Clark County Historical Museum shines light on Native beadwork

Exhibit explores intricate art form

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



If You Go

 What: Making Beauty: Native Beadwork of North America.

 Where: Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St., Vancouver.

 When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

 Admission: Adults, $4; seniors, $3; children under 18, $2; museum members, free.

 Information:, or call 360-993-5679.

In an era when an image can be a function of pixels, art forms that go back hundreds of years continue to dazzle.

A traditional art now on display at the Clark County Historical Museum is a result of needles, bits of colored glass and an abundance of patience.

The new exhibit is “Making Beauty: Native Beadwork of North America.” Items on display range from artifacts created in the mid-1800s up to contemporary Indian beadwork.

Displays explore themes of trade networks, materials and artistry, as well as cultural comparisons. One prominent type of beaded product developed from a difference in European and tribal clothing: Traditional Indian apparel didn’t have pockets, noted Steve Grafe, curator at the Maryhill Museum of Art.

Grafe and tribally certified artisan Angela Swedberg were the exhibit’s co-curators. One of the goals was to “show off the museum collection at its best,” Grafe said.

Another objective was to give people who may not be familiar with the medium a good understanding of beading as a prehistoric, historic and modern art form, said Grafe, who wrote the interpretive panels. Grafe also provided many of the archive photographs that are part of the exhibit.

Many of the artifacts come from the museum’s own collection; others are on loan from artists, collectors, Maryhill and the National Park Service.

Swedberg, the other curator, “connected us to lenders and provided raw materials” for exhibits, said Katie Anderson, executive director of the county museum. “Angela also restored several pieces.”

Fort Vancouver was a well-established trading crossroads. Thanks to the Hudson’s Bay Company, “The public is familiar with that geography and history,” Grafe said.

But “Making Beauty” represents a much wider sweep of American Indian beadwork than the heritage of the Columbia River region.

Some of the exhibits show how art was created before the arrival of European-made glass beads. Natural materials included bits of bone, as well as quills from porcupines and from feathers.

“Quill work in our part of the world was not so big,” Grafe said. “That was a Great Lakes and Northern Plains tradition.”

In the Northwest, shells were a valuable resource and some of them wound up a long way from the Pacific Coast.

Goods decorated with shells “were traded back to the Dakotas,” Anderson said.

Glass beads were introduced by European fur traders, Grafe said. They were manufactured in France, Italy and what once was known as Bohemia.

And back then, native artists used bone awls to make holes in buckskin. Beads were put on with animal sinew, which can be separated into fine fibers.

“Later, they used metal needles and cotton thread,” Grafe said.

Basic design elements

In a museum presentation that opened the exhibit, Grafe described some basic design elements. Many artists created geometric patterns. Floral patterns were popular. Birds, deer, elk and horses were the most common inspirations for pictorial images.

Indian women beaded many of the things they and their family members wore. According to one of Grafe’s interpretive panels, an observer of the Rocky Mountain fur trade described women wearing dresses “sometimes loaded with some eight or 10 pounds of large cut glass beads of various colors.”

Another highly visible “canvas” for their art was the flat bag.

In addition to being a great showcase, the beaded bags were very practical, Grafe said. If you take a close look at some of the archive photographs in the display, “There are no pockets in the dresses.”

That is a factor in other beaded items on display: bags and pouches for tools and personal items.

Beaders explored new themes in the 1900s, including rodeo action scenes and patriotic motifs.

Contemporary artists also are represented, and one traditionally based work at the museum actually intersects with digital technology. It’s a beaded cover for an iPad.