Masterful Sioux Beadwork

Masterful Sioux Beadwork  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions.

As the Buffalo roamed the prairie the Sioux Indians of the Great Plains were never far behind.  Millions of buffalo roamed the plains.  They were the Sioux’s lifeblood.  The meat was the tribe’s major source of food and every part of the animal was put to use. 

When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world.  The sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them?  Where are our lands?  Who owns them?
— Chief Sitting Bull

The buffalo was also the source of a Sioux woman’s sewing needs.  Bone awls were used to punch holes through tough hides and sinew thread kept the hides fastened together tightly.      

When the fur traders and missionaries brought glass beads to trade with the Sioux, the painstaking work of beading for these late-19th century artisans changed dramatically. 

For centuries Plains Indian women decorated clothing traditionally with porcupine quills.  And porcupines were rare on the southern and central Plains. 

When they could find them, women would tuck the stiff porcupine spines into their mouth’s to soften them for sewing.  Then they would flatten the quills between their teeth and color them with organic dyes made from berries, mosses and bark.  Later on, aniline dyes were available as trade items.

Next the quills were woven together and sewn on like beads.  One item of clothing might take weeks to make.  A tedious job.

Various legends describe their time-intensive quillwork as a sacred gift from a godlike hero or heroine.  The intricacies of the art form were a tightly guarded secret.

Not only were tribal women responsible for sewing, cooking, cleaning, and child care, they also dismantled the tipi, and packed and handled the dogs and horses.  When they arrived in a new camp they set the tipi up and made sure the household was running smoothly again.

Beadwork ultimately replaced quillwork, an easier art of beading.  It was one more example of how traditional ways of life for the North American Native Americans continued to disappear along with their lands and game. 

“When I was a boy, the Sioux owned the world,” said Chief Sitting Bull.  “The sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle.  Where are the warriors today?  Who slew them?  Where are our lands?  Who owns them?”

Quillwork nearly disappeared completely from native culture.  A handful of artists kept the ancient tradition alive.  Glass beads also replaced the shells and seeds used in traditional decoration.   

Women craft-workers sewed brightly colored strings of beads on to buffalo hides, buckskin war shirts, vests, leggings, wedding dresses, blankets, lucky charms, and other clothing.  Heavily beaded clothing was also used in ceremonial garments and worn on special occasions.

The women sometimes made moccasins decorated with beads as a token of love for their husbands, sons and brothers.  The women used hide and sinew and later cloth and thread to create spectacular beadwork clothing and ceremonial attire in a variety of rich colors.

The Sioux usually beaded on a white background.  The most common color sequence used was blue, yellow, red and green.  The beads were sewn directly onto items and designs were geometric and usually symmetrical.

The original trade beads came from Venice, but by the early-19th century Bohemian glass beads with their bright colors and glossy finish were imported.

On March 25, Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati featured a selection of Sioux beaded items in its American Indian and Western Art auction. 

Sioux Beadwork

Strike-a-Lite; circa 1900; 7 inches high;  $1,293.

Hide Vest with American Flags; first quarter 20th century; 14 ½ inches long by 17 inches;  $2,520.

Hide Possible Bags; matched pair; late-19th century; 13 inches by 19 ½ inches;  $4,994.

Other Sioux Items

Quilled Pipe Stem with Catlinite Bowl; 4th quarter 19th century; 32 inches long;  $1,645.

Parfleche Envelope; late-19th century; 17 ½ inches by 9 inches;  $2,115.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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