Indian beads: just beachin’

Published 8:29 pm Thursday, August 12, 2010

Small geodes and shells are found on the beach, along with crinoid fossil pieces. Southwest Michigan once was home to many button factories, with mother-of-pearl buttons being made of the abundant white shells found along the beaches. Photo by Terri Gordon


Off the Water

“I started out when I was 14 or 15 because I wanted a necklace like all the cool kids who hung out at the beach did,” said St. Joseph native Elisa Broihier with a laugh.  “It was a big status symbol to have a string of Indian beads, so that was my goal.”

By the time Broihier had enough Indian beads to make that necklace, she had graduated from high school and matured beyond the need to fit in with her teenage peers. The passion had taken hold, however, and she found herself continuing to collect them any time she was at the beach.

“I just became interested in them for what they are — little sculptures, almost,” she explained.

Of course, what locals call “Indian beads” or “lucky stones” and what Broihier once assumed were made by Indians, are not.

“What the Indian beads really are,” said Mike Mahler, a naturalist at Sarett Nature Center, “are fossils of an organism called a crinoid. When people find Indian beads, they’re really finding pieces of the crinoid.”

The crinoid is an ocean animal related to the starfish that lived in the shallow seas covering Michigan during the Silurian and Devonian periods 350 to 400 million years ago. Also known as sea-lilies, crinoids still exist in oceans today. They look like a flower (hence the name) and fossilized “stems” have been uncovered measuring as much as 50 feet long.

Knowing this doesn’t dampen Broihier’s enthusiasm, though, and she continues to scour the beaches for the small, donut-shaped  fossils.

“It’s the lure of treasure,” she said. “They’re little treasures.”

It’s a treasure anyone can find if they are patient.

“You can spend hours and hours and come up with very few, so you can’t expect to be putting together a necklace very quickly,” Broihier warned.

Broihier has strung them with other beads interspersed to spread them out. She’s put them in beach-themed collages. She just likes looking at the jars she’s filled over the years.

Fossilized crinoids can be found anywhere there is exposed bedrock or glacial deposit. Indeed, Broihier has found some of her largest prizes at the edge of a shallow glacial lake while visiting a sister in southern Indiana.

Looking for the beads is an engaging and simple activity that anyone can enjoy, but Broihier warns starting collectors that it can be hard on the back.

“Be prepared to bend over or kneel down,” she said. People need to be extra careful of the sun, too.

“And people are going to ask you what in the heck you’re doing,” she said. It’s also handy to have a Ziploc bag or something to carry them in.

A good day at the beach yields usually a small handful of beads for Broihier, but she often brings home other treasures too.

“I have found small Petosky stones,” she said. “Those are easy to identify because of the pattern on them.”

She also finds small geodes, shells and  other kinds of fossils.

Other fossils common to Michigan are trilobites, which look a bit like flattened sow bugs, cephalopods, long cylindrical fossils and brachiopods, which resemble a clam-like seashell. There is also the Colonial coral that is the Petosky stone, the snail-shaped gastropod and the clam, or pelecypod.

Aside from fossils and other interesting rocks, Broihier also picks up beach glass when she finds it.

“The most beautiful garbage in the world is beach glass,” she said. “And it’s so hard to find now. When I was a kid it was everywhere. The most prized pieces came from what we would assume were Noxema jars — that cobalt blue.”

She believes the decline in beach glass is due to recycling and the increased use of plastics.

Broihier also finds herself cleaning up unsightly trash and items that can be dangerous, such as sharp glass.

And while she certainly appreciates the “spoils,” Broihier has come to appreciate the therapeutic effect of hunting Indian beads.

“It’s kind of a beach therapy,” she said. “It’s a meditative activity because it’s so focused and simple that you can clear your mind of other things. It relaxes you because you’re not trying to solve your problems all at once, or thinking about your daily strife. You’re doing a repetitive, simple action.”