Beadwork in Native American culture can be traced back to a time when beads were hand carved out of resources the land had to offer such as seashells, avian and animal bones, hooves and antlers. Porcupine quills and sinew (dried animal tendons) were the common tools used to stitch or string the beads together.
As is the case today, bead work served primarily as jewelry or as clothing decoration. Certain beads also served as a form of currency among native peoples, usually semi-precious stones or colorful seashells such as Quahog or welk shell (Wampum) to peoples on the Atlantic coast or abalone to people on the north Pacific coast. Over time, patterns were developed and came to identify characteristics of individuals, families and/or tribes. For example, the jewelry worn by a hunter (usually the bones or hooves of his kills strung together) which signified his pride and skill as a hunter, was unique to the hunter; in the same way the jewelry which served as symbols of religious belief came to identify a medicine person or "shaman".
As European settlers began expanding westward, glass and ceramic beads were introduced to Native peoples across the land. As a result designs and patterns became more elaborate at first employing a symbol of status within various tribes. New techniques, such as loom and off loom weaving, stringing, embroidary, bead crochet and bead knitting were also developed. Eventually as settlers moved west, more and more Native peoples were being forced from their native lands, thus the bead work art which symbolized pride and status began to evolve into serving as an expression of oppression.
Bead working survives in contemporary Native art once again symbolizing pride which is reflected in the work of the artist. With glass and ceramic beads produced on a massive scale, artists are able to realize their visions more intricately than ever before at a fairly affordable cost.
Floral styles are very popular in Native beading, with some of the most impressive examples being bandolier bags or the full cape regalia used in traditional women's powwow dances. Large pieces such as this can take up to a year to complete.
There are a number of contemporary beadwork artists doing incredible work. Kiowa beadworker, Teri Greeves has won top honors for her beadwork, which consciously integrates both traditional and contemporary motifs, such as beaded dancers on Converse high-tops. Greeves also beads on buckskin and explores such issues as warfare or Native American voting rights.