Ribbons and Beads: Native American Art Reveals History and Culture


Ava L. McCall

The textile arts are a valuable means by which students can learn about the history and culture of specific Native American nations. In my undergraduate social studies methods course, I introduce prospective teachers to four of the six federally recognized nations in Wisconsin—the Menominee, Ho-Chunk (formerly known as the Winnebago), Ojibwa (also known as the Chippewa), and Oneida (of the Iroquois League)—through their bead and ribbonwork. By examining textile arts, young students could certainly construct some understanding of these peoples and cultures.


Weaving the Social Fabric

Exploring Native American culture and history through art can sometimes provide an insider’s view of a culture, revealing its social, political, and economic textures. For example, in European American culture, beads and ribbons are typically viewed as minor decorations. But in Native American cultures, beads and ribbons could have important spiritual, economic, and political meaning. Also, a work of art is a trace of a specific time and place.1 The continuation of bead and ribbonwork, mostly by women, during periods of oppression might be understood as expressions of resistance to cultural extinction.


Traditional Sources

Before contact with Europeans, these four tribes primarily used materials found in their woodland environment. Before the introduction of manufactured ribbons, women plucked and washed porcupine quills, then dyed, flattened, and sewed them onto skins in geometric, curvilinear, scroll, double curve, floral, or animal designs. They collected moose hair from the mane, cheeks, and rump of the animal, and then washed, dyed, and flattened it using similar techniques to that of quill work. Before the introduction of glass beads and metal buttons, beads were created from clay, bone, stone, and shells, and were strung together or attached to skins.


Pelts, Glass Beads, and Ribbons

Europeans initiated the fur trade in North America in the 1500s. Beaver pelt hats for men and other fur items became fashionable in Europe. Native people participated in the fur trade for several reasons. Diseases like smallpox, introduced by the Europeans, weakened Native societies and their traditional economies; guns, purchased with furs, were good for hunting and conferred military advantage; other desirable items, like metal knives and glass beads, could be obtained through trade; trapping was not as “foreign” an occupation as were farming, lumbering, and mining; and practices of intertribal commerce adapted to the new demand for fur.2

As the fur-bearing animal population in the east neared depletion because of overtrapping, the fur trade intensified in the Great Lakes region. Ojibwa, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk became trading tribes, which led to changes in lifestyle. Men spent more time away from their families trapping animals and less time making their own tools. They used guns and metal traps more frequently, bows and arrows less. Even though women had to process greater numbers of skins, metal tools obtained through trade made these tasks easier. Women spent less time making pottery and baskets as metal cooking pots appeared. Native women provided lodging to fur traders and transacted for trade goods; many married white traders.3

The textile arts changed during this era with the availability of traded cloth, glass beads, and silk ribbons. Native women added glass beads to their porcupine quill and moose hair embroidery. Beads were either embroidered directly on skin or cloth or woven on a loom, then attached. Beadwork designs (both outlines and shapes filled with beads) became more elaborate. Colored, manufactured ribbons were introduced and were used as borders on clothing. Then women cut and sewed layers of ribbons into different designs similar to earlier quill and moose hair embroidery patterns.4 Although they used European-produced beads and ribbons, they integrated them into traditional patterns.5


Treaties and Reservations

Following the demise of the fur trade during the early nineteenth century, the tribes became increasingly dependent on the U.S. Government, whose policies were a mix of paternalism and oppression. Native people needed the compensation from token governmental payments and annuities in exchange for their land. The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 resulted in further land loss as reservations were divided into small plots (usually consisting of poorer land), assigned to individual families for farming, and the remaining lands sold to Americans of European descent.6 Children were often taken away from their families to attend boarding schools that aimed to “save” them as individuals by eliminating their native languages and cultures and assimilating them into white society. Rituals were often forbidden on reservations, missionaries pressed for conversion, and most Native Americans suffered from a decline in their standard of living because they could not meet their basic needs on the poor soil and limited land of their allotments.7 Nevertheless, art from this period still affirms the cultural identity of the artists, even as it shows the blending of traditional practices with European materials.8 During this period of hardship, textile artists responded with creative, abundant beadwork and ribbonwork, perhaps as a symbol of cultural identification and solidarity and resistance to assimilation and extinction.9

Among many Native people, the only acceptable way to show material wealth was in garments or by giving gifts to others. With the greater availability of beads, designs became more elaborate and embellished in clothing used for social dances, religious ceremonies, and official meetings. Native American women also created elaborate ribbon patterns by layering, cutting, and sewing sometimes as many as twenty layers of ribbons that were then sewn onto social and ceremonial clothing.10 Artists often developed prize collections of ribbon appliqué patterns and fashioned curvilinear or floral ribbon designs. Beadwork and ribbonwork were important possessions given away at ceremonies and as gifts. At the turn of the century, artists also began creating “tourist art,” although few could make a living wage from this activity.11

During World War II, the government encouraged Native people to leave reservations, live in urban areas, and abandon their cultural traditions. This pressure, along with increasing numbers of Native American women working for wages outside the home, meant less time for textile arts. However, these arts did not disappear.


