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Our beading forebears

Beads have a rich and varied history in North America. Experience the beauty of Native American beadwork on display at the Robbins Museum of Archaeology, Middleboro, MA.

Patch made by Dene people, Saskatchewan, Canada, circa 1996.
Blackfoot knife case, circa 1870. Note the wire that prevents the knife from poking through the case.

Beaded moccasins, beaded deerskin shirts and dresses, quilled armbands, belts, and dolls — these are just some examples of Native American beadwork on display at The Robbins Museum of Archaeology in Middleborough, Massachusetts.

According to appraiser Andrew Bullock, the collection of 19th and 20th century Native American artifacts “is a small collection, but the small size allows people to become immersed in the culture and beauty of native art.” Remarking on the array of tribes and time frames represented in the collection, Bullock continues, “It’s important for people to realize that Native Americans are not one tribe. There are hundreds of tribes that continue to have their own artistic and cultural traditions.”

Moccasin made by Iroquois/Mohawk Indians, circa 1880
Cree pouch made circa 1870

Linda Coombs, program director for the Aquinnah Cultural Center in Massachusetts, is a member of the Aquinnah tribe from Martha’s Vineyard, and her lineage goes back centuries. When asked about the importance of The Robbins Museum of Archaeology, she replies, “Any collection is important. We have to have an understanding of the past . . . If we don’t reach out and see what other people have done, we lose that connection and we don’t understand it.”

Fully beaded Zuni doll with butterfly motif. Southwest USA, circa 1950s.

Examining their beautiful beaded artifacts, you’ll find bead embroidery, including raised techniques, as well as loomwork, peyote stitch, a variety of edging stitches, and more.

Their striking beaded art was worn with pride, and wampum — a tubular shell bead — was used to ratify treaties, solidify relationships, adorn ceremonial deerskin shirts and dresses, and express condolence. They made use of land and sea animals and fashioned beadwork into an important part of their lives.