First Nations peoples across the world are innovative makers of jewellery, textiles, pottery, and many kinds of artisanal forms that preserve knowledge and record histories, and tell stories...
The Peruvian city of Qosqo is a puma that is nestled within the Andean mountainside. Qosqo, the ‘punto de encuentro’ is a city whose navel links the spirit of the Inca Empire and its Quechua people with the burden of the Spanish conquistadores’ colonial cathedrals, monasteries, and palaces. With sacred Qorikancha and Saqsaywaman standing resilient in the tide of history as everyday Cuzqueños go about their business, Qosqo’s urban geography is a blend of ancient and modern – Qosqo is both a spiritual and physical site where the old meets the new.
The Inca Empire continues to be a marvel to archaeologists and anthropologists today, and the question that sits on colonial lips, that is, the question from a Western academic perspective is: how did the Inca Empire gain such cultural and political influence without a “written” language?
But to keep our understanding of language limited to alphabets and books would be to overlook Indigenous innovation in recording knowledge. The Inca pioneered a highly developed method of physically recording nation-building information through a series of distinctly coloured knots on rows of fibred thread – the quipu. The Inca quipu uses differently spaced knots on lines of string to signify a decimal system that can be used for accounting purposes, censuses, and the documentation of histories.
Figure 1 An Inca Quipu, from the Larco Museum (Lima, Perú)
In a similar way, beaded wearable art and jewellery hold and document cultural stories and intergenerational memories through the intentional use of colour and the organisation of beaded lines. The languages of both beaded art and the quipu demonstrate just how diverse Indigenous innovation is and how interwoven First Nations arts, crafts, and other methods of knowledge recording are.
It’s safe to say that Indigenous jewellery and beaded wearable art don’t represent stagnant processes that are stuck in the past. Although it is widely true that Indigenous beading practices are based on traditional techniques which have been around for thousands of years, these beading practices have become an artistic site of flexible adaptation and change.
Oral traditions are not the only process that pass down stories, histories, and customs from older generations to younger, emerging generations. Beaded art and jewellery, woven textiles, and clay-smoothed pottery also bring to life Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and valuing the fluid world around us. Just like the Peruvian city of Qosqo, beaded art carries the ancient, pre-colonial world to the surface of our contemporary, colonised reality and allows tradition to become blended with modernity.
Indigenous Beading Practices as Ways of Knowing
First Nations beading practices – whether that be on the loom or via hand stitching – allow the beader to engage in the understanding and preservation of communal knowledges. Indigenous beading practices are themselves a way of physically bringing intangible knowledges into the tangible world.
This idea of beading as physical manifestations of knowledge makes even more sense when we think about how beaded objects are commonly used as mnemonic devices, where colour sequences and motifs keep track of stories and culturally significant ideas. Where geometric patterns of cool-toned blues and greens might mirror community connections to lush, fertile lands, a snake motif might echo the sacredness of a fecund womb.
Emberá Jaipono Flower Earrings (Mami Watta Collections)
Earlier, we spoke of the Quipu as being a physical holder of knowledge through a series of coloured knots on fibre. Within Mami Watta Collection’s partnership with the Emberá Chamí of Colombia, the motif of the Jaipono flower as a flor sagrada speaks to the sacred relationship that Emberá communities have with their natural environment. Despite many communities being forced off their lands to make room for neocolonial projects including extractive industry and narcotrafficking, the Jaipono is still a flower that blooms as communal knowledge. While the Emberá Chámi’s physical relationship with their original natural environments may have been forcibly interrupted, their continuing sacred knowledges and histories are brought into our contemporary reality through the artisanship of this Jaipono motif.
Across many First Nations beading practices, the beading process isn’t just a representation of knowledge pathways, rather, beading is knowledge.
