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The History of Beadwork of the Iroquois Confederacy

Introduction to beadwork in the Iroquois nation

The Iroquois confederacy was originally formed by a group of five Native American nations initially made up of Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. Tuscarora later joined this group as a sixth member. The confederacy referred to itself as Haudenosaunee and was located at the northeastern United States and southern Canada in the areas of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ontario and Quebec (Gaines 4).The Iroquois people have many things to be proud of most notably their food, housing, their culture and their beadwork.

Origins of beading

Initially, the Iroquois beadwork was curved from shells, coins, turquoise, copper, silver, wood, amber, ivory, bones, horns, teeth and stones. Later on, with the coming of the colonialists, the Iroquois started using glass beads imported from Europe which they quickly adopted into their culture and is today the primary material used by the beaders.  Many different Iroquois beading traditions, designs, stitches and styles are in existence today. The Iroquois beadwork is the most famous among other Native American beadwork with its intricate peyote stitch beading and bone hair pipe chokers.

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Why use beads

Beadwork among the Iroquois possessed a variety of uses ranging from ritual objects, sources of income, and markers of identity and finally as works of art. Various patterns sewn using beads on leather items signified and passed across important information. The patterns designed on the Hiawatha belt of the haudenosaunee was a record of the five nations of the confederacy. To date, the pattern forms the basis of the Iroquois confederacy.

The other significance of using beads was their availability in differing colors which ensured that different meaning could be delivered by use of the different colors. Purple color was taken to mean seriousness while a yellow color delivered a sign of disease (Jean-Guy 115). The availability of the beads was also a contributing factor towards their widespread usage. Beads were difficult to obtain as they were sought either from lakes while others were obtained through trade. The quality of the bead determined its value. Black beads were in particular difficult to come across meaning that ornaments made of these beads were highly valued.

The durability of the beads meant that they could last for a long time and under adverse weather conditions without losing the information contained in them. The difficulty in working with the beads requiring skilled craftsmen also meant that they could not be faked, thus any item made of beads was always an original item. Iroquois beadwork is far more than just an art; it is an exercise in spiritual expression and preservation. Their narratives lay in many of their beadwork. Only by getting an understanding of the Iroquois cosmology can one get the full meaning of the patterns and the motifs that are repeated on their beadwork. Turtles, doves, birds, flowers and even fruits are a common sight in Iroquois beadwork (Jean-Guy 115).

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The different application of beads use

The Iroquois beadwork can be categorized into beaded leather which includes clothing, moccasins and containers and beaded strands used for jewelry and ornamental strands wound around gourds and other art objects. The Iroquois craftsmen sew the beads on leather backing (or cloths, today).  The beads were either sewn individually or were attached in a loop or sewn in rows. Belts were made by stitching the beads together into strings or could be sewn into a mesh using a sinew, a thread or a wire (native languages of the Americas par 4). Sewing was in most cases done using hands but bow looms were also used to make belts or rectangular strips of beadwork. The Iroquois beaders were skilled craftsmen who required many years of training due to the complicated, time consuming and delicate work associated with beading strands and beading onto leather (Native languages of the Americas par 7).

The wampum belt (Kayonhwaoten)

The wampum belts were made by weaving tiny shells and beads together to make belts. The beads for making the wampum belts often came from various white and purple mollusks and are still in use today. The belts served various purposes especially as ornamental and for ceremonial use. Initially, the wampum belts were used as trade items before the coming of the colonialists. However, with the arrival of the European, the wampum belts were used as currency. In the later years, the wampum belts came to acquire a new meaning among the confederates.

