If They Have Had It They Would Have Used It – Maybe?:  Native American Use of Trade Materials

© 2012, 2015 Native American Composition & Performance, Limited

By Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek

Editor, PowWows.com

Director, Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation



How often has one gotten this question: “They had that back then?” Or how about this question: “This material was available to American Indians?”

Unfortunately most that ask the above questions usually get the following answer: “If they have had it they would have used it!” But that is not the case.

Just about anyone on the Powwow Trial and the Living History Circuit may get these questions and more proposed to them by both Native and Non-Native people.

If you are strictly a Powwow Trail person and one specifically on the modern Powwow Trail the answer should usually be of the following “No.” For those on the Living History Circuit and especially those at juried historical events the answer may usually be “Yes” and “Maybe.”

Why this difference in the answer? Well first and foremost the Native American Culture is far from stagnant and like any culture it has evolved and adapted as it has made both mutual contacts and clashes of contacts with other races and cultures. Second, as with any culture the Native American Culture was evolving and adapting long before contact with any other non-Native American Culture.


The Native Americans desired many of the European Trade goods such as beads, cloth, blankets, ribbons, knives, kettles, tomahawks, guns, metals and silver. The distribution of such goods varied greatly.

The French for instance allowed Natives to come to the forts, missions and settlements. The British however designated trade at selected rendezvous. This may seem confusing since “rendezvous” is a French term. It was very common for Native American Nations to play both the French and the British against each other when it came to trade. They did this to obtain more and better trade goods and gifts. Not to be discriminating, Native Americans also did this with the Spanish, Dutch, German and Russian Trade but in many ways that trade was not as lucrative.

While trade helped the Native American Culture it also was a huge curse to the culture. Natives found themselves more dependent on Trade Goods and less reliant on old skills.


The Powwow is rather modern and many new and modern materials have been a part of the Powwow since the early 20th Century. So the modern Powwow Dancer knows that many of the materials used for their “Dance Regalia” did not exist before the 20th Century. Part of this is the evolution of the culture in use of materials available but the other is the fault of the forced regression of the Native American Culture by the White Man and especially that of the United States Government in the 19th Century. From the Removal Period to the Post-Reservation Period most of the outward culture of art, dance, fashion, language, music, and more was stripped from the people and actually made illegal.

The Reservation Period and the Post-Reservation Period brought on the advent of “Intertribalism” as various Native American Nations found themselves “thrown” together. Almost automatically they began a sharing of everything from art and music to fashion and even faith. It was during this time that they had to rely on new materials and very limited materials from the local trading posts on the Reservations or from the local traders allowed to visit and trade on the Reservations or in the Native Community. Before the forced and almost annihilation of the out-ward beauty of the Native American Culture, the people were very frugal and careful of what items they wanted and chose to use from European Trade and later American Trade. But as time went by the reliance on Trade Goods damaged the culture and after the Post-Reservation period being frugal was no longer an option.

It is always fascinating to ponder on how the culture may have evolved in use of materials and skills had there been no forced migrations and removal.


Now for the Living History Circuit, anything not natural is extremely frowned upon. Some juried events will even test a strand of one’s clothing with a simple burn test to make sure that only natural materials of cotton, fur, leather, linen, silk and wool are used.

After European contact, Native Americans greatly valued many items of the new European trade. But contrary to popular belief they did not desire or use all that the Europeans and later Americans had to offer. Native Americans were very prudent and most discerning. They learned very early on the concept of quality versus quantity and the value of fine workmanship. Over time they became very discriminating. Rene-Robert de LaSalle noticed as early as the 1670s that the Native Americans were very astute bargainers. Father Louis Hennepiin who traveled with LaSalle wrote in his journal: “As regards to trade, the Indians are shrewd enough. They do not allow themselves to be deceived, but they consider everything attentively and study to know the goods.”


To say that Native Americans did not love beads is a critical understatement. The use of beads for everything from common decoration to prized possessions and even spiritual representations has been an integral manner of the Native American Culture. Before White contact beads were of course made by hand with great precision that took a massive amount of time and skill. Beads were made from amber, bone, clay, coral, horn, ivory, metal, obsidian, shell, stone, teeth and wood.

It was no surprise that the Native Americans greatly adored the new beads offered by the Europeans. These included new beads of glass, ceramic, and cast metal from places like France, Germany, Russia and Venice as well as beads of various materials from Africa, China and India. The plethora of beads was amazing but even with such a bounty the Natives learned of quality versus quantity almost immediately. They soon learned that the best beads came from France, India and Venice.

Contrary to popular belief, the Native Americans did not just accept and use any kind of beads. They were quite selective in both color and style of bead. Journals of some European and later American Traders indicated that Natives found some beads to be unacceptable as being unpleasant in color, material and style.


Not all Tribes used German Silver because it was there. As most know it is neither German nor Silver. It is an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc that became widely available in the early 19th Century. The name does come from the fact that it was mainly introduced by German metal workers in the 19th Century. A German Chemist gets credit for perfecting the perfect blend of the 3 alloys. But becoming widely available and actually being widely used or wanted are very different factors. This is because not all Native Americans liked German Silver. It was not extensively used by some Eastern Woodland Tribes as they highly preferred Sterling Silver instead and found German Silver to be less than quality for their taste.

