The Mysterious Beaded Collar

By: and Leana Reich

December 17, 2018

The provenance story of this “American Indian beaded collar” (object # 2000-16-1) begins with a mystery: it was made by an unknown artisan for an unknown purpose at an unknown time, likely in the 19th century. In 1972, Robert W. Preucel received it as a gift from his high school friend, Tucker Hentz. Hentz noted, “All I recall is that an elderly friend of my mother gave it to me when she learned of my interest in Indian artifacts.”[1] In 2000, Preucel, who was by then a Professor of Anthropology at Penn, gifted the aforementioned collar to the Penn Museum, where it was categorized as “Leni Lenape or Delaware” and placed into storage in the collections.

In 2018, when an interested student initiated an object study, she realized, after an exhaustive search, that there appears to be no information online relating to Delaware beaded collars in general, and no information that might illuminate this collar in particular. Is this object, in fact, Lenape/Delaware in origin? Where did it come from, and what does it signify? The student set out to answer those very questions.

Material Details

The first step, in attempting to identify the mysterious traveling collar, is to examine its stylistic attributes. The collar is horseshoe-shaped, measuring 50.40 centimeters in length and 36 centimeters in width. When worn around the neck and shoulders, it takes the form of a closed oval, rather like a horse collar. At the bottom, four strips of red grosgrain ribbon are tied together, likely to secure it in place around the neck of the wearer. All around the perimeter, black ribbon triangles are decorated with alternating pieces of red and yellow grosgrain ribbon. The main body of the collar is made of black woven wool fabric, stitched to a red and white striped cotton ticked fabric that wraps around to form the red edge of the collar. The floral designs on the collar are composed of top-stitched (appliqued) strands of opaque and translucent glass seed beads in white, yellow, blue, orange, dark green, and several shades of pink.[2]

Beaded collar, object #2000-16-1. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The black wool is intricately beaded with different floral motifs that are bilaterally symmetric. From the bottom to the top of the collar, these motifs are composed of small glass beads arranged as follows on each side: a large eight-petaled pink flower with orange center; three small yellow circular flowers; two dark green leaves with yellow veins; three orange and yellow tulip-shaped two-petaled flowers; three small orange circular flowers; one four-petaled flower (with yellow center and petals in shades of pink); and three blue and orange heart-shaped two-petaled flowers. At the top (the neck of the collar), there is an asymmetrical design of a single four-petaled flower (in shades of pink with a yellow center), flanked by three teardrop-shaped blue flowers on one side, and three red and yellow tulip-shaped two-petaled flowers on the other side. All of these flowers are connected by white vines or stems made of two parallel rows of beads with short lines resembling thorns jutting out from the center.

Beadwork close-up. Photo by Leana Reich.

The beadwork is intricate, distinct, and surprisingly intact, given that the collar is in very rough condition and moth-eaten. The careful beadwork of the floral designs contrasts with the very uneven stitching that once held a layer of yellow silk to the top of the collar. The silk, which was likely a decorative edging, is all but vanished now. Perhaps it was added later by a less-skilled artisan. Perhaps it was a bad repair. It is difficult to speculate about the construction or significance of the fabrics, colors, or designs on this collar without any knowledge of the specific time period or culture from which this object came.

Comparing Beaded Garments

We have not found any historical evidence of Lenape/Delaware people traditionally wearing beaded collars of this shape, but there is evidence of intricate decorative beadwork in other garments and accoutrements, such as bandolier bags. One such example is currently on display in the “Infinity of Nations” exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.[3] The style of beadwork on these bags is markedly different from this collar. While the collar utilizes floral motifs on a wool background, the bandolier bag style tends to be fully beaded with repeating geometric, abstract, and/or floral shapes.