Reclaiming Sovereignty and Continuing Traditions

In contemporary times, many Native nations have asserted their sovereignty by gaining the right to govern themselves, exercise treaty rights, manage natural resources, and build businesses on their reservations.12 Gaming (operating gambling casinos), while controversial within Native communities, has helped several tribes reduce poverty and unemployment, and a few gain economic self-reliance.13 Wisconsin tribes also have developed fish hatcheries and lumbering, which have funded needed social services, such as health centers, day care, and elder centers.14 The movement toward self-determination has included the creation of museums, tribal schools, and colleges to teach each nation’s culture, history, and language. These four Wisconsin Native nations continue their cultural traditions through powwows, social events that bring together Native and non-native people for drumming and dancing and provide an opportunity for the wearing of fine Native clothing.

Preparing powwow outfits provides a strong incentive for the preservation of beadwork and ribbonwork traditions, although there may be fewer bead and ribbon artists today than during earlier periods.15 While some textile artists remain dedicated to traditional methods, others employ new technology to create both traditional and new designs. Some ribbon artists today use computerized sewing machines to create ribbon shirts and embroider traditional designs on clothing, as the traditional methods are extremely time-consuming.16 Contemporary designs may come from cultural traditions such as clan symbols, creation stories, and traditional floral patterns as well as specific family influences. Bead and ribbon artists today cite the desire to create beauty through textile arts, continue these artistic traditions, and prepare clothing that affirms Native American cultural identity as the motivations for their art.17


Classroom Resources

Artifacts, such as porcupine quills, quillwork on birchbark baskets, and quillwork on earrings, might be viewed, borrowed, or even purchased from museums, reservation shops, powwow vendors, and contemporary quill artists. (Porcupine quills are sharp and not easily removed, so young children should be encouraged to look but not handle.)

Trade beads and cotton and wool trade cloth can be found in educational kits available through local museums or educational supply companies.18 Illustrations from trade books that portray people in traditional dress may be used to encourage students to question the source, purpose, and construction of this clothing. Students should understand, however, that paintings and drawings are an artist’s interpretation (sometimes drawn from memory), and may contain inaccuracies. Excellent sources for photographs and drawings from the fur trading era include Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade and A Great Lakes Fur Trade Coloring Book.19

Finally, teachers can search locally for resources, as there are Native Nations and reservations in many states. I have taken photographs (some shown here) of contemporary powwow clothing embellished with beadwork and ribbon appliqué. I also share with my students selections from interviews in which contemporary artists explain the meanings they invest in their art and how they juggle competing demands on their time to continue these traditions. Students examine the photographs for changes from earlier clothing, beadwork, and ribbon patterns on clothing, and speculate about the importance of decorated clothing for powwows.

I also use slides to illustrate traditional lifestyles taken from a recreated Ojibwa village on the Lac du Flambeau reservation in Wisconsin, and sketches of quill and moose hair embroidery designs. Contemporary ribbonwork patterns from the State Historical Society Museum of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Public Museum complete the visuals.

Students may also research Native American textile arts on the World Wide Web. One could start at www.nativeweb.org. This crossroads site contains background information, examples, and references on beadwork, quill embroidery, moccasins, and clothing. Follow a path from “resources” to “arts and humanities.” Continue your own study from there!



1. Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997).

2. J. A. Hieb, ed., Visions and Voices: Winnebago Elders Speak to the Children (Independence, WI: Western Dairyland Economic Opportunity Council, 1994); C. I. Mason, Introduction to Wisconsin Indians: Prehistory to Statehood (Salem, WI: Sheffield, 1988).

3. J. Demos, The Tried and the True: Native American Women Confronting Colonization (New York: Oxford, 1995); R. K. Pannabecker, “Ribbonwork of the Great Lakes Indians: The Material of Acculturation” (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, Columbus, 1986).

4. S. Hartman, Indian Clothing of the Great Lakes: 1740-1840 (Liberty, UT: Eagle’s View, 1988).

5. D. W. Penny, “Clothing as a Reflection of History Among Great Lakes Native Americans, 1800-1900,” in On the Border: Native American Weaving Traditions of the Great Lakes and Prairie, ed. D. Wooley (Moorehead, MN: Plains Art Museum, 1990), 12-26.

