To survive, the nomadic Indian cultures of the Great Plains had to be able to move an entire village at a moments notice to avoid marauders and government troops and to follow the buffalo and other wild game upon which their subsistence depended. The artistry of the Plains Indians then was manifested solely upon their personal effects that had to fit quickly and economically into packs for the horses or dogs to pull and carry. Breakables and frivolous items were out of the question.
It was necessity then that created the careful and sacred artistry of Native American Plains. Clothing, parcels, the tipi, and even utensils were decorated. In the years before serious foreign encroachment, decoration and art were primarily of Native paint, shell, and porcupine quill. Quillwork was considered a sacred tribal art and Plains Indian women formed elite societies around the practice. Designs and colours were prescribed. It was not until the mid eighteen hundreds, when glass beads were becoming more prevalent, that designs began to change in any significant respect. Early beading followed the same basic patterns as early quillwork, but women would sometimes be given a new technique or pattern by spirits in dreams and these would become her personal property, to be given or sold as the recipient of the dream saw fit.
Ironically, it was during the period in history when the Great Plains tribes had been conquered by the American Army, known as the “reservation period” when Plain’s Indian beadwork reached it’s artistic apex. This was a time when the freedom of the nomadic life the Plain’s tribes had known was over. Contact and trade with foreigners was at its apex and many tribes found themselves in close proximity with White culture and other Indian tribes with which they previously had little contact. Beading, most notably among the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe, took on an artistry never before seen. The bone awls, Native tanned hides, and sinew thread were sometimes replaced by steel needles, commercially tanned skins, and cotton thread, but many of the Plain’s Indian women still preferred the durability and familiarity of the traditional elements. Designs became more complicated and covered more of the hides of dresses, pipe bags, cradles, and other paraphernalia. Certain designs were considered “tribal property” and tribal styles developed more distinction. Dreams were still a source of sacred design, but the artists were freer to experiment with innovations and borrow ideas from other tribes as well as from White culture. Beaded items were still lovingly and painstakingly created for family and close friends, but a new market opened as White traders and tourists appreciated and bartered for these items as well.
As with many traditional Native American arts, the turn of the twentieth century saw a decline in Native American Plains Indian beadork, although the love for beading and quill work never died among the Plain’s people. Many artisans still produce beautiful beaded items today, but the older pieces hold a connection to the past and the Plain’s Indian tribes as they were in reality as well as in the romance of our imagination.