Native American Jewelry
The History of Native American Jewelry is rooted in the culture and people living through the American southwest. Peoples of the world have all made jewelry and adornments of some kind and the Indians of the southwest were no different. Certain historical processes have given American Indian jewelry a strong presence in today’s modern style. The use of Turquoise is by far the most influential aspect of ancient Indian jewelry used in modern western fashion. Archaeological evidence supports the theory that stones, which include turquoise, shells, and carved fetishes, predate the Christian epoch. Turquoise that was found in Hohokam excavations in southern Arizona has dated back to 200 B.C. Even older in central Mexico, approximately 600-700 B.C., and in South America about 900 B.C.
Native American Jewelry has a unique past. Knowing that story is the key to understanding the Indian jewelry styles of today. Native Americans started making silver jewelry in the late 1800’s when the Spaniards came, making jewelry, ornaments for their horses and trinkets for barter. But the Indian jewelry made before this time provided the foundation for their own style. Although the tribes and their styles vary, some common themes persist. There is significant evidence of beaded Turquoise jewelry. Turquoise and shell, paired with feathers would be strung and hung from every place possible. Yarn, leather, and sinew were woven into patterns and incorporated into necklaces, bracelets and clothing with the stones and shell. Other unique, beautiful items from nature would be included as much as possible. In Arizona this jewelry dates back over 2300 years, during the Hohokam era. Metal was rare but not out of the picture entirely. Some archaeologists suggest gold and silver was worked by certain tribes in North America during this ancient time but its use would have been limited. Gold and Silver was worked by the Native peoples of Mexico and Central America since the time of the Aztec, so its possible Native American tribes living in the southwest region could be aware of metal working in some way much earlier than the Spanish arrival. It is even difficult to put a date on just when the Native Americans started making silver jewelry after the Spanish arrival. Some authorities will say the 1870’s some the 1890’s.
During World War II, money was hard to come by for the Native American whose income at the time was less than $300 a year on the reservation. Turquoise was scarce and very expensive, so petrified wood was used because it was readily available and the Native American could find it on the reservation. Cutting was difficult in those days. They had to use hammers to flake off the petrified wood and then grind it with an old hand cranked grinding wheel. Polishing was the most difficult because electricity was not available. The silversmiths would hone the stone down on a piece of buckskin with wood-ash grit, and the finishing polish was done by using natural facial oils and rubbing it on pants for hours to achieve a sheen. Even then it was dull. These are some of the old methods that were used and certainly not to be laughed at just because they were crude and primitive. It was at that time that they were first coming into the “new jewelry”. Over the past 40 years there has been “new art” out of the “old art”.
If you look at the Native American Jewelry received by museums forty-five years ago, then look at the pieces they are receiving today, you will see that there has been an improvement in the quality in Native American jewelry all along the lines. The Navajo technique used both hammered silver and heavy clustered turquoise. This was probably the earliest recorded concept in jewelry design. Now the Navajo have progressed into finer pieces where they have highly cut stones and cabochons.
There are people today who say that a lot of the stones are by non Native American. This really doesn’t make that much difference since most other jewelry makers around the world do not cut their own diamonds and emeralds. Another thing, there is not electricity on all parts of the reservation. Therefore, for Native American to continue making jewelry, and since the general public demands high quality, Native Americans do buy a lot of pre-cut turquoise. There are many good stones today, however, that are cut by very fine Native American Artists.
History of Native American Jewelry & Powers of Turquoise
There are many legends about Turquoise; The Pima consider it to bring good fortune and strength and believe that it helps overcome illness. The Zuni believe that blue turquoise was male and of the sky and green turquoise was female and of the earth. Pueblo Indians thought that its color was stolen from the sky. In Hopi legend the lizard who travels between the above and the below, excretes turquoise and that the stone can hold back floods. The Apache felt that turquoise on a gun or bow made it shoot straight. The Navajo consider it as good fortune to wear and believe it could appease the Wind Spirit.
History of Coral in Native American Jewelry
There are four types of precious coral in Hawaii: black coral (Antipathidae), gold coral (Parazoanthidae), red or pink coral (Corallidae) and bamboo coral. Each of these has a different internal composition. Red and pink corals produce a calcite skeleton similar in hardness to ivory and pearls. Bamboo corals, on the other hand, produce a skeleton composed partially of calcite and partially of protein that is similar to the keratin in your fingernails. These alternating bands of material resemble a bamboo stalk; thus the corals’ name. In Hawaii, black corals are found in 100-300 ft. of water, shallow enough to harvest using scuba equipment. Many harvesters, however, have died in pursuit of coral trees at the deep end of this range. Red, gold and bamboo coral are found between 1,000 and 1,500 ft; so harvesting is conducted with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) or submarines.
There are fewer silversmiths coming along now than there were fifty years ago. This is caused by industry coming onto the reservations and assimilating Native Americans into the mainstream of American Society. Native Americans go off to various metropolitan areas and work in factories and do other things to earn more money.
The traditional Native American silversmith can no longer be stereotyped. He/she has branched out into many avenues of jewelry making. They have done a very fine artistic job of this.
Note: Of the 1.2 million Native Americans in the USA today only about 25,000 are silversmiths.
Old Pawn Jewelry
Some people like to compare “old pawn” with the jewelry being made today. They say “Old pawn” is better than new jewelry.” It’s a matter of taste. Some of the techniques being used today are far superior to the techniques that were used in the past. Now we make highly refined items, beautifully decorated with polished turquoise and other precious stones, even using diamonds, rubies, emeralds, star saphires, ivory, coral, onyx, Lapis, Obsidian, and iron wood from Southwern Arizona just to name a few.
