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Shell Beads

What did First Nations people wear for fashion? Or for ritual purposes? What did the decoration on their clothes and these objects look like? How were they made? These can be some of the questions one might ask when referring to the objects that First Nations made through beadwork.

Throughout the Great Lakes region, Indigenous peoples created accessories and materials with beads. The use of beadwork by First Nations people for decorative and other purposes has been practiced throughout history.  Materials such as stone, bone and shells have been used to make beaded objects. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, beads were larger in size and came in a variety of shapes.

With the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous peoples were introduced to smaller beads made of glass. As a result, they were able to create more intricate beadwork designs and applied these methods to various objects such as the Wampum Belt.

Wampum belts 1812 exhibit, Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Wampum belts are made from beads that are sewn together, with each bead placed in a specific pattern and arrangement.  Wampum belts were used for rituals and political commemorations, such as peace treaties and unifications.


Moccasins are another example of objects that incorporate patterns of beadwork. The moccasin, a form of footwear worn by Indigenous peoples, was made from animal hide. Beaded designs, usually made using glass beads, were stitched or glued onto the footwear.

Smaller glass beads were also used to make elaborate necklaces and other forms of jewellery. The Iroquois, for example, used beads for personal adornment and to decorate items such as clubs and pouches. The pouch would have a matching beaded belt, and also often had beaded strings made from dyed horse hair attached to them.

Pouch with decorative beadwork.
Pouch with decorative beadwork.

Visit the museum to see examples of beadwork currently on display.



Tara Prindle, “Overview of Footwear, Moccasin” Native American Technology and Art, 1994

Karklins, Karlis. Trade Ornament Usage Among the Native Peoples of Canada. Ottawa: Ministry of the Environment, 1992.

Beads: Their Use by Upper Great Lakes Indians.  An exhibition produced by the Grand Rapids Public Museum and the Cranbrook Academy of Art/Museum

Lyford, Carrie A. Iroquois Crafts. Iroqrafts Publications, 1945.

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