Indigenous Beading Practices as Ways of Being and Living
For many First Nations peoples, beading is a communal practice that is learned at a young age, and especially among girls and young women. Beading together with family, friends, and the community leads to an intergenerational transference of lived experiences and cultural knowledges. I say that “beading is being” because it is a tangible form of storytelling that affirms and reaffirms cultural identity, especially as the beader transfers a part of themselves onto the beading loom or hand-stitched beaded piece.
The colours, the geometric patterns, the motifs, and the symbols reinforce the idea that beading is a process of living and being within the natural world around us. As is true with many First Nations practices, beading can help the beader internalise the symbiotic relationship that humans have with the natural environment.
For the Emberá Chámi and for many other Indigenous peoples, beading can also be a nuanced medicinal practice. As the beading process allows the beader to transfer parts of themselves to the piece, beading becomes a mental and emotional healing practice– one that is non-verbal and is tangible in a way that connects the beader with their otherwise intangible psyche.
The Jaipono flower of the Emberá Chámi is one such medicinal plant, and it is a sacred motif that represents a constant need for healing and bodily regulation that is not purely physical. Healing the body is one thing, but the healing that takes place in the soul is deeper. It is no coincidence that the Jaipono flower makes frequent appearances in Emberá beadwork– beading is not just being, the practice of beading can also be an innovative medicinal practice.
Emberá Jaipono Flower Ring (Mami Watta Collections)
It’s clear that beaded wearable art is a living and breathing artistic practice that weaves and stitches together individual beings within a collective identity. Indigenous beading also lives and breathes a healing story of resistance and resilience against colonial and neocolonial projects.
Indigenous Beading Practices as Ways of Valuing
Now that we’ve looked at First Nations beading processes as manifestations of knowledge and as representations of living, the final aspect is the values that are attached to beading. If we break down the idea of value, the word itself can mean “how we judge the worth of something or someone”. By transferring this understanding of what it means to value the beading process, we can then engage with the ethics that are woven into beading. The values found in the beading process are values that we can bring to all aspects of life.
Muskellunge beader and Indigenous academic Dr Lana Ray attributes five important values to First Nations beading practices– respect, balance, harmony, centeredness, and repetition. Dr Lana Ray links all these values together to help us understand how Indigenous beading is inherently about valuing our lives while being respectful, balanced, unified, grounded, and comfortable in our daily actions and reactions.
When beading takes place, respect must be given to the beading process, to the loom, and to your own hands. This means that beading must not be rushed, and that adequate time should be given to each bead in order to ensure tight beading with no mistakes. Respecting the beading process means that when a mistake does happen (as it often does), undoing your progress and starting over is sometimes the best way to learn from our mistakes. I suppose that rings true for other aspects of life, like with our personal relationships.
Dr Lana Ray also makes similar points about balance and harmony, where a sense of equilibrium must be intentionally planned for the final work to achieve a holistic unity. No symbol, motif, or geometric pattern should be chaotically unbalanced, just as much as no colour choice should be overwhelming– all colours and symbolic elements should complement one another.
An Emberá Okama (Mami Watta Collections)
Being centred in the beadwork is a value that elevates a mental groundedness. Closely related to the knot-tying that we would find in most Indigenous beadwork, being emotionally and psychologically grounded while beading is about being intentional with each line or stitch of beads.
The final value to impart to beadwork is repetition. The action of beading is one that is inherently repetitive. A holistic piece takes hours of patience and the same, repetitive action of needle-weaving beads on a loom or a repetitive hand-stitching of the beaded pattern. While this can sound overwhelming to some (especially those that are new to beading), doing any beading action repeatedly is a process that invites emotional comfort, mental clarity, and community-based learning.
Indigenous beading practices teach how to value the natural world around us, and the beading process teaches us how to value our own interpersonal relationships.
(Photo by Edilson Nacavera)
First Nations beading practices around the world are distinct from one another in style, material, and in technique while still maintaining a shared character. It should also be reaffirmed that depending on community circumstances centuries on from the initial contact of colonisation, even these “traditional” beading techniques and styles change– Indigenous beading practices are in a constant, fluid design process that adapt to contemporary, colonial realities.