The aesthetic quality of Navajo and Pueblo silver jewelry is responsible for its fame. Whether the jewelry is based on ancestral tradition or owes its origins to Spanish, Mexican or Plains Indians roots, or to a combination of these sources, at its finest, it possesses a rich artistic integrity and imagination. The wonderful variety of design on beaten silver, often combined with an extraordinary profusion of turquoise stones of all shades, colors and textures emerges in the hands of Navajo and Pueblo artists as strikingly strong and beautiful in pattern and design. Motifs abstracted from nature – suns, flowers, leaves, petals, stars and moons – are represented in a wide variety of powerful forms and special relationships. For the complexity of design, the jewelry manages to have a sense of order and simplicity. The maker puts his own interpretations into the piece and at the same time uses designs which have special meanings or symbols that have come down through the generations. Indian jewelry holds its place and fascination in the world today as it goes beyond mere ornament and makes a forceful, imaginative and meaningful statement of a creative people.
The hidden meaning phenomenon in the Pueblo and Navajo world is characterized by both visible outer forms and hidden, or inner, qualities. “The tendency toward ‘hiddenness’ in the material world of the Pueblo Indians is there now and may have been from time immemorial.” observed writer Ian Thompson. “I have encountered numerous instances in the archaeological record where something I thought was created for the public was, in fact, hidden from view from the moment the act of creation was completed. It may be connected to ‘understated sacredness’ in the Puebloan cosmos.”
Although there were many Indian societies existing in what is now the U.S. Southwest, the most notable in terms of their influence and impact on current aspects of North American Indian art are the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and the Pueblo communities of Arizona and New Mexico.
Before the European contact, these were primarily agricultural societies whose native craftsmen depicted those images of the natural world that had the greatest influence on their everyday lives, on who they were and what they believed. In desert and semi-desert areas, agriculture was (and to a certain extent still is), a very tenuous proposition.
The uncertainty of rainfall in the region made the growing of crops a very uncertain business. Thus the Indians of the southwest felt the necessity of communing with their gods with regularity to ensure that their prayers for a bountiful harvest were heard and answered. Much of the symbolism evident in the art of these peoples devolves from the representation of their interaction with those deities. Symbols like the sun, water, corn, prominent animals and Kokopelli, the god of fertility and the harvest, are all prominently represented in the work of southwest artisans, in their silver jewellery, kachinas, sand paintings and their world renowned pottery.
Modern artisans have taken the old forms and symbols from this tradition and melded them with the Hispanic influences of the past four centuries, to produce highly crafted and collectable work of a varied and unique nature.
The Inuits’ world-view was dominated by their interaction with nature and the animals that were crucial to their existence. It was this stark duality between man and a nature that threatened to overwhelm him, that they depicted in their artwork, artwork which is denoted both by its simplicity of design and grace of spirit.
With the encouragement of the Government of Canada, Inuit artists have developed from original ancestral designs, soapstone forms and carvings unique to individual settlements and artists and they continue to produce items in this medium to worldwide recognition and acclaim.
North American Plains
Plains society reached its zenith after the arrival of the horse and before the onset of mass European migration into the region. Plains societies were highly mobile and followed the herds of buffalo across the Great Plains west of the Missouri River and were dependent upon hunting for their survival.
The Plains people traded their finished hide goods with the agricultural communities along the Missouri. On these pieces they expressed their symbolism with colorful and intricate beading, ostentatious feather work on headdresses and painted and quillwork designs on various items.
Plains tribes represented in the North West of Canada are mainly from the Blackfoot Confederacy, but also include the Stoney and Sarcee (Tsuu T’ina) Nations.
Prominent among these tribes are the Haida, Kwagiutl, Tsimshian, Coast Salish and Tlingit. From their advent into the region, estimated at over 6,000 years ago, the peoples made use of the resources of both the land and the sea to ensure their survival. They were fishermen especially of salmon and hunters of bear and deer.
As this society became wealthier and more stable, the artisans of the region reached very high standards of craftsmanship in their carving of wood, bone and ivory. They became especially known for their masks, sculptures and totem poles.
Northwest coast artists incorporated tribal designs into their work. These were reflections of social identity or representations of family or clan importance achieved through ancestral mythology. Their work had reached an apogee when contact with Europeans occurred. Tragically, disease and cultural repression caused a decline in all aspects of these vibrant Native societies, including that of their art and religion.
Fortunately, modern artisans have been able to regain much of their heritage. In recent years, there has been an increased appreciation of the unique nature of the art of this cultural group. Consequently, there has been an expansion in the number of artists and artwork available to the many that have come to appreciate the many varieties of this unique expression of a people’s cultural heritage.
Northern and Eastern North America were covered by an extensive, dense primeval forest system. The impenetrability of these forests contributed to the development of aboriginal societies along the various waterways and rivers of the region. Many tribes, while agricultural in nature, depended upon the produce of the riverine systems to augment and enhance their livelihoods.
The Woodland people used birch bark, hides, shells, porcupine quills and elaborate beading to produce everyday objects and embellish them with designs representational of their cultural world-view. These were fairly complex societies with elaborate belief systems. Many objects served a dual function of both everyday use and ceremonial ornamentation.
The Huron, Iroquois and Ojibway artisans, amongst others, still produce traditional articles reflective of this duality.