverse styles proclaimed, "This is who we are as a people".

The Plains Indians made their early beadwork to identify themselves to those they encountered from a distance, and to avoid a close encounter with an unknown foe, they artistically decorated and constructed many objects. One could identify a Cheyenne by the drape of his feather bonnet, a Ute by the lavish long fringe on his leggings or a Crow by the thick luxurious ermine hide fringe on his war shirt. To this end Native women played a specific role in tribal and family pride by creating the objects they made. A well dressed family and a lavishly adorned horse indicated a woman's craftsmanship, achieving status comparable to men successful in their military societies. The Cheyenne, for example, created women's quillwork societies that only allowed women of great achievement and good moral character.

When life in restricted government run reservations often left women in dire poverty, economic opportunities opened up to female artisans. Women sold and traded their artworks, crafts and tanned hides for much needed cash and they beaded gauntlet gloves for the non-native cowboy market and sold in stores like Hamleys in Pendleton, Oregon. Sioux and Apache beaded pipe bags and finely beaded Cheyenne work also sold via mail order through the Mohonk Lodge founded by the Mennonites. Blackfeet sold beadwork and buffalo horn hat racks to tourists traveling near Glacier National Park.

Other objects were made to showcase the Native male's military accomplishments, spiritual activities as well as the society he represented. A man's clothing and his accoutrements often told his personal story, his religious affiliations, what he had accomplished, and his status. Buffalo robes, and later on, beaded vests and pipe bags, were pictographs, bearing visual renditions the paintings of the wearer's stories and accomplishments.


Porcupine Quillwork is an art form that is unique to the Americas. Porcupine quills were used with a variety of techniques to decorate clothing, bags, horse gear, sacred objects and other native made objects.

The average porcupine has around 40,000 quills, each of which consists of a modified hair shaft terminating in a sharp point. The quills were used by the porcupine as a defense weapon as porcupines are slow movers and easy pray for predators otherwise. And contrary to the myth that porcupines shoot their quills at attackers, they usually defend themselves with a quick hard slap of the tail to the attacker.


Beaded pieces are perfect examples of global world interaction. Native American culture was and remains today, flexible and open to outside influences. Beadwork, as a Native American indigenous expression would not exist as we know it had they not been provided trade goods from all corners of the globe. Italy and latter Czechoslovakia provided pony and seed beads. Trade and necklace beads crossed over from Italy, China and even some of the newly established European Colonies in the Americas. And beads were only some of the new materials that were introduced from other parts of the world. Colorful pigments came from China and the Orient, woolen goods from England, silk ribbon from China. Natives embraced these new art supplies and adapted them to express their cultural visions and expressions. Even today the tradition of embracing new materials such as art glass to video media is used to tell the story of Natives culture.

Natives started incorporating beads into their arsenal of art supplies as soon as they were either introduced to them directly from traders, or found their way to remote tribes that had yet to directly interact with Europeans via trade routes. The influx of beads generally flowed from the east to the west. They sailed with explorers and trade ships sailing up the West coast on the Pacific Ocean, East up the Columbia River, and North from the Spanish settlements in the Southwest. Lewis and Clark noted during their epic journey across the continent westward to the Pacific Ocean that they were quite surprised to find a thriving art style already incorporating beads and trade goods that reached the inland tribes many years before they had contact with Anglos. Natives already showed preferences for certain types of beads so that even Lewis and Clark had trouble trading for provisions. Natives at the wintering sites wanted blue beads and not the red and white ones, which were all they had remaining of their exhausted trading stock once they reached the Pacific Ocean.

The classic period of use of "Pony Beads" was from1800 through about 1865, although the use of them continued into the 20th century among many tribes of the Plateau and among the Blackfeet. Other groups such as Sioux and Cheyenne quickly adopted the use of the finer seed bead although each tribe and region had preferences as to how they chose to incorporate these beads, color preferences, the size of beads, and types of seed beads (rochelles, facited or "cut" beads, etc ). The ultimate expression of beadwork for the Sioux tribes came in the 1890's when they covered just about every object they created with copious amounts of beadwork. There is a saying about the Sioux in this time period which is, "If it stood still, they could cover it with beads".