Bringing us back to the story of the Quechua-Aymara city of Qosqo one final time, we can understand historical practices of knot-tying, weaving, and beading (like the Quipu) as a powerfully physical language that re-evaluates what it means to read– and to remember. As part of the Quechua knowledge system that predates even the pre-eminence of the Inca Empire, there is a specific way of knowing called Kaymiyatayninchik. Kaymiyatayninchik puts a Quechua word to the understanding that the colonial destruction of the Andean region (from the conquistadores to the mining companies of today) is a reality that needs to be processed in the Indigenous knowledge system to remember the past and to adapt to the future.
Under this knowledge system of adaptation and flexibility, the process of beading becomes part of the ever-evolving knowledge that brings First Nations ways of knowing, being, and valuing to the surface of conversations about the future. Engaging in and with Indigenous beading invites us to rethink and redefine what we mean by First Nations beading as “tradition”.
First Nations beading teaches us that tradition is not a stagnant process that exists solely in the pre-colonial past. Indigenous beading encourages us to take a moment to be still before taking the next steps forward. Indigenous academic Adrienne Huard affirms that even though beading and weaving practices have endured from many millennia ago and from before contact with the White Man, "beading continues to persevere as Indigenous innovation".
Just like the city of Qosqo, First Nations beadwork is also a spiritual and physical site where the ancient meets with modernity. In much the same way, Indigenous beadwork is a punto de encuentro– a meeting place at which to learn.
The Mami Watta Journal welcomes you to participate in knowledge sharing through our series of articles about Indigenous Artisanal practices. Over the course of our First Nations’ beading and weaving practice series, we invite you to read our Journal’s series “Beading Between the Lines'' and to learn about Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and valuing our communities alongside the natural world in which we live.
The Mami Watta Glossary
Punto de Encuento- Spanish for “Point of Meeting” or “Meeting Place”
Mostacilla- Colloquial, Colombian Spanish for “beads” or “beading”.
Colonialism- The political, sociocultural, and economic process of foreign invasion that relies of Indigenous dispossession and exploitation for profit.
Epistemology- An academic word for “way of knowing”. In other words, the “study of knowledge”.
Mnemonic- Relating to a memory device that makes something easier to remember.
Motif- A recurring image or pattern that symbolically represents a deeper idea or concept.
Extractive Industry- A global industry of mining, land clearing, and deforestation that is traditionally tied with colonialism, environmental destruction, and the forced dispossession of First Nations lands.
Narcotrafficking- The illegal and destructive running of illicitly processed drugs mostly for export.
Ontology- An academic word for “way of being”. In other words, the “study of the soul and nature of being”.
Axiology- An academic word for “way of valuing”. In other words, the “study of what is valuable and how we know its value”.
Brokaw, Galen. “Quipu”, Oxford Bibliographies, last reviewed 5 January 2021.
Huaman, Elizabeth Sumida. “Indigenous Rights Education (IRE): Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Transformative Human Rights in the Peruvian Andes”, International Journal of Human Rights Education, 1 (1), 2017, pp. 1-34.
Huard, Adrienne. “Beads they’re sewn so tight”, Public, 30 (no.60), March 2020, pp.278-281.
Ray, Lana. “Beading Becomes a Part of Your Life”, International Review of Qualitative Research, 9 (3), Autumn 2016, pp.363-378.
Wilson, Shawn. “What is an Indigenous Research Methodology”, Canadian Journal of Native Education, 25, January 2001, pp.175-179.
- Mariko Konno for her artistic rendition of Emberá Chámi beading. Her work can be found here.
- Felix Yupanqui for his in-depth consultation on Inca and Quechua histories and knowledges, and for sharing his lived experiences as a cuzqueño.
- Mami Watta Brand Founder Ana María Parada for her conceptual and editorial guidance.