This past spring and summer, both men’s fashion weeks and Hollywood picked up steam when it came to accessories and jewelry. More musicians, rappers, actors and athletes are seen rocking the overrated, chunky chains where the motto is: the bulkier and bigger, the better. Well, for Indian Country, it’s different. The trend of Native guys sporting beaded medallions in their personalized designs with their usual everyday getups is more common now than plain ol’ silver or gold chains, and we discover why.
WHY MEDALLIONS ARE UNIQUE
Anyone who knows about beadwork, or anything Native-made at that, knows that in order to get a beaded medallion, you’ll have to custom-order one. To acquire a piece created with the utmost quality and precision, it’s best to go to a beader that has multiple medallions under their belt. You tell the artist your design, colors, and any other details you want included.
Then two weeks later, your medallion is finished and handed or shipped to you. Your personalized medallion is like no other; you won’t find it at the mall, a store, or anywhere else for that matter. Your medallion is truly unique and another like it can’t be found anywhere in the world.
THE LOVE OF BEADING
Beadwork is not just an aesthetic art. It is our culture. It carries our history and tells the stories of our future. Some pieces have been passed down for generations, while others are being made to welcome the unborn. When learning the craft of beadwork, budding artist are told to put good thoughts and prayers into everything they create. Whether it’s beading a turtle to protect a baby boy’s umbilical cord, a Broncos medallion for a hardcore Denver fan, or a set of powwow jewelry so a little girl can dance for the first time, every bead laid and knot tied is done with love from the heart.
Beading is truly a meticulous art form requiring talent, skill, and craftsmanship. All the beads are connected with the same thread; so in order to correct a mistake, rows upon rows of work must be undone. Every beadworker must find balance, however. There is an expectation that the rows lay nice and flat alongside one another. Perfection. Yet at the same time, artists are taught to purposefully add one bead, color out of place. Imperfection. This is to represent humility and the knowledge that we are human and we make mistakes, for only Creator is perfect. Intentional mistakes also double as an identifying factor in cases of loss or thievery.
There is no feeling for an artist like that of working hard with their hands knowing that it will bring happiness to a person, couple, or family. To beadworkers, the craft is often therapeutic. It clears the mind and instead of thinking, they are able to turn the brain off and bead. As they work one bead at a time into their design, they receive satisfaction of pulling the thread and watching the correct number of beads align exactly into the place they intended. Row by row, section by section, they can see their design come to life. Moments like that provide confidence in themselves as an artist and human of talent.
FROM TRADITIONAL TO MODERN CULTURE
There’s something very liberating about taking a new image from popular culture and cannibalizing it with a form of art that’s been passed down for generations. The process allows Native artists to take something that is everyone’s and make it specific to us, in turn creating an identifying fashion accessory that is both widely recognizable but ultimately, and distinctly, Native.
GROWING TREND OF MEDALLIONS
The beaded medallion obsession is in full swing for all of Indian Country, with men moving away from today’s popular silver and gold jewelry and towards beaded medallions. Sports fans order their team’s emblems on their medallions or, for a more personalized design, their tribe’s logo. They take pride in their medallion because of it’s one of a kind feature, the knowledge that there’s no other like it anywhere.
Bottom line: Native men rocking medallions around their neck creates a parallel to popular hip-hop culture’s fascination with “chains” and “bling” which they can identify with. However, beaded jewelry, though similar, simultaneously distinguishing them from being Black, White, or Other and identifies them instead as being Native- and that makes them proud.
We talk to popular rapper Chase Manhattan about his iconic medallions and we ask Indian Country’s top medallion makers why this new trend is growing fast.
Chase Manhattan, a hip-hop artist from Minneapolis, isn’t only known for his music and unique lyrics. His three medallions he wears everywhere – a Minnesota Vikings medallion, a personalized-chief design medallion and a medallion stating his tribe, catches attention almost immediately.
You have three medallions you wear consistently, can you explain each one?
The first one is the Minnesota Vikings medallion. It was designed by C.B. Wilson, who’s Eastern Shoshone. She beads my moccasins and headphones. It was a gift; my dad purchased it and gave it to me for my birthday. I’m a huge Vikings fan. I played football in middle school.
