The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts, February 22 - May 16, 2004

Shared Beadwork Styles

Plains Indian beadwork is a highly evolved art form, with the greatest connoisseurs being Indian people themselves. Although traditional beadwork artists did not create with a brush and palette, their creations truly are a fine art.
Almost all Plains tribes used beads that they made from animal bones, teeth, or shells. Glass beads, however, which often came from Venice, Italy, began to reach the Plains in the early 1800s. Brought by traders who rode ponies, these so-called pony beads were fairly big, upwards of one-eighth inch in size. Limited to only a few colors (primarily white, blue, black, and red), pony beads tended to inspire large, bulky designs. Seed beads—much smaller and available in a broader palette—appeared in the late 1840s and soon became easily obtainable.
Because smaller beads allowed patterns to become more detailed and refined, different beadwork styles began to take shape. Three tribes—the Blackfeet, Lakota, and Crow—developed distinctive stitching techniques, colors, and patterns. Neighboring groups were usually influenced by at least one of these styles. Traditional beadwork reached a peak around 1890, but many contemporary Indian artists continue to work in the medium, keeping the art form very much alive.

Donald Stewart "And some years ago, back in the early forties, I remember when I was a young lad. At that time, men folks were, say, about eighty years old. They would sit around [together]...on a cushion—and start talking [about] the past. And I was young, not even more than twelve years old. I [would] lay on my belly and listen to what they [had to] say."
-Donald Stewart (Apsaalooke)

Lakota (Sioux)
Shirt (back), about 1875
Nakoda (Assiniboine)
Shirt (back), about 1885