The two eye teeth of an elk, the ivories, were used for garment decoration. The number of teeth symbolized the prowess of the husband-provider. If a wife and all her female children were attired in these dresses, it was a sign of a family of means.
Cowrie shells came from the Indian and South Pacific oceans. Dentalium shells from the Pacific Northwest were traded throughout the Plains. They had both monetary and decorative value and were distributed through intertribal barter from the Pacific to the Arctic. Native people used and esteemed shell beads above all others, and the raw material often traveled great distances.
Cylindrical beads, called “hair pipes,” were a popular trade item on the Plains, prized for use in breastplates, necklaces, and hair ornaments. Originally made by Southeastern tribes from conch shells, they only became widely available on the Plains when a New Jersey entrepreneur mass-produced them for the lucrative Indian trade, replicating them in bone turned on a lathe.
It was not until the arrival of trade beads from Europe that the Indians could obtain small beads in sufficient quantities to make the beaded designs we see in pictures and museums.
The people of the northeastern United States and the Midwest already were decorating their leather clothing and accessories with dyed porcupine quills. Beadwork is time-consuming and tedious, but not as bad as quill work. Each quill had to be attached with a small stitch. Despite that, Native Americans created intricate and beautiful quill work pieces.
The art of making glass beads probably originated in Venice. This area had a flourishing industry in bead production by the early 14th century. From there, bead making moved to other parts of Europe, especially Bohemia., France, England, and Holland. There was even a small bead industry in the United States.
Beads were one of the earliest goods Europeans traded with Native Americans. Spaniards were already trading beads into New Mexico by the middle of the 16th century. Ultimately, all beads came from trading posts, but the Indians soon spread trade beads far and wide through their own exchange networks until they could be found in the most remote parts of the United States.
Indians soon discovered the advantages of small, brightly colored beads and they became hugely popular. In North America, traders soon moved to satisfy the market for smaller beads.
“Pony” beads, so named because they were transported by traders with pony pack trains, arrived in the early 1800s. Their large size (2 – 4 millimeters) and limited palette of white, black, and blue allowed for simple, bold designs. Blue beads were particularly popular in the plains, possibly because that color was rare in native dye sources.
Starting about 1840 the standardization of manufacturing techniques in Venice and Bohemia allowed for beads of uniform size, shape and color. These were seed beads (2 millimeters or less) and were traded in bulk. Plains tribes developed preferences for particular bead colors, such as the Crow people favoring turquoise and pink. After 1870, translucent beads in even richer hues and more varied shapes became popular.