6. R. Gudinas, ed., American Indian Tribal Governments (Madison, WI: Madison Metropolitan School District, 1983).

7. Patricia K. Ourada, The Menominee (New York: Chelsea House, 1990); Helen Hornbeck Tanner, The Ojibwa (New York: Chelsea House, 1992).

8. B. Gordon, Understanding the Visual Art of American Indian Women, Full Circle paper #16 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, Madison, n.d.).

9. M. J. Schneider, “The Production of Indian-Use and Souvenir Beadwork by Contemporary Indian Women,” Plains Anthropologist 28 (1983): 235-245.

10. S. M. Neill, “Emblems of Ethnicity: Ribbonwork Garments from the Great Lakes Region” (Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory, Kalamazoo, MI, November 1995).

11. D. Wooley, “Contemporary Native American Traditional Arts: Comments on Traditional vs. Tourist and Gender Roles,” in On the Border: Native American Weaving Traditions of the Great Lakes and Prairie, ed. D. Wooley (Moorehead, MN: Plains Art Museum, 1990), 27-38.

12. R. Brown, “Indian Resurgence: From Termination to Self-Determination, 1961-91,” in Classroom Activities on Wisconsin Indian Treaties and Tribal Sovereignty, ed. R. N. Satz (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 1996), 254-258.

13. H. Bichler, “Indian Gaming and Economic Development” in Classroom Activities on Wisconsin Indian Treaties and Tribal Sovereignty, ed. R. N. Satz (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 1996), 294-300.

14. Wisconsin Native American Heritage Tourism Initiative (Producer), “The Official Video Guide to Native Wisconsin” [video] (n.d.). (Available from HVS Productions, Green Bay, WI).

15. R. T. Coe, Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985 (New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1986); L. R. Lippard. “Double Vision” in Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar, and Sage: Contemporary Art by Native American Women, ed. H. Hammond (New York: The Gallery of the American Indian Community House, 1985).

16. Interview with Rogerine Wychesit, July 18, 1996.

17. Interview with Tina Danforth, July 15, 1996; Interview with Deanna Carufel, July 12, 1996.

18. Sherry L. Field, Linda D. Labbo, Ron W. Wilhelm, and Alan W. Garrett, “To Touch, to Feel, to See: Artifacts in the Elementary School Classroom,” Social Education 60 (1996): 141-43; Ronald V. Morris, “Using Artifacts as a Springboard to Literacy,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 10 (1998): 14-17.

19. C. Gilman, Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1982); C. Kozlak, A Great Lakes Fur Trade Coloring Book (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1981).

About the Author

Ava L. McCall is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

Children’s Literature and Teacher Resources


Eve Bunting, Cheyenne Again (New York: Clarion, 1995).

R. Carufel, Porcupine Quillwork on Birchbark (Rhinelander, WI: School District of Rhinelander, 1990); Winnebago Appliqué (Rhinelander, WI: School District of Rhinelander, 1991).

Jill Duvall, A New True Book: The Oneida (Chicago: Children’s Press, 1991).

O. E. Hays, “Fur for Fashion’s Sake,” Cobblestone 3 (1982): 18-19.

Joan Kalbacken, A New True Book: The Menominee (Chicago: Childrens Press, 1994).

Shannon King, An Ojibway Dancer (Minneapolis: Lerner, 1993).

Kathleen Krull, One Nation, Many Tribes: How Kids Live in Milwaukee’s Indian Community (New York: Lodestar, 1995).

Eileen Lucas, The Ojibwas: People of the Northern Forests (Brookfield, CT: Millbrook, 1994).

Carrie A. Lyford, Iroquois Crafts (Stevens Point, WI: R. Schneider, 1982); Ojibwa Crafts (Stevens Point, WI: R. Schneider, 1982).

Terence C. Mason, “Bead! Exploring World Cultures at the Museum,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 10, (September/October 1997): 6-8.

Gay Matthaei and J. Grutman, The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle (New York: Lickle, 1994).

J. McLellan, Nanabosho Dances (Winnipeg, Canada: Pemmican, 1991).

Alice Osinski, A New True Book: The Chippewa (Chicago: Children’s Press, 1992).

Patricia K. Ourada, The Menominee (New York: Chelsea House, 1990).

Marcie R. Rendon, Powwow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1996).

J. Rudolph, “The Beaver Trade,” Cobblestone 3 (1982): 8-13.

E. St. Germaine, Beadwork Design of American Indians (Rhinelander, WI: School District of Rhinelander, 1990).

Helen Horbeck Tanner, The Ojibwa (New York: Chelsea House, 1992).

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.