Apache beadwork is poetry in motion

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Native Americans originally carved beads from natural materials like shells, coral, horn, and turquoise. Since the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, however, tribal beaders have preferred working with glass beads, especially fine seed beads.

Collectible beaded pin cushions, gauntlets, moccasins, buckskin bags, and vests abound. Different motifs represent different tribes, explains veteran beadier Kelly Murdock-Billy. “I really like Tuscarora raised beadwork with all of their strawberries and birds, but my husband’s Potawatomi family uses more floral and vining motifs. And his Plains families, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventres tribes, use more geometric designs.”

Many Apache beaded items feature colors traditionally associated with the four earthly directions: north, black; south, white; east, yellow; west, blue or green.

Prices vary. A circa 1940 sinuous, tasseled Apache bead-belt worked in contrasting hues commands about $200. A 1950s buckskin shirt, rimmed with rows of simple, beaded geometrics, is available for $400. Cradleboards, which Apache women use for carrying babies on their backs, may range between $125 and $650, depending on their age, length and the complexity of its beadwork. An intricately beaded bag dating from the 1880s and featuring motifs similar to baskets of the same era, commands nearly $1,000.

A circa 1930 Apache handmade buckskin beaded jacket with jingles sells for about $1,200. A pair of lavishly beaded moccasins, dating back to the 1890s, can be had for nearly $2,000.

Reflecting on current beading trends, Murdock-Billy explains, “You have to remember that Native culture is dynamic. It is uncanny how the styles of regalia and beadwork have changed in just five to ten years. The fancy shawl dancers and jingle dress dancers are wearing all new beaded designs.”

Apache beadwork, unlike Apache basketry, is still evolving. ?

Melody Amsel-Arieli is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Antique Trader. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov.  She lives in Israel.


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