Beads! Beads! Beads!  People all over the world love beads.  The same is true of the Haudenosaunee.  Beads were and still are used by the Haudenosaunee to make necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, and pins.  Beads were and are used to decorate clothing, pincushions, barrettes, belts, picture frames, and just about anything you can sew through or sew around. These days, beads come in all sizes, shapes and colors.  Today, beads can be made of glass, plastic, metal, shell, rock or just about anything you can drill a hole through.  They are used to beautify.  They are used to make representations of meaningful objects, symbols, and stories.  (Please see the section on “Wampum” to read about wampum beads).


The Haudenosaunee and their ancestors have made and worn beads for thousands of years. The earliest beads made by the ancestors of today’s Iroquois were formed of materials collected in nature. Shiny stones were polished, drilled, and used as jewelry. Animal bones, antlers, and clam shells were carved and drilled to form beads. These beads were  worn as pendants and earrings. Sometimes, but rarely, they were sewn onto clothes. Porcupine quills were more often attached to clothing. The quills could be dyed with natural dyes to produce quills in colors that decorated the leather clothing and moccasins worn by people of all ages.


For thousands of years beads were made only of natural materials until the first glass beads came from Europe in the 1500s. The glass beads were traded into Iroquois territory up the Susquehanna River from the south, the Hudson River in the east, and the St. Lawrence River in the north. These rivers all connected to the Atlantic Ocean and were convenient trade routes for the Europeans to reach the Iroquois towns.



The Iroquois were eager to trade for the glass beads. Sparkling glass beads in a wide variety of colors were of great fascination to the people who previously had beads made out of only stones and bones. Although a few beads had been created out of native copper and meteoritic iron and pottery sherds, they did not display the bright red, green, blue, and yellow of the glass beads.


The earliest glass trade beads were made in Venice and Amsterdam where glass bead factories were built to make the tons of glass beads that the Iroquois and their neighbors enthusiastically desired to trade for. Tons of small glass beads were traded for food, fur, and favors with the European explorers and traders.


During the 1500s and 1600s the precious glass beads were worn as necklaces and earrings and rarely sewn on to clothes. Porcupine quills remained the favorite medium to decorate clothing including moccasins.

 Bone and shell beads and earliest glass beads in the Mohawk Valley, 1560-1615


It was not until the early 1700s that Iroquois beadworkers began to decorate their clothing with European glass beads. The beads were sewn onto leggings and woven into fingerwoven sashes.


By the late 1700s the Seneca in western New York were sewing small glass beads onto  pincushions. The first designs were geometrical and often symmetrical. Thirty years later talented Seneca beadworkers were creating imaginative designs beaded on pincushions and purses. They often used beads in many colors on red or blue wool cloth.


In the 1840s Lewis H Morgan bought 25 pieces of Seneca beadwork for New York State to display in what was to become the New York State Museum. He pictured them in two reports to the Regents and in his groundbreaking book, League of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois. Non Indian people learned about the beadwork from Morgan’s efforts and they saw beadwork for sale at Niagara Falls, which was a favorite  tourist destination by 1850. 


By 1860 the Tuscaroras replaced the  Senecas as beadwork sellers at Niagara Falls. They developed what is known as “raised” beadwork where beaded elements are raised more than one layer of beads above the fabric surface of the piece. The Tuscaroras specialized in creating pincushions in many shapes such as Victorian shaped boots, hearts, and six-pointed stars. They also made flat purses and fist purses on cardboard bases covered with fabric. Picture frames in various shapes and sizes were also made as were wall pockets and watch pockets. Many carried the words FROM NIAGARA FALLS printed in beads.

Starting about 1860 the Mohawks living on reserves near Montreal started creating picture frames and pincushions, which were usually covered with purple velvet. In the 1890s the purple velvet was replaced with hot pink. The Mohawks carried the idea of raised beadwork to new levels with some flowers a full one and one-half inches above the surface of the fabric background.


The thirty years between 1890 and about 1920 were the peak of the popularity of  Iroquois beadwork when tens of thousands of pieces were made and sold to tourists at fairs and public events across North America. Mohawk beadwork often has names such as MONTREAL or CANADA beaded on them. They even traveled to the Alaskan gold rush and beaded KLONDIKE on one piece. Traveling Mohawk performers even sold beadwork on their travels in Europe and Africa too.


It is estimated that over 200,000 pieces of Iroquois beadwork were created and sold over the last two hundred years. Two centers of production evolved in the late 19th c, one on the Tuscarora Reservation near Niagara Falls and at Kahnawake, a Mohawk reserve near Montreal. Beadwork is still done at those locations but not nearly as much beadwork is being created as was being made one hundred years ago.



The most prolific beadworker today is Samuel Thomas, Cayuga from Niagara Falls, Ontario.  Sam, along with his mother, the late Lorna Hill, has created over 25,000 pieces in the last thirty years. They have taught thousands of students Iroquois beadwork techniques. They have traveled to several states, to the UK, and to Kenya to teach about beadwork and Haudenosaunee traditional beliefs.


Except for them and a dozen sewers living at Tuscarora and Kahnawake, few people make traditional raised beadwork for sale. But classes in those two communities promise that more people will become beadworkers. Many people do beadwork for family and friends but not to sell. Clothing for ceremony and performance is often beaded with traditional Iroquois symbols. Most Iroquois beadworkers make other forms of beadwork such as medallions, barrettes, belt buckles, rings, and other small forms of jewelry for sale. Many beaded designs are often those used by other beaders across North America and are indistinguishable from them.  Sometimes popular contemporary Haudenosaunee symbols such as the Tree of Peace, clan animals and wampum belt symbols are used on beaded jewelry.


Traditional raised Iroquois beadwork is recognized as one of the most distinctive types of Indian beadwork ever made. Hundreds of collectors in North America and Europe have built collections of the distinctive Iroquois beadwork. Over the last decade several exhibits have been mounted in the US and Canada. The popularity of Iroquois beadwork has increased over the last twenty five years and, in response, more Haudenosaunee beadworkers are creating more beadwork and the tradition continues.

  Beaded sneakers made by Elizabeth Doxtater, Mohawk

Today, beadwork patterns and symbols can be found throughout Haudenosaunee communities.  Outfits and accessories are often decorated with sky dome, flowers, and other traditional designs.  Beadwork patterns are also used on things such as pottery, jewelry, business cards, billboards, school buildings, web sites, and restaurant menus.  While some beadworkers continue to preserve and work with traditional ideas, others explore new directions.  Some of the innovators use beadwork to create sculpture or decorate one-of-a kind sneakers.  Loretta Skye once beaded bolo ties for the Six Nations Veterans Association and a guitar strap for singer Johnny Cash!  Others bead logos such as, the Nike symbol or that of their favorite football team.  Filmmaker Shelly Niro and media artist Melanie Printup sometimes combine their beadwork with painting or photography.  Each mixes the beauty of beadwork with modern technology to create a new form of art. 

Haudenosaunee beadwork has changed dramatically from its beginnings. This spectacular art has been admired and collected by outsiders for more than 200 years. But its truest value is to the people themselves. Within the Haudenosaunee community, beadwork continues to teach history and patience, and inspire self-respect.

© 2014 Iroquois Indian Museum created with

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