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Shell Disc Beads in Northwest America

by Scott M. Thompson

 Most of us are familiar with the important role beads played (and still play) in the decorative arts of Native Americans. One bead type often overlooked by scholars is the shell disk bead of Northwest America.

Ranging from 5 to 9 mm (1/5 to 2/5 inches) in diameter with small but uniform circular perforations, and from 1.3 to 1.7 mm thick, they were used by the thousands, mainly for the men's loop necklace. Loop necklaces, along with a cloth pullover shirt, plaid breechcloth, and wool leggings sporting a decorative panel around the cuff, were major items of regalia visually establishing a man's regional or tribal affiliation.

This specific outfit endured for over fifty years, from around 1870 up into the 1930s; and reached across the intermontane west and the Columbia River Plateau identifying members of the Crow, Blackfeet, Shoshone, Arrow Lakes, Spokane, Nez Perce, Yakama, Sinkaiusae, and other people.

Left: Blackfeet chief wearing a loop necklace of shell disk beads, c. 1926. (Photograph courtesy of Arthur Dunning, Spokane, WA.)

Loop necklaces, often assembled by those who wore them, consisted of two narrow but thick leather support pieces hanging over the wearer's breast, suspended from the neck by tie thongs. Strung between the leather supports were multiple strands of shell disk beads that formed the loops.1 Loops were usually graduated in length, maybe seven inches long at top to 25 inches long for the lowest loop. Just one of these popular ornaments could contain over 2,000 shell disk beads.


Right: Plateau style shell disk bead loop necklace in the collection of the writer.


From where did all of these beads come?

Ethnohistoric sources tell of Native California people (the Pomo, Miwok, Yurok, Maidu, and others) using and making strings of clam shell disk beads for personal adornment and as a medium of exchange.2 Knowing their use by California people, some writers automatically assumed that these were the beads used by Plateau and western Plains people for loop necklace manufacture.3

However, I'm not convinced of this. In areas even nearer to the coast than the territory of the Crow or Blackfeet, those beads were said to be valuable, "a double handful of the coast beads was equal in value to a large tanned buckskin or a horse."4

Yet Native informants and vintage photographs attest that loop necklaces were very common. In spite of the notion that the necklaces symbolized wealth and social standing any man - rich or not - who wanted to advertise his regional affiliation could apparently obtain the necessary materials.

Moreover, direct trade between California Natives and the Columbia Plateau had ended before the loop necklace became a popular ornament. When trade did exist between them, few shell disk beads seem to have been traded. Archaeological artifacts recovered from the Great Basin and the Columbia Plateau include nowhere near the quantity of beads needed for even one loop necklace,5

The quantity of shell disk beads necessary to meet the demand, or to create the demand for loop necklaces might have been a venture for a commercial manufacturer, such as the Campbell company of New Jersey, known for making shell wampum.6

Left: A variety of sizes of shell disk beads commonly used for loop necklaces (writer's collection). Most shell disk beads are assumed to be of clam shell.

Richard Conn credits the Campbell company for the manufacture, "By the 1880s, most such beads were made commercially at the Campbell Wampum factory in New Jersey,"7
In another source (see footnote
5) there is no mention of discoidal shell beads made by Campbell, only cylindrical and tubular ones.

Published inventories of traders and trading companies focus on the fur trade years, predating the use of loop necklaces by a decade or more. They do not list shell disk beads as trading stock.

So the question remains, from where did all these beads come? Maybe a reader of TheBeadSitewill be able to provide additional information. Opinions are interesting but documented evidence on the origins of shell disk beads submitted here could broaden our understanding of Native American aesthetics and of Indian-white trade relations.


1 Some sources imply that bone disk beads were an acceptable alternative to shell beads for loop necklace construction. Of the 276 loop necklace samples using disk beads included in my 2001 survey of this style of ornament, only one was positively identified as being made of bone disk beads.
2 See Alfred Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931). Andrew H. Whiteford, North American Indian Arts, (New York: Golden Press, 1970). Page 134 shows a concise diagram of Native manufacture of shell disk beads.
3 Two examples include a caption on a loop necklace in the Pamplin exhibit of Native Arts (Lewis Clark Center for Art and History, Lewiston , ID, Summer 2000) and Evelyn Wolfson's American Indian Tools and Ornaments, (New York: David McKay, 1981), p. 21.
4 Verne F. Ray, The Sanpoil and Nespelem, (Seattle: University of Washington Press Publications in Anthropology, v. 5, n. 2, 1933), p. 48.
5 See Donald Collier and others, Archaeology of the Upper Columbia Region, (Seattle, University of Washington Press Publications in Anthropology, v. 9, n. 1, 1942), pp. 92-97 as one example.
6 Charles E. Hanson, Jr. "Campbell Wampum," Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, (v. 21, n. 4), pp 2-6.
7 Richard Conn, A Persistent Vision, (Denver: Denver Art Museum, n.d.), p. 110.

© 2002 Scott M. Thompson


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