Meskwaki Bead Art

Crafts From the Past | Episode
Aug 15, 2023 | 8 min

Mary Young Bear demonstrates the rich tradition of Meskwaki bead art and the ties the art has to her own ancestors.


Bead work takes time. So, I say be patient. Don't beat yourself up. And don't expect things to be spectacular right at the beginning because it takes time and practice.



Hello, my name is Mary Young Bear. My Meskwaki name is Bo na bi go. I am a member of the Bear Clan. And I'm a resident of Tama, Iowa. I live on a Meskwaki settlement. And I'm here today to talk about bead work. I have been doing bead work for over 50 years. I started as an 8-year-old hanging around my gookomis, which is our word for grandmother. And we just call grandmothers Koko. So, I was always with her. I was always underfoot watching her, hanging around, asking her questions and eventually she decided to show me a simple stitch that she used when she was doing bead work. She used to make a lot of souvenir items. They were little moccasins or canoes with bead work, everything was small, and then she'd sell them during the Pow Wow. And I was just fascinated by her work. And so, she gave me a little starter kit to practice on. This was the same stitch that she showed me when I was 8 years old.

Mary Young Bear: We pick up four beads, and I'll try to get four beads, I'm not sure if I can because my eyes aren't as great as they used to be. Okay, so I pick up four beads at the same time. I go down into my backing. And then I come up through the second bead and run my thread through the first two beads, or the top two beads, and then I'm ready for four more beads. And then I just repeat that process.

Mary Young Bear: Sometimes I don't know what colors I'm going to use. It's just like right now I just picked up two colors out of a bag and decided to go with these. And they are working out pretty well. What I'm making here is we call them moccasin ears. But they're flaps that go down on the side of women's Meskwaki moccasins. They're sewn on as adornment to make the wearer more, I guess stand out more. And the moccasin ears are, they're never the same. The two sides do not ever match. They're not supposed to. And so, that's what I'm doing now. These are, they'll be for one of my daughters.

Mary Young Bear: And what I'm doing here is a simple design reflecting her Fish Clan. They are going to lay on the moccasin. This will be one side and this will be the other side. So, each pair has two designs on them.

Mary Young Bear: My grandmother showed me my first stitches when I was 8 years old and I've been using that particular method all my life. And so, I've been beading over 50 years. I never thought that I would be beading this long or that I would love it as much as I do. It's a big part of who I am. And it has taken me to a lot of different places. And I remember when I was a little girl my dad told me to keep beading, he said, just stick with it and learn as much as you can. And I was thinking at the time, this is it, really? You want me to bead and that's it? Like, don't have any higher aspirations for me? And I felt really bad. But, over the years I've realized that this is a big part of who I am and it has taken me everywhere.


Mary Young Bear: Once I get all the outline done, then I start filling in the colors. It will go a lot faster. It's just the outlines are tedious.


Mary Young Bear: As I learn more about my own Meskwaki culture and learning how our people went out and utilized nature, plant life that was around them, they incorporated those lines and those forms into their designs. And so, you see Meskwaki bead work, it's very distinct. They call it applique pattern style. But, it really does reflect what you see in nature, a leaf or a blade of grass, it could be anything that inspires you. Even the colors, if you look at a leaf or you do look at a blade of grass, if you really look at it you're going to see purple and pink and different shades of green and brown. It's not just one color. There's dimensions to each living thing. And that's how people are too. We have different dimensions, different layers. And so, all of that is reflected in our work. And that's why I like to do this Meskwaki applique style.

Mary Young Bear: Finish up this little line here and then go to another section. And once I get that done then I'll start filling in this part. For this, the background will come last. It's all a process and it's all work and it all comes out of your heart and your brain and your soul. This is art and it takes time and it takes, you're putting a little piece of yourself into what you do. And that makes it art.

Mary Young Bear: Now I'm making these for one of my daughters and hopefully it will encourage her to keep dancing. You know, oh my mom made this for me? I better get out there and dance. And that's the hope. I don't particularly call myself a dancer, but I like to make the regalia. And seeing it out there really makes me happy.