In recent communication, Preucel suggested that this collar might be from “one of the Great Lakes tribes (Iroquois or Anishinaabe).”[4] Gerry Biron, a fine artist who has conducted research on historic Iroquois and Wabanaki beadwork, agreed, noting that, after checking some sources, “I am more inclined to attribute it to the Great Lakes, and likely Ojibwa.”[5]

Cover of Floral Journey by Lois S. Dubin. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

A stunning example of Ojibwe beadwork which bears surprisingly similar floral shapes and color choices to the collar can be seen on the cover of Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork by Lois S. Dubin.[6] The cover depicts an Ojibwe dance apron/breechcloth collected in 1885 from Wisconsin Dells and housed in the Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection, Autry Museum of the American West. This article of clothing has a similar selection of glass beads arranged into distinctive white vines/stems with thorn-like protrusions, the same round four-petaled flowers, and the same tulip-shaped two-petaled flowers on a black background. Another point of similarity between the two works is the symmetry: both can be divided down the middle into two perfectly matching halves (with the exception of one stray flower in the center of the breechcloth). The reverse of the breechcloth is plaid cloth rather than striped cloth, but the edging of grosgrain ribbon is essentially the same on both.

The Autry Museum also holds a pair of beaded leggings dating from 1860-1870. These leggings contain beaded floral motifs which are bilaterally symmetrical and stitched onto black wool with a red ribbon edging.[7] These same floral motifs on a black background are also seen on a vest in the same museum, which was photographed in the 1880s being worn by a Winnebago man. [8] These examples show that Great Lakes beadwork (Ojibwe, Chippewa, Winnebago) is stylistically very close to the beadwork on the collar, but there is one concern: there do not seem to be any examples of Great Lakes people wearing collars like this.

Beaded collar, object #37-23-5. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

So, if we just isolate the stylistic attributes of the floral beadwork it is easy to attribute the collar to the region of the Great Lakes. If we focus instead on the fact that it is a collar, the picture becomes fuzzier.

The most prominent examples of Native American beaded collars are the Wabanaki beadwork collars made to be worn on or over leather coats and woolen broadcloth “chief’s coats.” These collars, typically made with a cape at the back and lapels draped down the front, are still being made and worn by the Penobscot and other Wabanaki nations today.[9] This style, called a “ceremonial cape” or “chief’s collar,” is well-represented in museum and tribal collections. The Penn Museum, for example, has a “Penobscot Ceremonial cape” (object #37-23-5) dating from the mid-1800s, that was collected by Gabe Paul and gifted to the Museum by Samuel Fernberger. This collar, adorned with beaded plant motifs worked in round and tubular glass beads, is said to have been made around 1870, and was worn by Peter Nicola when he served as Chief from 1911-12.[10] The shapes of these bear no resemblance to the collar in question, which is shaped more like a horse collar.

Kahnawake Mohawk man, c. 1910. Photo courtesy of Gerry Biron.

A number of late 19th and early 20th century photographs show Mohawk people in Quebec and New York state wearing elaborately beaded collars.[11] The mystery deepens when it becomes apparent that these historic photographs often show Native people in the context of late 19th century “Wild West” performances and medicine shows. [12] These collars were made in a variety of shapes and sizes, but none of the ones documented thus far resemble the shape or motifs on the one in question.

During the era when this collar was constructed, Native people were routinely borrowing motifs and patterns from various locales for their own decorative purposes. The Kahnawake Mohawk man pictured at left, for example, is wearing an elaborately beaded collar with floral motifs over a leather jacket with brass-studded cuffs and a Western Plains style turkey feather headdress. Such cultural mixing was (and is) often seen in Native regalia from the 19th century to the present. [13]

With the information in hand thus far, there is no certainty that this beaded collar is associated with any one specific culture, even though the style of the floral beadwork is consistent with Native American artistry and aesthetics, and is, apparently, characteristic of the Great Lakes region. Was this collar a traditional item of clothing? Was it some combination of traditional and decorative show garb? At present, there is no way of knowing. Thus, the process of looking for answers about the origins of this mysterious traveling collar—passed down from friend to friend to friend as a gift with neither documentation nor evidence—continues, leaving us with more questions than answers.


