History of Apache Indian Beaded Jewelry
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The Western Apache Indians of Arizona have a beadwork
tradition that extends back at least to the middle of the
nineteenth century. It contains distinctive elements, as well
as features that demonstrate its affinity with other
Southwestern beadmaking styles.
Apache Indians were relative newcomers to the Southwest
arriving sometime between 1400 and 1600, traveling from the Northwestern part of North
America. Those Apache bands that settled in east central Arizona have collectively been called
Like their neighbors of the Plains, Western Apaches made
clothing of animal hides and often decorated clothing and
accessories with painted designs made from vegetable
pigments, and later with the European-introduced glass
beads or with a combination of these elements.
Example at right.
Video: Apache Indian Crown Dance
(click arrow in the frame on lower right)
Beadwork is not a craft commonly associated with Southwestern Indian tribes, who are best known
for their pottery, basketry and textiles. Apache clothing styles with sewn beadwork resemble that
of tribes of the Southern Plains and Northwest area (Great Basin). Some Apache beadwork-strung
and braided necklaces and netting work shows influence from the Yuman tribes of the Colorado
At Right: Early Apache beaded awl
The Eastern Apaches-Jicarilla, Lipan, Kiowa and Mescalero-as well as the Chiricahua
were all beadmakers as well. The Jicarilla, Lipan and Kiowa have a style very similar to
that of the Southern Plains tribes near whom they lived.
Beadwork styles of the Mescalero, Chiricahua and Western Apache are all similar to
each other, but lack a strong Plains stylistic connection.
Four major beadwork techniques are represented in Western Apache designs: sewing,
stringing, netting and loom weaving.
Additionally, the sides of pouches and necklaces are sometimes trimmed with blanket
Images of Apaches in studio photographs of the 1880s provide some of the earliest
documentation of Apache use of glass beads for ornamentation.
The stringing of beads was one of the earliest beaded jewelry forms. Strands of seed beads, pony
beads and larger necklace beads were strung on rawhide or string and worn around the neck or
wrists in tight multiple strands by both men and women. At Right: Knife holder
This ornament tradition probably had its origins in the use of shells and stones
which were fashioned into pendants or beads before imported glass beads became
Some Western Apache bracelets and charms made at the turn of the century
combined glass beads, handmade stone and shell beads, and unaltered shells and
Seeds such as Job's tears (Coix lacrrima jobi) or coral beans (Erythrina
flabelliformis) were commonly interspersed in longer necklaces.
Men's necklaces commonly had tweezer pendants used to pluck facial hairs. The tweezers would be
fashioned from scraps of metal- often bullet casings.
Women's necklaces frequently had mirror pendants which were at times used as signaling devices.
Silver discs and pendants were often suspended from both men's and women's necklaces.
Another type of strung necklace, made up of braided strands of seed beads joined at the bottom by
a large bead was popularized after the turn of the twentieth century.
Similar necklaces are found among the Yuman tribes-Yavapai, Mohave, and Quechan (Yuma)- and is
likely that the Apache borrowed this style from them, possibly directly from the Yavapai with whom
they were interned at San Carlos Indian Reservation.
Other jewelry forms were made by netting. The Western Apache netted collars are similar to
those of the Colorado River Indians. Small bags or purses were also netted.
A variant of netting, "peyote" or "gourd stitch" was used by Western
Apaches to make T-necklaces. These necklaces were worn primarily by
young Apache women principally at the girl's puberty ceremonies and
appear to be specifically of Apache origin.
At right: Early photo of puberty pancho.
The Western Apache also used the peyote stitch technique to cover
handles for objects such as riding quirts (for horses or dogs), and later
cover bottles and make keychains. Below: Early Apache Indian quirt
using the Peyote stitch technique.
The use of peyote stitch in this manner is
much more common among Native Americans
than in making flat items.
T-necklaces were made with the peyote
stitch technique until around 1920 when
loom beadwork was popularized. After the
introduction of bead looms, items such as Below: T-necklace
T-necklaces, belts, and hatbands were
Many loom woven goods exhibit pan-Indian
styles, patterns and color combinations with
the exceptions of T-necklaces and items
with obvious Apache motifs such as Ga'an
Beads were also sewn into clothing. By the 1850s, seed beads were
the predominant items used for decorative sewing. Usually, a very
small bead size, 13/0, was used to make designs on clothing.
Buckskin shirts, ponchos, skirts and moccasins were beaded in the
"lazy stitch" technique. In this method, several beads are strung on a single thread and sewn in
rows into the buckskin.
Accessories such as pouches, awl cases and sheaths, hats and hair ornaments were also decorated
with lazy stitch. Below Right: Early Apache Indian beaded saddle bag
Below Left: Early Apache Indian beaded medicine bag
The Western Apache sewn beadwork style, historically
resembling that of the Great Basin Paiute, is
characterized by linear patterning.
Clothing is typically bordered with narrow bands of
diagonal stripes in alternating colors. Pouches and
moccasins are frequently decorated with bands
encircling central composite patterns. Geometric are common.
Apache medicine hats and other ritual paraphernalia often contain beaded iconographic designs. One
such design is the "cross and crescent," a symbol popularized by a turn-of-the-century religious
revitalization movement among the Western Apache. See early examples at the bottom of this
Styles and techniques predictably changed once beadwork was made for an outside market. This
started among the Western Apache as early as 1880, with soldiers from reservation forts being
among the first collectors.
The advent of the Santa Fe railroad added yet another source of craft buyers. In addition to more
traditional items such as awl cases, cradleboards and pouches, Western Apaches made
novelties-watch fobs, necklaces, hat bands and napkin rings.
As more beaded items were produced for sale, the bead jewelry makers gradually chose to use
glass seed beads that were larger in size 6.
In 1870 bead size 13/0 was employed. In 1880 bead size 12/0 predominated and bead size 11 /0
also appeared. Bead size 12/0 continued to be used in the 1920s, and from 1910 to 1920 bead sizes
11/0 and 12/0 were frequently used together. By 1930 bead size 11/0 predominated.
Since 1960 bead size 10/0 has been used almost exclusively, although there has been a shift by
many modern bead jewelry makers to the smaller beads.
These changes, as well as the changes in technology-peyote stitch to loom weaving-are of assistance
in dating Western Apache beaded objects.
Beadwork continues to be produced today, both for Apache use and for the outside tourist market.
Popular contemporary items are keychains, necklaces, earrings and barettes, as well as loom woven
As was the case in the past, most contemporary bead jewelry makers are women. While many are
elderly, a number of young women-and some men have taken an interest in the craft
The importance of bead jewelry making extends beyond the economic to the cultural sphere, where
it contributes to the perpetuation of a distinct Apache Indian identity.
Below: Early Examples of Apache Beadwork Using the Cross and Crescent Symbols. A t-necklace is
pictured in the center.
Below: A beaded doll cradle.
Ferg, Allen. ed.. (1987). Western Apache Material Culture: the Goodwin and Guenther Collections.
Gil, Carol A. Bowdoin. (1977). Native North American Seed Beadwork Techniques, Part I: Woven
Mails, Thomas. (1974) The People Called Apache.
Orchard, William C. (1929). Beads and Beadwork of the American Indians.
Pardue, Diana E. (1982). Western Apache Beadwork.
Tanner, Clara Lee. (1968). Southwest Indian Craft Arts.