This is a really good question, and I have had the opportunity to answer it many times over the years.
The Plains Indians never made glass beads. In fact, glass beads were first brought here by explorers like Lewis & Clark, and later on, the U.S. government commissioned the Italian bead societies, in Italy, to make glass beads to trade with the Plains Indians. (In a side note, the English government also commissioned the Italians to make African trade beads to trade with African tribes. Everyone used the Italians for their special glass needs.)
Here at Prairie Edge we have a special “Bead Library” that features these old stock glass Italian beads. The beautiful array of colors and finishes catches your eye right away. Some of the more special features about these beads is that they were all hand cut and most of the colors were achieved by mixing metals, semi precious stones, and the formulas for making the colors is a trade secret.
Glass beads were a great replacement for the natural materials then being used for ornamentation. For example, they were already separated by size, were already colored and did not lose their color in sunlight. They could also be stored without worrying about biodegradation.
So what did the Plains Indians use?
This is always the next question, and the answer is stone, bone, clay, actual seeds, petrified wood and quills from bird feathers or porcupines. All of these materials could be rounded or dyed and used as decoration for special purposes. However, we will save this next bit for the next blog!