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It stated to signify the importance and or the authority of the message associated to it. During the signing of treaties and agreements, a large amount of the belts would be made available. In these ceremonies, the wampum belts had three major uses; they served as contracts between two warring parties, served as a record of the history of the tribe and in acting as a sign of sincerity before any treaty talks could be initiated.  The belts further served as certificates for any office holder and together with the authority would be passed to the successors. Various forms and types of the wampum belts have existed in the history of the Iroquois people:

a) The  Hiawatha belt

The Hiawatha belt was made to test one's power of analysis. This type of wampum belt was perhaps one of the earliest modes. Color was very important with a purple color demonstrating serious agreement. To determine the time in which the belt was in use, the clue lay in counting the number of beads used in the original work. The Hiawatha belt was purposely used during the first treaty of the unification of the first five nations forming the confederacy in the 16th century. The symbol of the pine tree at the centre of the belt marked peace (Fenton 339).

b) The two row wampum belt

The function was to test abilities. Drawing the two row wampum belt on a paper and then hypothesizing the meaning revealed one's abilities.

c) The Guswenta (The first treaty two-row wampum)

This was 4 feet long with two rows of purple beads and was separated by three links in between the rows. The links signified peace, friendship and forever. The belt was made during the first treaty between the Dutch who were in New York and the confederacy in the 17th century.

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Other belts made by the Iroquois craftsmen included that made during the covenant chain treaties between the Iroquois and the governments of North America, the slide 16 and the Washington covenant belt  made during the Canandaigua treaty of 1674 (Jennings 99).


The outfits for the Iroquois were barely a few garments. Loincloths, buckskin aprons and blankets and beaded belts were worn by men during the summer seasons while women wore skirts or petticoats (Marzec 134). Dear leggings, longer skirts, moccasins and snowshoes were common during the winter and were used together with fringed tunics, blankets and fur lined cloaks. The clothes were ornamented or a different material used to differentiate them from those of other tribes. The most differentiating aspect of Iroquois clothing was the use of a belt tied at the waist or over the shoulder and decorated with weaving, beadwork or porcupine quills.

Masks were also worn and were made from braided cornhusks or from the bark of a live tree. For the Iroquois living at the edges of the finger lake, their pouches we decorated with embroidery and with beadwork which formed curved lines and figures. Warriors were adorned with leggings, short kilts and moccasins. The warriors at times wore hide robes which were intricately painted with beautiful designs. They also wore buckskin breech cloths between the legs and were over a belt both in the front and at the back. The warrior's leggings were made with their seams facing the front and were tied to a belt at the waist with the front seams partially open slightly above the moccasins. All these were then decorated with porcupine quill work and with beads.

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Men and young boys were heavily tattooed all over their bodies and on their faces with intricate designs. Their ears and noses were further ornamented with rings made of silver and or wampum shell beads (Johnson & smith 40). The gise-ha, also called the pantalette is made of red broadcloth and is usually decorated with a beaded border around the edges. The gise-ha is then tied at the knee and fall on the moccasin.

The Ga-ka-ah a form of skirt is tied around the waist and then drops half way the gise-ha. It is made of blue broadcloth and embroidered with beadwork. At its lower edges, a heavy border is made by use of beads. Beads are also used to form a figure of a tree or a flower at the angle upon the right side (Stryker 339).

The Ah-de-a-da-we-sa, the over dress is a calico dress made up of many colors. The dress is made depending on individual taste but generally falls below the waist. This cloth, like the ga-ka-ha, has a lower border of beadwork. The dress is used together with a profusion of silver brooches of varying sizes and patterns arranged to give meaning and taste to the wearer.

The E-yose, or blanket was another of the Iroquois clothing. This blanket was made from blue or green broadcloth and required two yards of the garment. The blanket was wrapped around the body from the neck and fell in natural folds. The cloth is worn together with other beaded ornaments.

The ga-ka-ah or kilt is tied by ladies around the waist by the aid of a belt and then is left to descend nearly to the knee. Around the lower fringes, the ga-ka-ah is covered with various types of beaded ornaments.

