When I first started learning Czech back in about 1982, I had an odd dream one night in which Native American tribes had created a technologically advanced society operating entirely underground. They had tunnels deep in the earth connecting all countries and continents together. I went down into the tunnels and found that they all spoke Czech– their preferred language!
I don’t know if this is true for others as well, but often when I make an odd connection in a dream it remains with me– the feeling of it, the sense of it being real– from then on. So ever since I have felt there to be, in some deep sense, a connection between Native Americans and Czechs.
Once I moved to the country in 1990 I discovered that there were several ways in which this was actually true. Many Czechs, beginning with Vojta Naprstek in the 1800′s, had felt the same odd connection I had made in my dream. Naprstek had brought back many artifacts and pieces of Indian art from his long sojourn in America, and members of later generations studied tribal languages, spent long periods among them and sometimes become members of tribes. And when I arrived after the Revolution, all over the country there were small ‘bands’ of ‘white Indians’ who studied everything they could of Indian art and lore and replicated it as much as possible.
As I later discovered, however, the connection had actually begun long before the 19th century– and had gone in the opposite direction. It began with the first contacts between the new and old worlds. Bohemian glass beads, I learned were among the first traded items — were, in fact, the legendary ‘trade beads’ used in place of money in many transactions. The Czech bead making industry had become well established in the 16th century, and by the time trade was established in North America it had become world renowned. Native Americans were quick to recognize their beauty and quality and soon adopted them for use in decoration in place of traditional quill work. I first became aware of this when a friend arranged a glass bead factory tour for young Blackfoot Indian who was visiting Prague. “Grandfather would think he’d died and gone to heaven,” he said, inspecting the plastic bags he had been given, bulging with beads of all colors sizes and shapes.
I was reminded of this– and the exceptional quality of Czech beads– when my friend Paula visited me in Prague last fall. An avid beader and jewelry-maker she had surprised us all at our annual ‘scanner’ reunion with stunning bracelets in which the beads and colors were carefully chosen to match the inner self, which she had managed to ‘catch’ with eerie accuracy.
Naturally the first thing she did when she visited me was to find– with what inner sonar I don’t know– one of the best bead shops in town. She set to work as soon as she was home and by the time I was ready to return to the States she was already sending me an express request for more which I was able to bring back and Fedex to her in time for Christmas.
Sadly, some of these beautiful and unusual designs are being lost now, as the Czech glass industry goes through a major crisis that is shuttering some factories with traditions stretching back four centuries. Czech glass, it is claimed, is being undercut by Chinese manufacturers who are creating cheap knockoffs of Czech designs. This, I believe, is a bogus argument being put forth by those who do not understand the value and importance of the country’s’ crown jewels’, whose reputation and base of knowledge and skill has been created by many generations of artists and craftsmen. Hopefully Czechs will come together as they have often done in the past and find a way to rescue the now struggling glass and porcelain industries, in particular, and perhaps, in the process, come to a greater appreciation for their national heritage in general.
In the meantime, the next time you come across glass beads for sale, I hope you will think, as I do, of Czechs, Native Americans — and the fact that we all connect in unexpected ways.
- The Wanderer