Rituals, Cultural Values, and Beads in Native American Society

Beads and bead bracelets today do not have much cultural value in our society. Beads and bead bracelets are frequently used by children at birthday parties, during arts and crafts at school, or simply as entertainment. Gold and silver beads and bead bracelets have commercial or sentimental value but nothing beyond that. However throughout history beads and bead bracelets had a great deal of cultural value. Native Americans used beads in religious and spiritual ways. Beads and bead bracelets were a fundamental part of Native American daily life.

Sometimes bead bracelets were used to record treaties, sacred ceremonies, and songs. Beads were a tool for record keeping and dissemination of information and traditions. Native Americans did not write books but they did tell narratives through their beads and bead bracelets. Tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy used fresh water clam shells for their wampum chains that were also considered a form of currency. The idea of bead bracelets as currency was a European construct. Native Americans did not have money in the European sense. Beads were commonly traded and exchanged for other goods or services but this was more of a ritual than a monetary transaction.

The majority of Native American people considered the process of making beads and bead bracelets sacred. Native Americans had a fundamental connection with the Earth, nature, and wildlife. They made beads and bead bracelets out of seeds, wood, shells, animal teeth, bones, claws, and horns. Native people had amazing respect for the flora and fauna that surrounded them. It was considered an honor and a privilege to work with the natural elements of the world for their own purposes.

Archaeologists believe that beads are a sign of the complex nature of Native American culture and society. Because beads are not tools their use and construction indicates that Native American tribes had enough food, resources, and shelter to allocate labor for decorative and ornamental purposes. Division of labor is a keystone of an advanced culture. Europeans easily dismissed Native Americans as backward and inferior people. However this assessment was made under dubious pretenses. Europeans needed a reason to subjugate Native Americans and occupy their land. Explorers and settlers informed people back home that the Natives were uncultured and needed saving.

But archaeologists and anthropologists today recognize that the use of beads and bead bracelets in Native American culture meant they had a complex societal structure. Beads epitomized Native American values and principles. Their spirituality was instilled throughout the bead-making process. Beads and bead bracelets occupied a unique place in Native American society. Beads can be a reminder that there was a time when people had a greater appreciation for life and the natural world.

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