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The Iroquois headdress

The unmarried women wore their hair tied while married women's hair was made into a single braid which was then tied at the back with combs made of bone, antler and later on silver (Johnson & Smith 37). Older women were however allowed to wear their hair loose. The Mohawk men wore capes made of buckskins decorated using beadwork. Iroquois men plucked or shaved their hair and left a tuft at the top of their head. This tuft or roach was then decorated by use of feathers. Warriors had their faces decorated half-red and half-black. Confederacy chiefs adorned with dear antler head dresses whereas wolf, bear and panther head dress were used by the medicine class.

The Gus-to-weh was a traditional headgear made of buckskin or cloth which was sewn onto a foundation of wood splint and was then covered with bunches of feathers and at the top were eagle feathers. The number of feathers at the top determined its ownership; one feather for Seneca, two for Onondaga and three for Mohawk (Stryker 150). To date, the Gustoweh is worn by Haudenosaunee men during certain ceremonies. They are however made using turkey feathers instead of the eagle feathers.

Flicker head dresses were used as dance regalia and are nowadays made of wide leather strips and are fitted with the red scalps of woodpeckers. Cloth turbans were only famous during the 1800's among the Iroquois men. The Iroquois women were too adorned by use of distinctive tiara style of beaded headband.

The beaded flat purses

With the introduction of glass beads among the Iroquois in early 18th century, beaded purses begun to appear in market places. The beaded zigzag designs of these purses are thought to have been inspired by designs of earlier bags that were decorated using porcupine quills. The zigzag purses are made with one flap while others have two flaps. More complicated Seneca flat purses are designed with a double curve motif which appears on both sides. Yet other types of the Seneca beaded purses have flower designs rather than the curve motifs.

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On the other hand, Mohawks bead workers were making colorful flat purses which also contained flower design made differently. The difference between the Mohawk and the Seneca purses was that the Mohawk purses had identical fronts and backs unlike Seneca's. They were also made of very colorful beads featuring colors like bright red, blue, yellow and green beads. These four colors of the Mohawk flat beaded purses are displayed in two or more shades of a similar color. A single purse could have more than a dozen of different colors.

With the decline in availability of various colored beads, there was use of different blues, greens, yellows and reds although the basic palette of using two shades of the four basic colors refused to die. The Iroquois multicolored beaded purses are the most common and easy to identify due to their big and brightly colored flower designs. Whereas the Seneca flap purses have one flap, the Mohawk have two non functional flaps as it opens from across the top edge. Flat floral purses existed for only a short period of time between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

 There has never been recorded any two identical flat beaded purses due to the artistic arrangements of flowers and colors (Elliot 4). The Iroquois purses took five general shapes; urn shaped, hexagon shaped, rocker shaped, scalloped shaped and classic shaped. Variations exist among the five basic shapes and at time a large bag could be turned into a purse by attaching beadwork. Some other elegant bags may contain up to two decorative flaps on either sides. Some even more beautiful beaded purses have no flap and instead a line of beads is sewn on either face along where the edges of the flap would have fallen (Elliot 7).

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The interesting thing about the flaps is that they are made entirely of beads along all their edges. The beads are made in two parallel rows. The edges of the purses are made using very small beads when compared to those used in the flowers. Some more advanced purses are made with metal closures at their openings which may be handmade and others are made of stamped metal. These purses are finally equipped with a metal chain link strap or a silk ribbon for carrying it.

Only very few of the flat purses still poses a beaded loop fringe along the edges. Those with beaded fringe are made using very small beads as those used on the flap. Most if not all of this purses have long lost their beaded fringe.


The ga-de-us-ha, a form of a necklace was made of silver and wampum beads. The wampum beads used in making ga-de-us-ha were black in color making this necklace a very valuable asset as it is held in highest estimation. Along the strings of this valuable necklace was recorded the laws of the confederacy. Information carried by these necklaces was interpreted by a sachem of the Onondagas (Ho-no-we-na-to). To the silver necklace was attached a conspicuous silver cross. The ga-de-us-ha was and still is commonly worn by the Iroquois women. The ga-nuh-sa or the sea-shell medal is a form of necklace worn at the neck and unlike the ga-de-us-ha, is a personal ornament.

