Native American Technology and Art

Introduction and Use of Glass Beads

Value of Glass Beads and Native Americans

Ga Hah No -- Seneca Indian Girl
in the Clothing of the Iroquois
[Morgan: 1993]

It may be hard to understand the reasons Natives wanted and accepted glass beads and other 'trinkets and baubles' from Europeans in trade. In order to understand the high 'value' placed on these goods by Natives, glass beads have to be examined from within the specific cultural context. 'Value' is a concept of culturally-dependent perception. 'Value' can be measured in many different ways. For example, an itemís value may be weighed in terms of itís exchange value as a commodity, in contrast to an itemís symbolic religious value. Europeans saw glass beads as merely blobs of melted glass, 'trinkets', cheap and inexpensive as an exchange commodity. In European countries where beads were produced, they were simply priced according to expense of ingredients to manufacture them (Monture: 1993). In contrast, beads were symbolically 'valuable' and very much desired by Native Americans for what they represented to Natives.

At the onset of European trade, glass beads weren't necessarily desired by Natives for their 'monetary' or exchange value but rather for their symbolic value. Shell, crystal and indigenous metals, and in turn glass beads, were valued for their properties of "assurance and insurance of long life (immortality through resuscitation), well being (the absence of ill-being), and success, particularly in the conceptually related activities of hunting and fishing, warfare, and courtship" (Hamell: 1983). Beads are traditionally part of ritual exchanges. Beads are valued more for the symbolic associations of the form, material, color and other aspects, than for what an item is 'worth' in raw commodity exchange.

The attributes of the so-thought-of 'common' glass bead held important cultural associations for many Natives: the form resembling a seed or berry, the clarity and hardness of natural crystalline minerals, the polished surface reflective like water, not to mention the associations of certain colors. Working under French direction, in 1524, Verrazzano's confusion is demonstrated: "They do not value gold because of its color; they think it the most worthless of all, and rate blue and red above all other colors... the same was true for metals like steel and iron, for many times when we showed them some of our arms, they did not admire them, nor ask for them, but merely examined the workmanship", and further "The things we gave them that they prized the most were little bells, blue crystals, and other trinkets to put in the ear or around the neck" (in Wroth: 1970).

Ah Ta Qua O Weh 'Moccason for Female'
Seneca [Morgan: 1993]
Detail of Seneca Woman's Moccasin
[from Morgan: 1993]

So, many Native Americans attributed a high 'symbolic' value to glass beads that the Europeans could not understand (but had not trouble capitalizing on). Europeans figured that glass beads and other baubles were valuable merely because they were perceived as coveted luxury or prestige items. Glass beads and other trade items were undoubtedly new to Native Americans, but the attributes of their forms, materials and colors were not foreign. What was new to Natives about the trade items was the source, Europeans, and the huge increase in availability of items with otherwise rare qualities. Trade items were perceived within and incorporated into an existing native cultural/ideological and religious framework. In the Northeast, round, polished, glassy beads are associated with seeds, berries, shells and crystals, life, light, sight, and related concepts. In Eastern North America, the new material, glass, was probably recognized and reacted to as a natural crystalline object would have been.

Reflective water, polished stone, as well as glass, and metal have a conceptual relationship with 'seeing the soul'. Many Algonquian words for glass, mirrors and metal are linked with words for 'seeing' and 'soul'. Mirrors are called 'manito' among the Ontario Ojibwe, and the Iroquois words for 'glass' and 'crystal are similar. The Ojibwe 'big snake' figure is said to have eyes that 'shine like mirrors' (Hamell: 1983). Traditionally, both beads and crystals are used in divination, in box turtle rattles, as pieces for a dice/bowl ritualized game, as well as in mortuary contexts. A New Netherland account from the early 1600's details a Mohawk or Oneida healing ceremony to 'drive away the devil', during which an old woman sat close by holding in her hands a turtle shell with beads in it (Anonymous: 1967a). Smoking pipes of clay or lead, one in the shape of an owl and one in human form, were made by the Seneca, Iroquois in the 1600's; these pipes are inlaid with glass beads for eyes.

Glass beads helped invigorate and transform traditional ideological, social, and religious systems of Natives. Imagine the farther the bead travels from it's source along Native trade networks, the meaning it acquires along the way. Glass beads were indeed perceived by Native Americans as 'luxury', and 'prestige' items, and as an indicator of 'wealth', but using a Native definition of these terms.

"The earliest European ships were perceived as the 'other world,' mythical 'floating islands,' which arrived a the Indians' shores. The Europeans themselves were perceive as mythical man-beings, perhaps as 'returned' culture hero(s). Despite their appearance towards the east, the Europeans were more probably perceived as Under(water) World Grandfathers, the traditional keepers of shell, crystal, and native copper, received by Real Man-beings from them in reciprocal exchange. Doubtless, some such ascription accompanied the earliest glass trade beads and other trade goods as they were exchanged from one Indian group to another, further and further remote from their ultimate source. If the Europeans were initially and indirectly perceived as Under(water) World Grandfathers, the fur trade would have 'made sense' to the Indians. For the Grandfathers were requesting back in exchange for shell, crystal (and glass wares), and native copper (and trade copper and brass), only that over which they were also traditionally the keepers, game animal man-beings. In particular they were asking for the return of the skins of those symbolically-charged, water-dwelling animal man-beings, long of body and of tail" (Hamell: 1983).

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