From quills to beads: the bandolier bag

Stunning beadwork and a story of forced migration

Shoulder Bag, 1840-50, Delaware, Lenni Lenape, cotton, wool, silk, glass beads, tinned iron, brass, bone, 29 1/2 inches high (Newark Museum of Art, Purchase 2017 Mr. and Mrs. William V. Griffin Fund 2017.10). Speakers: Dr. Adriana Greci Green and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Bandolier Bag

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Key points

  • Referred to as the Delaware by European colonizers, the Lenni Lenape were one of the first Native North American groups to have contact with Europeans in the early 1500s. Originally residing along the Delaware and Hudson River valleys, by the time this Bandolier Bag was made in the 19th century, they had been relocated: first into Pennsylvania and the Ohio River valley before moving again to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma.
  • Bandolier bags were made by different Native American nations. Early versions were buckskin that was decorated with quillwork, but later forms were made with imported calico and glass beads. With calico coming from England or India, and beads and tinklers manufactured in Europe, these bags were part of 19th-century global trade networks.
  • Bandolier bags were dynamic in their design. The beaded motifs are both geometric and organic, one of many dualities suggested in their balance of positive and negative space. Made by women and worn by men, the bags would have produced sound and reflected light as they moved with the wearer.

Go deeper

The Bandolier Bag at the Newark Museum of Art

Read more about bandolier bags at Smarthistory

Learn more about the history of the Lenni Lenape peoples

See an earlier bandolier bag from the 18th century, made by the Anishinaabe

Learn more about the international market for textiles in the 19th century

Read about quillwork at South Dakota Public Broadcasting

More to think about

Displayed in the museum, we do not experience bandolier bags in the ways they were meant to be seen. In addition to the musicality of its tinklers, it can be difficult to see the layer of materials or imagine the weight of the bag on the body. What are some ways that these bags could be displayed that would preserve them as fragile historical objects, but could also give viewers a more complete understanding of their function and design?

The intricate surface decoration of the Bandolier Bag signaled the skill of the maker, the status of the wearer, and the group to which they belonged. What objects do we carry or wear that send the same kind of messages?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.