Materials used by the Iroquois

The Quahog clam

The earliest works of art by the Iroquois were made from materials collected from nature such as shiny stones. Quills from porcupines were dyed and often sewn onto clothing and on moccasins. Among the sources of the beads used in wampum beads was the Quahog clam (mercenaria mercenaria) which produced purple beads. Other species of mollusks' shells such as the channeled whelk, knobbed whelk and the snow whelk were also used. These natural shells were hard making the process time consuming and difficult.











The sinew

The sinew was used in the decoration of clothing and moccasins. The sinew was used to attach porcupine quills with moose hair to form various designs. These were then sewn into clothing and onto other accessories.

Differences in Beadwork after First Contact

During the 16th century, there was a significant European influence of the culture of the Iroquois. The Europeans introduced the scissors and the needle making it possible to cut fabrics into required size. Their dresses changed from being made of skins to fabric. This arose as a result of increased demand for the beaver fur by the European settlers. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Iroquois men were wearing shirts and dresses made from printed fabrics. This new form of clothing was decorated with ribbons across the upper chest and at the back. By the end of the 18th century, the mode of dressing had changed so much that their traditional decoration now resembled the French style whereas imported glass beads had taken the place of porcupine quills (Marzec 135). In general, the upper garments were now blouses and shirts decorated using silver brooches. The women began wearing long loose fitting, knee-length calico and muslin overdresses. The open fronted buckskin coats also became modeled along the European cut.

The meaning of colors among the Iroquois beadwork

The function of color of both the clothing and the bead was of significance importance among the Iroquois confederacy. Color of was of correlated effective meaning in expressing culture. The meaning carried by different colors could be derived from the frequency at which beads of different colors were valued. The majority of Iroquois beads were primarily purple, white, black, red, green or blue (Kerber 319).

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These colors' hues were only significant in the extreme. Colors were associated with certain rituals among the Iroquois people. Yellow beads among the Seneca were translated to 'the color of the bile'. Among the Cherokee, white, black and yellow glass beads were used in divinatory disease treatment. The meaning derived from these colors is white; the happiness that is brought by healing, red; stands for the healing power of the spirits while black represents the great lake in the black night into which the disease is cast while yellow signifies the disease itself. Yellow was thus not a very common color among the confederacy due to this attachment (Dean 33).

Contemporary beadwork

Beadwork is still in use in today's America with the most prolific beadwork going on at Niagara Falls, Ontario. Other headworkers live at Tuscarora and kahnawake and make traditional raised beadwork for sale. A lot of people still do beadwork for family and not necessarily for sale. Special clothing for ceremonies is nowadays made on order and is beaded with the traditional symbols of the Iroquois. Other items have been added to the traditional Iroquois beadwork and include medallions, barrettes, belt buckles and rings. The use of traditional iroquois symbols such as the pine tree, animals and symbols commonly found on the original wampum belts are still in use on beaded jewelry.

A collection of the iroquois beadwork is in existence in many parts of Canada and US. The popularity of the iroquois work is on the rise making the tradition stay alive. More iroquois are turning to beadwork to meet the rising demand for the iroquois beadwork. Many other accessories are now decorated using various patterns and symbols such as the sky dome, flowers and other ancient designs. Iroquois beadwork has been changing over the years but the core function of teaching the Haudenosaunee history, patience and self-respect still remain as it was hundreds of years ago.

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The Haudenosaunee lived in what is today the New York state and their confederacy was initially made up of five Native American nations. The Iroquois beadwork is among their remaining of their age old traditions. The Iroquois earliest beadwork was done using stones, horns, teeth, wood, shells and later glass beads. Durability and the ability to arrange the beads into different patterns necessitated their use among the Iroquois. The beadwork was widely used in clothing, jewelry, pouches, and purses and in making of belts. Iroquois beadwork is still in use in many parts of Canada and the US today.

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