Spirit Seeds: Celebrating Native American Beadwork

Spirit Seeds: Celebrating Native American Beadwork features approximately 60 works from the University Museum permanent collection. The selected treasures represent artistic traditions from ancient examples of shell and stone, to contemporary beadwork created in 2015.


In the past, as today, Native Americans have used natural materials to create beauty and have adorned themselves with glass beads for centuries.
The Anishinaabe word for beads,
manidoo minens, spirit seeds, is regarded as animate, and serves as the inspiration for the title of this exhibition.

Lolita Gibson, Apache, T-necklace

Lakota, Possible bag

Lakota, Possible bag

Lakota, Pipe bag

Lakota, Pipe bag

First introduced to North America in the 15th and 16th centuries from from European traders and explorers, glass beads remain a material of choice to adorn clothing, handbags, moccasins, jewelry, and other items of prestige that are worn, displayed, and gifted on special occasions. The tradition of using this once-new material continues- just as contemporary Native artists embrace other new mediums, including video, digital photography, blown and fused glass, and computer technology, while maintaining and strengthening ties to their culture. Innovation continues to thrive among Native artists.

The lavish skill and care spent on beadwork designed specifically to be view in motion is evident in descriptions used to describe Native beadwork including – ‘ostentatious displays’, ‘flamboyant’, ‘elegant syncopations’. Beadwork is often designed to be deliberately conspicuous, view in motion, attract notice and impress in the context of powwows and other gatherings. Making and wearing beadwork is a literal embodiment of ancestral knowledge,  encapsulating information about the world in the creation of each piece, honoring relationships, and demonstrating one’s creativity.

While each region and each tribe has sustained its own characteristic style, the extensive history of intertribal trade and gatherings have ensured a continuing diverse aesthetic almost everywhere. Within this diversity, tribal styles remain supple enough to allow individual artists to express personal beliefs, experiences and creativity. The deliberate slippage and displacement of beads in color design often serves as an identifying signature of the creator.

In the cycle of reciprocity, Native people give thanks for the gifts of materials in their transformation into artistic objects that acknowledge relationships and cultural traditions.

The treasures displayed here have left their original place of creation and landscape, but through their complex, often multi-layered design and meaning, continue to tell stories about the artists and their world, circulating knowledge.

It has been said that Native beadwork artists could and would bead anything that didn’t move. This exhibition celebrates the continuing artistic impulse of all Native beadworkers.