Value of Glass Beads

Published on June 24, 2011 by Amy

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Ga Hah No - Seneca Indian Girl in the Clothing of the Iroquois (Morgan 1993)
Ga Hah No – Seneca Indian Girl
in the Clothing of the Iroquois
(Morgan 1993)

It may be hard to understand the reasons Natives wanted and accepted glass beads and other ‘trinkets and baubles’ from Europeans in trade. In order to understand the high ‘value’ placed on these goods by Natives, glass beads have to be examined from within the specific cultural context. ‘Value’ is a concept of culturally-dependent perception. ‘Value’ can be measured in many different ways. For example, an itemís value may be weighed in terms of itís exchange value as a commodity, in contrast to an itemís symbolic religious value. Europeans saw glass beads as merely blobs of melted glass, ‘trinkets’, cheap and inexpensive as an exchange commodity. In European countries where beads were produced, they were simply priced according to expense of ingredients to manufacture them (Monture: 1993). In contrast, beads were symbolically ‘valuable’ and very much desired by Native Americans for what they represented to Natives.

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At the onset of European trade, glass beads weren’t necessarily desired by Natives for their ‘monetary’ or exchange value but rather for their symbolic value. Shell, crystal and indigenous metals, and in turn glass beads, were valued for their properties of “assurance and insurance of long life (immortality through resuscitation), well being (the absence of ill-being), and success, particularly in the conceptually related activities of hunting and fishing, warfare, and courtship” (Hamell: 1983). Beads are traditionally part of ritual exchanges. Beads are valued more for the symbolic associations of the form, material, color and other aspects, than for what an item is ‘worth’ in raw commodity exchange.

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Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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