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Do you know what beading is?


(Photo credit: mharrsch on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

Beading has a very long artistic and cultural history among the Indigenous people in Canada. At least 8,000 years before Europeans came to Canada, First Nations people were using beads in elaborate designs and for trade.

glass and stone beads on a string against a red fabric background

Beads on a string. (Photo credit: HousingWorksPhotos on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA)

Some beading is done by stringing beads together. Some is done by weaving them into patterns with a loom. Beading is also done by sewing patterns onto material.

What are beads made of?

piles of different strings of stone beads

Polished stone beads. (Photo by KotomiCreations licensed CC BY-NC)

Before the Europeans came, beads were made of things Indigenous people found in nature like shell, bone, pearl and stone. They would shape the beads using stone or wooden tools, so they were larger than the beads used today. Those beads were used to string into things like necklaces.

tiny glass seed beads in colours of copper and teal

Tiny glass seed beads. (Photo credit: swirlingthoughts on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC)

The Europeans brought smaller, brightly coloured beads made of glass and ceramic like the larger pony beads and tiny little seed beads.

What were the beads used for?

moccasins with decorative beads and porcupine quills along the side

Moccasins with beads and porcupine quill decoration. (Photo credit: Mathers Museum of World Cultures on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC)

First Nations people made a variety of things with beads, including breastplates, jewelry, pouches, dolls and clothing. They also created elaborate designs with small beads to decorate moccasins and clothing. Some of the items they made could be traded at the trading post, while some others were used in ceremonies. Today, you can find beautiful First Nations beadwork at powwows, First Nations arts stores and in museums.

What are wampum?

wampum belts with designs of people

Hiawath Two Row Canadaigua Wampum. (Photo credit: Syracuse Peace Council on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA)

Wampum are purple and white beads shaped like small tubes that are made from shells. They were used for currency and also made into wampum belts. The belts recorded agreements between people — like treaties between Indigenous people and the Europeans — by weaving the shells in a special pattern. Some patterns were used to show relationships between people or events like marriage proposals. Some shared the stories of Indigenous groups. Even words that were spoken during an agreement could be made into a wampum belt to be used for teaching.

Do all First Nations people use the same designs?

a dancer wearing buckskin regalia with beaded designs

A dancer with beaded regalia at Mosaic Regina at First Nations University of Canada. (Photo credit: courosa on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA)

No. There are as many patterns and styles as there are Indigenous groups. The distinct styles of beadwork are passed down through generations and tell the stories of the First Nations people. Some First Nations people use floral designs. Some use geometric patterns. Some patterns are more abstract.