European fur traders introduced glass beads to Canadian First Nations peoples in the 17th century. The natives quickly took to these beads, which eventually replaced dyed porcupine quills and shell beads as the preferred form of embellishment. On their 1804 expedition to the Canadian Northwest, Lewis and Clark brought beads to trade with First Nations peoples. Unfortunately, they guessed wrong about the kinds of beads the natives would prefer – namely the blue and white variety. Instead, Lewis and Clark brought mostly red beads and mock garnets. Fortunately, the explorers discovered their mistake before it was too late and the expedition was a success.
Where was this textile created?
North America: Canada, Central Canada, Ontario; Woodland Cree people
Late 19th century
Smoked deerskin embroidered with glass and metal beads
46 cm x 13 cm
Gift of Elizabeth Rooney
T96.0181 Textile Museum of Canada
Before entering into battle, Woodland Cree warriors put pipes and tobacco into deerskin bags such as this one, and attached them to their belts. To preserve the leather, the bag was tanned using cow brains, and it was smoked to make it water-repellent. The glass beads sewn on the bag form panels on the front and back. Each is a different version of Woodland Cree traditional floral imagery. The beadwork pre-dates 1880 because the silver, cut-metal beads were not used for embellishment after that date.
Canadian First Nations peoples used belts and strings of wampum (polished shells) to record important events, and to demonstrate core values of the Iroquois confederacy such as cooperation and consensus. Europeans mistakenly believed the natives used wampum as a form of currency.
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