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In the early nineteenth century, as European settlers began to push westwards across America into the open spaces of the Great Plains, they encountered the nomadic tribes of Plains peoples. Although there were many violent clashes, there was also wide-spread trade, tapping into existing indigenous trading networks. One of the most valuable goods desired by the Native peoples of the region were glass beads. These were made in factories in central Europe, particularly Bohemia, and to the Plains peoples were an exotic luxury. Wealthy chieftains traded for the beads and had them sewn onto clothing and strung on head-dresses and equipment.

The beadwork designs took the form of traditional decoration woven from dyed porcupine quills and depicted family and tribal histories and legends, with particular colours indicating allegiances and relationships. The beads were so valuable that they were preserved from use to use, often sewn onto hide or wool patches so that they could be detached from old, worn out clothing and reattached to a new garment.

Although many Plains traditions have come under attack in the two centuries since the first period of widespread encounter, beads are still used widely in ceremonial clothing, especially at powwows as well as used to decorate more everyday clothing in subtle ways that point to indigenous identity and heritage.

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World Gallery: Additional information