[1] Robert Preucel, email communication “Re: Beaded Collar at the Penn Museum,” November 5, 2018.
[2] By the mid 19th century, Native American and First Nations artisans across the continent had embraced the use of glass seed beads imported from Venice and other parts of Europe, and assimilated them into existing decorative practices, sometimes utilizing glass beads to replace colored paint or quill work. See Lois Dubin, Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork (Los Angeles: Autry National Center of the American West, 2014): 40.
[3] “Delaware Bandolier Bag,” Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC.
[4] Robert Preucel, email communication “Re: Beaded Collar at the Penn Museum,” November 5, 2018.
[5] Gerry Biron, email communication “Re: Beaded Collar at the Penn Museum,” November 25, 2018
[6]  Lois S. Dubin, Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork, 56. The dance apron/breechcloth, identified by the museum as either Ojibwe or Chippewa, was collected in 1885 from Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, and donated to the Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection by Donna Held. The apron was highlighted in a 2014-2015 exhibit at the Autry.
[7] Dubin, Floral Journey: 55.
[8]  Steven D. Hoelscher, Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H.H. Bennett’s Wisconsin Dells (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008). The photograph of Ha-zah-zoch-kah (Branching Horns) taken by H.H. Bennett, c. 1905 is archived as LC-USZ62-115038 in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
[9]  See, for example, Jennifer Sapiel Neptune’s work in Robin Clifford Wood, “Anthropologist Artist Brings Penobscot Artifact to Life,” Bangor Daily News, June 5, 2015. Also see Rhoda Besaw, “Chief’s Coats,” Traditional and Contemporary Wabanaki Beadwork, on her artist’s website.
[10]  Nancy T. Prince, exhibit co-curator, “Brilliantly Beaded: Northeastern Native American Beadwork – Regalia.” On-line exhibit, Hudson Museum, University of Maine.
[11]  Gerry Biron, “The Iroquois and Wild West Shows #2,” March 11, 2011, Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork Research Blog.
[12] Gerry Biron, 2011, “The Iroquois and Wild West Shows #1,” March 8, 2011, Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork Research Blog.
[13] See Richard W. Hill, Sr., “Patterns of Expression: Beadwork in the Life of the Iroquois,” in Gifts of the Spirit: Works by Nineteenth Century and Contemporary Native American Artists, Dan L. Monroe, ed., 36-61 (Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum, 1996). Also see Ruth Phillips, Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700 – 1900, (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press; Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).

Sources Cited:

Besaw, Rhonda. n.d. “Chief’s Coats.” Traditional and Contemporary Wabanaki Beadwork. Artist’s website.

Biron, Gerry. 2011. “The Iroquois and Wild West Shows #2.” March 11, 2011, Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork Research Blog.

Biron, Gerry. 2011. “The Iroquois and Wild West Shows #1.” March 8, 2011, Historic Iroquois and Wabanaki Beadwork Research Blog.

Hill, Richard W., Sr. 1996. “Patterns of Expression: Beadwork in the Life of the Iroquois.” In Gifts of the Spirit: Works by Nineteenth Century and Contemporary Native American Artists, Dan L. Monroe, ed., 36-61. Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum.

Phillips, Ruth. 1990. Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700 – 1900. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press; Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Prince, Nancy T. n.d. “Brilliantly Beaded: Northeastern Native American Beadwork – Regalia.” On-line exhibit, Hudson Museum, University of Maine.

Wood, Robin Clifford. 2015. Interview with Jennifer Sapiel Neptune. “Anthropologist Artist Brings Penobscot Artifact to Life.” Bangor Daily News. June 5, 2015.

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out and consider similar materials, research articles and archives, Indigenous knowledges and histories, and non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles, edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With Erica Dienes. “Choctaw Beaded Sash: Crossing Histories.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Blackfeet Moccasins: Gifts for Charles Stephens.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Tlingit Raven Rattle: Transformative Representations.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”
• With Ben Kelser. “Children Among the Caribou: Clothes for a Young Innu.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”

For links to blogs from past Museum Anthropology classes, see:
2017: “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory”
2015: “Deep Description and Reflexivity: Methods for Recovering Object Histories”
2015: “The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects”