Bone Beads

Native American meaning behind bone beads

One of the first materials used to make beads were bones. Native Americans used the bones of the animals they killed to make jewelry for two reasons. Firstly, they believed it was wasteful to discard any part of the animal. Thus, they ate the meat, used the hides for clothing, and used the bones for tools and beads. Secondly, Native Americans believed that the souls of the animals still lived in the parts of the animal, so the wearer of the jewelry would have traits of that animal while wearing the beads, and the souls of the animals could live on. The bone beads were dyed with tea for color, thus creating dark beads and light beads for contrast.

Around 1880 the Native Americans began to use bone for hair pipes which was used in the constructing of large and elaborate breastplates. It is thought that these bone hair pipes may have been made from the metacarpals of cattle. Hair pipes could also be worn in necklaces and, for men, in bandoliers, worn over the shoulder, as hairpieces, and as pendants. Bone beads could also be used in musical instruments, inside a hide or any other container, as a percussion instrument. Also, bird bones were used as whistles to ward off evil spirits during rituals, or to summon spirits. Shamans prized these tools. Bones were also used as tips for arrows and swords and for shovels and awls.

Bone beads gave way to glass beads with the settlement of America. The English settlers realized the importance of beads to the Native Americans, and they began to offer European glass beads to them in trade for items and land that they wanted from the Indians. The glass beads began to appear with bone beads in the jewelry of the Native Americans and soon became the dominant bead of choice. Thus, beads became a very popular trade item.

Today one can still purchase bone beads from many sources. They can be purchased in their natural state, or they can be bought already dyed, usually with the tea to retain their natural feel. Sometimes one can Native American or tribal pieces created in bone as well. It definitely can be said, though, it is much easier to fashion these beads with the tools of today than it was for the Native Americans!

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