When it came to Trade Silver, the Eastern Woodland Native Americans had learned what superior Trade Silver was since its early introduction in American Trade. By the time of the French & Indian War the Native People were very perceptive on the value and quality of Trade Silver from the English, French, Dutch and American Silversmiths. But as with most manufactured goods, German Silver flooded the market for various reasons and quantity alone over took quality. In other cases, choice was not an option as Sterling Silver was not available even when wanted. For these reasons German Silver had a wide use with Tribes west of the Great Lakes and Tribes on the Great Plains but a much varied used among some Eastern Woodland Tribes.


Although the Europeans brought an eclectic array of dyes in many colors and hues the Native Americans actually upheld their skills of using indigenous dyes obtained from animal parts, dung, bark, berries, buds, earth, flowers, leaves, nuts, roots, seeds, twigs and so forth.

The French alone had over 220 master dyes as early as the 17th Century and along with the English and other Europeans they had many colors to offer the Native Americans. It is not sure why the Native Americans still choose to maintain some original dyes but they did gladly accept certain colors from the Europeans right away. This included the vivid vermillion red and the glowing pure white just to name a couple.


The Native Americans did not just take any cloth offered to them. They learned quickly who had the best wool, cotton, linen, and silk and this was from the English, the French and the Germans.

The English were preferred for their wool. The French were preferred for their cotton and silk. The Germans were preferred for their linen.

Because of this very careful discrimination, the Europeans began to compete for the Natives attention in Trade. Each European power beefed up their quality and quantity of cloth goods to grab the Native eye and it became a fashion war of who could be the most ostentatious.

Some of the most requested fabrics for shirts were from the French and the English in cotton calico, and cotton chintz with large bright block prints. The common white shirt with or without ruffles was also popular in cotton muslin and linen. But if they could get it the Natives heavily preferred the beauty of the rather huge and very vibrant block prints.

In the 18th Century the rage was the following: The French boasted Chinese curved designs and patterns while the English boasted India paisleys and floral designs and patterns. By the 19th Century the rage was the neo-classical straight lines and small flowers from the French and classical flowers and lines from the English.

Even after the grand establishment of America, the Native Americans were a bit peculiar about American textiles as they still preferred the beauty of the European Mills.


Just because they had access to it did not mean they used it as there were astute trading practices of the Native Americans. Not all items of trade caught their eye for use. Without going into great detail, we have seen that some beads were not liked, some dyes were not wanted and some cloth was inferior. These are just a few examples as we know of many more trade objects that were not coveted due to material, color, style and more.

Whatever ones “Native American Clothing” or “Native American Regalia” may be make sure that great patience has been poured into the design and materials of each and every part. One does not have to be rich or spend excessive amounts of money on materials. Instead be careful and even prudent as the Native American Ancestors were and one must also be preserving and make sure that quality beats quantity.

Whether one wants to be modern or historically accurate to a certain time period is a choice, but regardless of what one wants to have always do some research so that when the questions come the education my follow.


Hartman, Sheryl. 2000. Indian Clothing of the Great Lakes: 1790-1840. Liberty, UT: Eagles View Publishing.

Hodge, William, H. 1981. The First Americans: Then and Now. New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston.

Johnson, Michael, G. 1990. American Woodland Indians. Oxford: Osprey.

Johnson, Michael, G. 1995. American Indians of the Southeast. London: Reed International.

Johnson, Michael, G. 2003. Tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. Oxford: Osprey.

Johnson, Michael, G. 2006. Indian Tribes of the New England Frontier. Oxford: Osprey.

Johnson, Michael, G. 2011. North American Indian Tribes of the Great Lakes. Oxford: Osprey.

McKenney, Thomas & Hall, James. 1933. The Indian Tribes of North America. Edinburgh: John Grant.

Mails, Thomas. 1973. Dog Soldiers, Bear Men and Buffalo Women. NJ: Prentice Hall.

© 2012, 2015 Native American Composition & Performance, Limited

Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek

Native American Speaker

Director, Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation

A Non-Profit 501(c)(3) Native American Organization



  1. Donald Kwe
    10:12 am - 6-1-2016

    Love this Love this Love this!

  2. Pual Rathaar
    6:52 am - 2-5-2017

    Damn Jamie this is SWEET stuff. Now I can debate those idiots that think they they powwow police on dress and fabric like the dumbass Micheele and Ross Davidson and Guy Jones and their cronnies and idiots.

  3. John Silversmith
    12:51 am - 10-8-2019

    Hey James, good seeing you at The Feast! I had not idea bout this and I been reaseraching my silverwowrk for 40 years. YOU THE MAN for helping us better understand that already been doing this for years and years. See you at Mississinewas!

  4. Tina Rey-Blackhorse
    7:55 pm - 6-1-2020

    Thanks for sending me this link Jamie. This information is amazing! I learned so much from this and from you and much more than from the Wee Wee! You truly are the PROFESSOR! Thanks and hope to see you at the conference next year.

  5. M. Richardson
    5:14 pm - 7-11-2023

    My Tribe needs to read this one too! So much awesome information. Thanks for this Jamie.

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