My second medallion and favorite of all medallions is my indianized-Viking with a headdress one. I got it for my birthday last year. It was the Vikings logo modified, with a headdress. That’s what I wanted. This medallion was made by Jennie of Kryptonite Kreations. This medallion is the best piece on the planet. She put in a lot of work; she took the extra time to make it perfect. She even beaded the back of the medallions; she put my logo and everything. You can’t see it in pictures but it’s beaded on the back. She doesn’t take too many orders but she wanted to do this piece. This is my number one piece.
My third medallion is the Leech Lake one. This is the first one I ever had. I seen all these people wearing beaded medallions and was always like, “I want my own!” I wanted a Leech Lake medallion done, because that’s where my dad’s from. Neanah Rossbach, my girlfriend at the time, made the medallion and the beaded chain link. Her sister, however, made the design of the chain link. This medallion is a representation of my dad’s tribe, which is why I like it. This is the first only one of its kind; every single link of this chain is peyote-stitched.
Why do you like to wear your beaded medallions?
I like to represent, I deal with the Native community a lot, but outside nobody has seen anything like medallions. It’s my way modern way of representing your culture and style. I love my chains. Be on the lookout for some new ones. Beaded medallions are like an addiction. You can rock your medallions like you rock your clothes. You have to be gentle with them. I put mine away, I don’t hang them up. They’re fragile. You can’t wear them everyday either. My Leech Lake medallion took forever to make, so I take utmost care of it. It took some time, so I have love for my medallions.
Do your beaded medallions capture attention when you walk into a room?
Hell yeah, probably because they’re flashy and different. They see the beaded links on the Leech Lake one and want to touch it immediately. Some people I don’t let touch it, but if I’m close to you then it’s cool. People try to borrow it, but I don’t let them. I hold my medallions close to me. I rock them at every powwow. If I’m going somewhere I wear my medallions. When I perform or make an appearance anywhere, I’ll throw them all on and they get attention.
Why do you think the trend of wearing beaded medallions with their everyday looks instead of the typical silver or gold jewelry is growing popular?
Like I said it’s a different way to represent, instead of through the typical stereotypes. You have to be a Native or know a Native to get a beaded medallion. You can’t just go anywhere and get one. I had people give me a hard time, if it’s not gold or silver chains. It’s worth more than gold or silver. Somebody took the time and effort to design it and place every single bead where it is. It means more to take time on a piece. You can represent any way you want, it’s your design. They’re unique, unlike gold and silver. They can be found anywhere. Beaded stuff are way cooler.
Mel Michell, from the Barren Lands First Nation in Northern Manitoba Canada and of the Dene-Cree nation, has now been beading for approximately fifteen years. “Because I powwow dance, I was inspired to bead my own powwow regalia,” he explains. Michell beaded medallions before and enjoys the challenge of beading a logo or a personalized design. “It also inspires me and I want my children to see this gift I share with Natives across Indian Country” Michell has been asked to make personalized medallions with designs from sports team logos to animals such as eagles, turtles and caribous. Michell admits he takes pride in being asked to make a medallion, and even more in the story behind the personalized medallion. “It makes a statement that they are proud and a beaded medallion at any cost would look good on a man and the glass cut beads and the designs tell a story about him. It gives us men confidence and it carries more weight when finished. It shows who we are and that we come from a beautiful, strong nation.” What sets Michell’s product apart from anything else is his staple smoked and tanned caribou backing. Michell is open to personalized orders and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and by text or phone call at (204) 869-4366.
DENISE ABOUREZK-BRAVE HEART
South of the Canada-border is Denise Abourezk-Brave Heart, from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. “I have been beading for as long as I can remember,” says Abourezk-Brave Heart. Abourezk-Brave Heart grew up watching her mother bead, and after seeing her make the most amazing pieces, she fell in love with the art of beading. Her mother provided the tools and techniques necessary for beading, and her passion has grown ever since. “Anytime I had a question, my mom would ask me what I thought she would do if it was her asking.” Abourezk-Brave Heart is happy to say she imparted the passion of beading onto her daughter, like her mother with her. Abourezk-Brave Heart explains she’s made all sorts and sizes of medallions, and enjoys watching her son wear his assortment. “I believe that the medallions add a sense of culture and modern-day style. It’s a chance to show off really nice artwork and jewelry. My son loves to wear his because he is Lakota and his mama made it. He shows it to his friends. I think a medallion also adds a more personal touch of who that person is and what they like.” Abourezk-Brave Heart is always interested in making personalized medallions and can be reached at email@example.com.
