Hidden Native American Beadwork Treasures at Local Museum

Since moving to Colorado, I’ve been volunteering at different places and enjoying getting to know the city I live in through these opportunities. While volunteering at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, I learned that the museum has a Native American beadwork collection—much of which isn’t on display! I had no idea that what you see at a museum is only a portion of its collection. I also learned that if you want to see a museum’s extra collections, sometimes all you have to do is ask.

I scheduled a visit to look at the museum’s Native American collection, and Linda Moore, the museum’s curator of collections, was able to send me some resources ahead of time. Included in the information she sent was an exhibition guide from 2004, when most of the Native American beadwork was on display. Having this information allowed me to not only ask informed questions but also request to see specific items. From facts about the development of beads and stitches to modern Native American art, this guide was fascinating. Here are a few highlights from what I learned.

Before Europeans came to North America, Native American tribes created beads from a wide variety of mineral, animal, and plant materials. According to Edwin Wilmsen and Frank H.H. Roberts, Jr., in their Smithsonian study on the Lindenmeier site, northern Colorado is home to some of the oldest known Native American beads in North America. Wilmsen and Roberts also suggest that the precision of the artisanship indicates that at the time these beads were created, the art of making beads was already well established.

Native American Beadwork

Belt 1890s, #1957.033.0020, Courtesy of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Porcupine quills were also popular as decorative elements in early Native American beadwork. While not technically beads, the process of quilling was a sacred task. The technique was much more important than the finished object, as quilling was a time for prayers and reflective thoughts. However, this time-consuming art form decreased in popularity with the introduction of glass, ceramic, and cast-metal beads by the Europeans in the late eighteenth century.

Europeans used glass, ceramic, and cast-metal beads for trading because they were lightweight and immensely popular. After these smaller, more colorful seed beads became more widely available, Native American tribes created bead-weaving stitches to incorporate beads into their existing aesthetic. The “lazy stitch” consists of stringing beads onto a thread and embroidering it to fabric or leather in one narrow band multiple times to create a pattern. The “gourd stitch,” what we often refer to as peyote stitch, was also a popular way of incorporating these new beads into the unique designs of each Native American tribe.

Native American Beadwork

Pipe Bag, #1946.054.0007, Courtesy of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Fort Collins, Colorado.

One of the things I found most interesting about my visit was the museum staff’s knowledge of backgrounds and tribal symbols on the beadwork in the collection. Linda explained that in the 1990s, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) gave federal funds to museums and institutions across the country to work with Native American tribes to reach agreements on the repatriation of remains and sacred objects. In 1999, the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery began working on identifying what objects it had, and with the help of over 50 Native American specialists, was able to gain greater knowledge of the beaded objects in its collection.

Upon having its Native American items identified, the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery learned that much of its beadwork was created in the nineteenth century as “show biz” dress. With the popularity of Buffalo Bill Cody’s “Wild West” shows, professional rodeos and other Western-style entertainment increased the demand for Native American beadwork in the clothing and accessories of those performing. These items include beaded belts made and worn by local rodeo legend Gene Creed, an inductee of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Native American Beadwork

Belt c. 1910, #1957.033.0021, Courtesy of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Fort Collins, Colorado.

The federal funding provided by NAGPRA became an invaluable source for not only identifying objects but also rebuilding relationships between Native American tribes and historians. Working with local tribes, many museums have started creating ways through public programs and museum exhibits to preserve artifacts and educate others on Native American cultures and traditions without misrepresenting them.

NAGPRA also led to the September 2004 opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. This museum preserves Native American cultural artifacts, while also displaying contemporary Native American artists as a way of supporting the diverse cultures and traditions of countless tribes that continue to thrive in North America.

Celebrate National Native American Heritage Month in November by checking out the Native American beadwork collection at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, or contact your local museum and discover the hidden treasures in its collections and archives. You may be surprised at what you find!

To Bead or Not to Bead: Native American Beadwork from the Collection. Fort Collins, CO: Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, 2004. Exhibition catalog.

This story appears in the October/November 2018 issue of Beadwork magazine.

Featured Image: Beaded Belt, #xx.xx.73, Courtesy of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Fort Collins, Colorado.

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