For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the Aboriginal people of Canada used beads and other ornaments made from natural materials to decorate their bodies, clothing and accessories. Seeds and cloths, teeth, shells and bones were threaded into necklaces or stitched on clothing made from animal skins. Women also used porcupine quills, moose hair, feathers, fur and pigments to create designs on clothing. This work was not only decorative, however. Archaeological research and oral traditions suggest that those raw materials were invested with very specific meanings and that those who wore them considered them to be substances and motifs with symbolic as well as real power.

It is not surprising to find that glass beads were among the cargo of the first Europeans to sail up the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the end of the 15th century. Africa’s discovery and exploration by Europeans in the middle of the 15th century provided a powerful impetus to the manufacture of Venetian beads. Almost every merchant, fisherman and explorer carried these beads with them and they quickly became essential articles for trading with non-European peoples. Given as gifts or exchanged for furs or other valuable objects, glass beads, like metal tools and fabric, quickly became part of the Kanien’kehá:ka culture. Beads were sewn on garments and accessories, worn as necklaces and earrings or attached to tools and talismans.

During the initial period of the fur trade, exchanges between Europeans and Aboriginal peoples were often carried out on a basis of equality. Furs and European products like glass beads were carried along the traditional Amerindian trading routes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the impact of this trade, which was by now flourishing, was felt by every Aboriginal people in North America. The fur trade became the vehicle for the spread of epidemics and the cause of increased armed clashes. Many Aboriginal groups were destroyed and disappeared from the map; others were decimated, dismantled or driven out of their ancestral lands.

In the early 19th century, the survivors of this upheaval joined together to form new societies. The beaded clothing and accessories that the Kanien’kehá:ka produced at this time are a forceful testament to the resilience of traditional cultures and beliefs, and they demonstrate that a new way of envisioning the future had emerged. The complex beaded motifs and bright colours attracted a great deal of attention from non-Aboriginals, who found objects decorated in this way exotic and romantic.

During the same period, Euro-Canadians and foreign tourists began to visit reserves and popular recreation sites along the St. Lawrence River and at Niagara Falls. There they bought a whole range of beaded objects as souvenirs. Aboriginal people did not take long to turn a profit from the growing popularity of their beaded motifs and between 1880 and 1920 they manufactured and sold increasingly large numbers of hand-crafted objects. Women’s skill in beading and traditional sewing became an essential source of income in this new cash-based economy. Eager to respond to the expectations of non-Aboriginals, the beaded works that were manufactured at this time developed and took on non-traditional forms (pin cushions and photograph frames) that merged traditional motifs with a new form.
The McCord Museum of Canadian History

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