From the Navajo nation is Chelsea Mohawk, whose clan is Edgewater born for the Tangled People. Mohawk has been beading since around the age of 10 and admits her culture and parents were what inspired her to learn. “I’m still getting inspired everyday when I look at beadwork on Facebook or Instagram. There’s a lot of talent out there,” Mohawk admits. Her true inspiration to start beading came from her father when he picked up beading out of nowhere and beaded geometric designs on her sister’s powwow outfit. “The next cape he did was a portrait of horses running in the sunset on the plains. Pure beauty, I thought” Mohawk realized she could have that same potential as her father, and to this day is thankful she picked up on both of her parents’ talents for beading.
Mohawk first started beading bracelets for her siblings, until she made her first medallion in 2010, a Biggie Smalls medallion. “This was my first big project and it took me three weeks to finish the whole medallion and necklace. I bead a little faster now and still get help with colors and designs from my family, and to this day I’m still learning different tricks to the trade” Mohawk currently beads medallions and the majority of her orders are for men. “A lot of the medallions I make have been more of the hip-hop scene, which I love. That is one of my goals, to get my beadwork on a well-known hip-hop artist. Locally, I’m slowly getting there.”
Mohawk explains the trend of medallions is growing so popular fast, that Caucasian men and women are approaching her with orders. “Haven’t you seen the clothes in all the stores lately? Native designs and styles are making a comeback in full force. I even have Caucasian men and women approaching me, putting in orders. Beaded medallions are the new wood and clay chains, I love it!” Another reason Mohawk thinks medallions is an everyday look is because it’s personalized. “When someone gets a medallion they’re making it so it matches their everyday look and style. They get designs on it that shout ‘This is me!’ instead of looking the same as others with boring gold and silver chains.”
Mohawk is available to taking orders for medallions and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and also invites you to follow her on Instagram for even more design ideas at Ladiimohawk.
Cinnamon Spear, Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer, MT, has been beading since she was 13 years old. “It was actually taught to us in Cheyenne culture class in middle school” After a seven year break from beading; she started again when she picked up a needle and beaded a gift for her friend’s birthday. “It came just as naturally to me then, despite not having touched a needle in nearly a decade”
Most of her orders for medallions are for guys and admits this is an exciting time for beading medallions. “It’s an exciting time, now, considering the start of the NFL season. The majority of my beadwork pieces are based off sports teams- including local Lame Deer area teams, NBA and NFL team logos and emblems” A trend that’s popping up among medallions are logos that are “Indian-ized”. “I have recently taken an order from a friend who wants a Denver Broncos emblem, but has requested that I use my skills to “Indian-ize” the design. It’s exciting to be given creative control over a piece; the freedom will allow for the incorporation of embedded symbols and alternative colors. I can’t wait to tackle that project, next!”
What Spear enjoys about the growing culture of medallions is the uniqueness of each design and the connection between the artist and piece. “Indigenous peoples have their own forms of art and fashion aside from mainstream America. Since time immemorial there have been colors, patterns, designs, hair styles, etc that Natives used to define themselves and others as distinct Native communities and/or people. Today is no different. Instead of adopting mainstream gold and silver jewelry, there’s pride in wearing handmade works of art. There’s a lot of freedom in beadwork, as it can be custom ordered and made specifically to fulfill an individual’s design requests. When you go into a store and buy, say, a necklace, it comes in one size, one design, and many other people have it. When a man orders a beaded medallion, he can choose the team, the size, the content and wear it knowing it was made for him and there will never be another one exactly like it. When I wear beadwork, there’s a connection to the piece because of the hard work that went into it. I know and appreciate beaded jewelry because it is, within itself, a work of art. I know I stand with the majority when I say this, but while beading I put great thought and good prayers into the piece intentionally for that person who is to wear it. Therefore, I am not the type of artist to create a stock pile of items and put them up for sale. I take orders and I like to know who I am beading for, so my energy can be directed towards that little girl, that old man, or that strapping young fella.”
Spear is always interested in designing custom-made medallions and can be contacted at email@example.com.
This report originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Native Max Magazine.