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  • Beads have been around for over 40,000 years in virtually all countries around the world.

  • Bead trading came to North America with Columbus in late 1400s

  • Beadwork is an art form that connects us to the skills, sacrifices  and creativity of our aboriginal peoples

  • European fur traders introduced glass beads to first nations in 1700’s.

  • Today, almost all aboriginal nations of north America practice beadwork in one form or another.

  • Beads were used to adorn a variety of sacred items, everyday items and personal clothing and regalia.

  • INTERACTIVE: Ask children to give ideas of what those beads would have been made from prior to manufacturing ie beads made from the land and animals.

  • Prior to glass beads from Europe, first nations made their beads from what was available from the land, ie stone, shell, nuts, seeds, bone, teeth, pottery, claws, hoofs, horns, claws.

  • INTERACTIVE: Porcupine Story: First nations had a very clever way of getting the quills without hurting themselves or the animal. (you can ask children to guess how – they rarely do!) (How they got quills was standing back with a deer skin blanket and throwing it over the porcupine. Animal would release its quills into blanket and continue to walk along. Quills were used in two ways 1)for weaving  2) beading: by cutting quills into small pieces, (quills are hollow) and dying them from juice from berries and plants.

  • When glass beads were introduced from Europe, they were adapted into the existing styles and patterns already being used with materials such as quills and indigenous made beads.

  • When Europeans arrived, First Nations were eager to trade furs for metal knives, axe heads, pots, needles, colored cloth and glass beads.

  • INTERACTIVE: Show students sample of seed beads included in your package. Mention to them that beads they are using today look very different than they did in the past and the sample they are seeing is what the glass beads originally looked like when brought from Europe. They were very simple and came in just a few colors. Over time the styles changed and much more variety was introduced.

  • The glass beads were enormously popular for both First Nations and European traders:

  • For the European traders beads were:

    • Lightweight, easy to pack and transport

    • Undamaged by water when carried along rivers in their canoes

    • Highly desirable by the tribes.

  • Reasons why indigenous people were so enamored with the glass beads:

    • Fascinated with something new and not seen before.

    • Easily incorporated them into  existing customs and beliefs, culture and traditions

    • Indicator of wealth and status, well being and success.

    • Most important of all, symbolic value held important cultural associations. For example, a shiny clear bead might be associated with the symbolic meaning of water.

    • Europeans saw glass beads as merely blobs of melted glass, trinkets and cheap; priced only according to expense of ingredients to manufacture them (ie a commodity).

    • For first nations not just a commodity exchange. In general, were not thought of as having monetary value. But given symbolic value and associations eg used in a sacred ceremony. A beaded item might be imbued with protective powers (the list goes on).

  • Glass beads along with trade cloth and steel needles eventually led to the decline of old decorative techniques (ie quillwork and natural beads).

  • First nations invented two new techniques that are still in use today: loom beading and appliqué embroidery (show students images).


Miscellaneous details you may want to include in discussion:

  • Why were first nations people essential to the fur trade? Because they were the trappers!

  • Glass beads were sourced from Venice, Netherlands Czech Republic and Germany.



NOTE:  The above information presented to students will depend on Grade. ie more simplified with K’s  than with Grade 5’s.



First Nations Teaching

Teaching Points on the history of beads and how they relate to first nations culture and identity.

(Cultural and Spiritual Significance)