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As life circumstances of the Dakota changed, so too did their beadwork

The stark economic changes Dakota people endured are reflected in the artwork produced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Beaded bag made by Margeurite Metivier, c.1860.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Dakota people in what is now Minnesota began using glass beads to decorate clothing, bags, and household items in the mid-nineteenth century. The practice both reinforced and transformed Dakota art, allowing Native artists to preserve a creative tradition that continues in the twenty-first century.

Before European trade introduced glass beads to North America around 1500, Dakota and other Native people made beads from shells, stones, bones, and teeth. Artists used long-bone beads called hairpipe (traditionally made from bison and later from cattle) to adorn clothing like breastplates. They worked beads made from teeth, as well as from shells acquired through trans-continental Native trade networks, into jewelry and dresses.

The designs created in paint, quills, and Native beads carried over into beadwork made after European contact. The Dakota began to use hand-blown beads, then standardized “pony” beads, and finally smaller, factory-made “seed” beads. They turned to seed beads in particular to experiment with new techniques while maintaining and reproducing older styles.

Beadwork, like quillwork before it, was the traditional domain of Native women. By the early nineteenth century, Dakota women were exchanging food, skins, and pelts with Euro-American traders in return for goods like cloth, silk ribbons, and glass beads. They ordered specific colors, sizes, and cuts on sample cards— small pieces of cardstock decorated with different manufacturers’ beads.

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By the 1830s, Dakota women had access to commercial glass beads in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes. The new material posed new challenges, like using glass to mimic the subtle color gradations of dyed quills and beading the yoke of a dress without making it too heavy for its wearer. Over time, glass beads replaced both quills and handmade beads on Dakota objects because of their variety, convenience, and availability. By 1850, Dakota designs featured contrasting stripes; bilateral symmetry; and freestanding elements like stars, leaves, and flowers against bead-free backgrounds.

Even when they used new designs and materials, Dakota artists fashioned objects that reflected indigenous worldviews and made sense on indigenous terms. Objects made from imported materials retained both Dakota aesthetics and Dakota uses. In this period, for instance, men’s formal shirts were often made with heavy cotton instead of brain-tanned deerskin; decorated with glass beads instead of porcupine quills; and cut in the style of Western waistcoats instead of traditional war-honors shirts. But they continued to highlight Dakota forms and carry forward the tradition of bestowing men with vests that essentially wrapped them in Dakotaness.

With the importation of Euro-American goods into Dakota life came an influx of Euro-Americans themselves. Over a few decades, white colonists displaced the Dakota within their homelands. The situation escalated in the summer of 1862 during the U.S.–Dakota War. At the end of the war, the U.S. government forcibly transported most surviving Dakota to prison camps within Minnesota and Iowa and then permanently expelled them from both states. Most of the Dakota were forced west to live in Nebraska and Dakota Territory, closer to their Lakota kin; some remained in small communities in Minnesota.

Almost no Dakota artwork survives from the decade after the U.S.–Dakota War. Many people barely survived. In unfamiliar places, often lacking food, shelter, and medicine, staying alive from season to season took precedent over making art. By about 1875, however, Dakota artists had renewed the beadwork tradition, with a noticeable change. While some continued to use traditional motifs, others started to reinterpret the distinctly Lakota patterns of their new neighbors.

Without abandoning the delicate, bilaterally symmetrical, standalone pastel florals of pre-war Dakota work, Dakota women began to incorporate the geometry, bold colors, and repeated shapes of Lakota objects. They also beaded objects more heavily, in the style of Lakota pieces.

By 1890, after the establishment of the reservation system and the end of the treaty-making era, traditional Native economies had largely collapsed. The U.S. government told the Dakota and other Native groups to abandon their old lifeways, assimilate into Euro-American culture, and live on single-family farms.

The stark economic changes Dakota people endured are reflected in the artwork produced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Increasingly, Dakota artists created beaded items not for tribal use but for sale to Euro-Americans. They produced miniature versions of utilitarian objects like tipis, clubs, and snowshoes as well as figures of Dakota people themselves—primarily because they were easy to transport.

To appeal to tourists, they applied European motifs, such as representations of animals and people, to Euro-American items like fitted jackets and vests. European decorative items such as pincushions, fobs, and wall pockets became popular. Dakota artists fixed beads to items like bottles and doctors’ valises that had never been beaded before. They began to decorate objects with non-Native symbols, including American flags and Christian crosses.

Ever adaptive, Dakota art and culture persisted in the midst of continued pressure on the Dakota to assimilate at the turn of the twentieth century. During the 1920s, Dakota people created cottage industries to sell handmade goods and curios to tourists without abandoning the old ways. Many of the objects made during this time are a mix of European and Native styles. The Arts and Crafts movement, which thrived between 1880 and 1920, drew from the designs of Dakota bags and other decorative items.

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Art historians are able to attribute specific objects to individual artists—rather than to tribal or regional groups—starting in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, Rebecca Bluecloud, a Dakota woman from the Upper Sioux reservation in Granite Falls, supported her family during hard times by involving them in the manufacture of beaded items, particularly dolls.

To further break down communities and assimilate Native people into American culture, the U.S. government introduced a policy of relocation in 1956. Designed to lure Native workers away from their reservation homes and into cities like Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles, this policy split the Native American population of the United States between reservation residents and urban dwellers. It also had the unintended effect of strengthening Native identity—and art traditions—through pan-Indian unity.

In the mid-twentieth century, Dakota artwork shifted again. The survival of Dakota beadwork practices was itself a symbol of indigenous resistance to assimilation. Partly inspired by the successes of the Black Power movement, a burgeoning Native rights movement was born. Its most organized form was the American Indian Movement (AIM), established in Minneapolis in 1968. The exchange of Native cultural traditions within American cities resulted in a mixing of styles in Native beadwork in general, and in Dakota beadwork in particular. Much of the Dakota beadwork from this period emulated Lakota and Western Plains styles.

In the twenty-first century, many Dakota artists are reclaiming their culture by studying old techniques, including beadwork. Contemporary Dakota artists like Holly Young, for example, are reviving the bilateral symmetry and florals of pre-1862 beaded objects. Others, like Dallas Goldtooth and Gwen Westerman, are reviving quillworking and ribbonworking. Still others, like Bobby Wilson, are translating the old styles into modern media. Different stages in the development of Dakota beadwork find representation in pow-wow regalia pieces like breastplates, shawls, belts, shoes, and jewelry.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.