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A Brief History of Plateau Beaded Bags

In the early 19th century European traders brought colorful glass beads to the Plateau region between the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. The bright beads were eagerly adopted for decorative use on clothing and accessories, including flat bags. Previously, the Plateau tribes including the Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Cayuse, and Warm Springs had a strong tradition of weaving flat cornhusk bags accented with multicolored geometric and floral designs on both sides.

Originally, large cornhusk bags were made for gathering food. By the end of the 19th century with increasing amounts of trade goods, the cornhusk bags generally shrank in size and were more highly decorated. At the same time, similarly shaped hide bags decorated with beaded designs became increasingly fashionable among the Plateau tribes. Both types of bags displayed to the community a woman’s wealth, status, heritage, and her belief systems. Flat bags were rarely made for sale but rather for personal use or as gifts between women and were often referred to as “friendship” bags. At the beginning of the 20th century the creativity of individual bead-workers is expressed in many styles including floral, geometric and increasingly complex figural motifs.

Inspiration for these designs often came from popular media such as magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Lady’s Home Journal, company logos, the U.S. flag, classical mythology, and even portraits of Native Americans. This tradition continues to inspire modern bead-workers today, as seen in the prominent display of beaded masterpieces at rodeos, powwows, and other social gatherings.