Many seedbeads are of Italian manufacture, made on the island of Murano. There is a richness of the appearance in both shape and colors from beads manufactured pre 1910 that changed once the bead manufacturing trade moved from Italy to what is now the Czech republic. The beads became more uniform and the colors much brighter. This new palate of colors and shapes of beads changed the appearance of Native beadwork to the highly complex designs and very bright colors we see used today by PowWow dancers.

Credit: Angela Swedberg, an except from her upcoming book, Artistic Spirits - The Sandroni Collection

Indian Art Auction Archive

Sioux Belt Axe

Posted 12/11/13

SOLD for $6,600.00

28" long with a sunburst pattern stamped on each side of blade. Haft appears to be ash and bead, quilled with tin-cone suspensions. Fine condition, c 1870

Crow Mirror Bag

Posted 11/18/13

SOLD for $12,000.00

24" x 6 1/2" includes fringe and strap. Beaded on both sides in pink, light and cobalt blue, green, red, yellow and white. Double hourglass and diamond designs. Fringe has classic red wool wrap and brass beads attached. Strap is thick saddle leather and beaded with four wrapped suspensions and red yarn at ends. Very fine condition - collected early and stored away, c 1880.

Sioux Man's Pictorial Beaded Vest

Posted 11/5/13

SOLD for $15,600.00

21" x 19" multicolored, stylized, bugling elk designs on white field. Both front & back have two elk heads and two elk. ERNEST RUNS WITH is beaded across the back in capital letters. Fine condition, c 1880s. SIOUX VEST by Branson L Lanford American Indians are especially creative people, ready to adopt things beneficial to their needs and modify them to suit their tastes and cultural values. Long before contact times with Europeans, Indians had of course developed an immense body of material culture, including amazingly wide-ranging types and styles of clothing- all subject to amazingly diverse artistic elaboration. All manner of objects could be subject to artful decoration. One of the more noticeable kinds of garment borrowed from Euro-Americans and seen in considerable numbers is the vest. Beginning perhaps sometime during the mid 19th century, Plains and Plateau Indians in particular adopted this item of clothing. The Western Sioux (Lakota), especially took to the new fashion, and in part for being a very large tribe, may have produced more vests per capita than any other tribe.

Sioux Beaded and Quilled Bowcase & Quiver

Posted 10/24/13

SOLD for $36,600.00

38" long, outlined and conjoined half triangles in red, yellow & cobalt on a powder blue field with red stripe quillwork on the body and the strap. Great fringe and patina. Includes an early sinew-backed bow and group of arrows. Fine condition, c 1870. Sioux Bowcase - Quiver by Benson L Lanford As for most material culture objects, American Indians perhaps unconsciously often considered any given object as a tabula rasa- plain and awaiting decoration. No doubt the majority of things made for their own use remained unadorned and essentially utilitarian in nature. However, Indian people readily converted an amazing number of object types into virtual objects d'art. Such objects include-perhaps unexpectedly, household articles, tools and utensils, all types of clothing, and weapons. An important consideration is the fact that in addition to the way objects are constructed or tailored, along with the component materials, are as significant for tribal recognition as are the elaborative techniques, colors, and especially the specific designs or motifs the maker-artists select. The type of materials employed depends in part on the range of things available in the locale-or on trade with the outside, be it with other Indian groups or with Euro-Americans. The preparation of the component materials depends on the knowledge and skill of the person at work- and these being preceded by countless generations of experience on part of one's people. The structure of objects conforms to tribal tradition and taste; likewise, the component materials themselves, and manner of and the designs used in the ornamentation. All of these features combine so that a given object makes a statement of who I am / who we are -- whether tribe, band, clan, society, family, or individual.


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