Native american indian jewelry is so beautiful. How long have indian tribes been making jewelry? What are the meanings of turquoise and the squash blossom necklace? How can I tell what tribe a piece of sterling silver jewelry is from?
–Submitted by Ardith R.
Native american indian jewelry is generally divided into three categories: metalwork, beadwork, and quillwork. Jewelry styles were different in every American Indian tribe, but the differences were less marked than with other arts and crafts, because jewelry and the materials used for making it (beads, shells, drilled and shaped bones, coral, copper and silver, ivory, amber, turquoise and other natural stones) were major trade items long before European arrival in America.
Indian Beadwork Jewelry
Many different tribes are famous for their intricate beadwork, but this craft is primarily associated with the northern, central and southern Plains Indians. While beadwork is used in jewelry items such as earrings and beaded medallion necklaces, it is more often used to decorate bags, horse gear, moccasins, and items of clothing.
Usually certain designs and predominant bead colors are associated with different tribes. For example, the Cree, Ojibwa, and Shoshone are famous for their intricate flower designs usually done on a white background with red or pink flowers (most often a rose) and sometimes intricate curling stems in green.
The Arapaho, Blackfoot, Crow, Assiniboin, Gros Ventre and Yanktonia Dakota tribes are known for geometric patterns. They most commonly executed checkerboard motifs in squares and triangles with fully beaded backgrounds in yellow, light blue, red and sometimes white. The Blackfoot were the leaders of this style, and usually preferred a yellow background.
The central Plains styles produced by the Teton and Yanktonia Dakota (Sioux), the Cheyenne and Arapaho consisted of large areas covered with backgrounds in white or blue beads and figures in blue, green, red, yellow and white.
Around 1885, subjects chosen from life became popular beading themes for men’s jackets, vests and pipe bags. Male figures in war bonnets, horses and the American flag were most often portrayed. Outside influences account for designs which were beaded to order for non-Indian patrons.
Indian Porcupine Quillwork Jewelry
When trade beads became widely available, the centuries old art of porcupine quillwork became less popular, and has nearly been lost, but there are a few young contemporary artists who are reviving this art. Quillwork is mainly associated with Plains Indian tribes, and is used on the same items as beadwork.
Archeological evidence shows that shells and stones were used for adornment as early as 5500 B.C.
Turquoise found in Hohokam excavations in southern Arizona dates back to 200 B.C. Turquoise from central Mexico dates back to about 600–700 B.C.; from South America, ca. 900 B.C. Other beads have been found in even earlier periods.
Prehistoric Indians mined turquoise and turned it into jewelry — primarily drilled beads and other hanging ornaments. However, archeological findings include appliqué on shell and other rock, which means that turquoise was probably used with wood for ear decoration as well.
Turquoise has been dominant in archeological jewelry finds; for example, several thousand pieces were found in Chaco Canyon. However, it is not the only important jewelry find.
The spiny oyster shell, Spondylus princeps, originates in only one area of the Western Hemisphere — off the coast of Baja California.
This shell has been found in abundance in archeological excavations of the Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam of the desert Southwest. It has also been found in the same eastern mound excavations where turquoise was found.
In North America, turquoise is only found as a mineral deposit in a few areas: a limited region of the Southwestern U.S., a small amount in Mexico, and there are some deposits in western South America.
In the US, extensive evidence of prehistoric mining operations has been found in several areas: the Cerillos and Burro Mountain regions of New Mexico, the Kingman and Morenci regions of Arizona, and the Conejos area of Colorado.
Turquoise jewelry found in southern Mexico and in excavated mounds east of the Mississippi has been identified as originating from New Mexico’s Cerillos mining area.
These finds not only prove prehistoric man’s early interest in, and use of jewelry, but it reveals important economic information showing the existence of long distance trading and that these items were valuable enough to carry over long distances.
The Beginning of the Jewelry Silversmith Era
One might argue that this historical context has little to do with the development of Indian jewelry as we know it. However, the Hopi and Pueblo cultures of the Rio Grande are descendants of the Anasazi and, many believe, from the Mogollon and Mimbres. So it seems to be a valid beginning of a historic tracing.
The Navajo, on the other hand, entered the area fairly recently. Some say as early as the 14th century; others, as late as the early 16th. The Navajo, whenever they arrived, were undoubtedly influenced by the existing Pueblo cultures and later by the early Spanish.
It was actually the Navajo who were instrumental in spreading the art of silversmithing to other Southwest tribes. Prior to European contact, north american tribes used silver to make beads, but did not make elaborate jewelry from this metal.
The Navajo were in constant contact with the Spanish as they populated the Southwest from the late 16th century on. From these people, the Indians developed a great appreciation for personal adornment. Some of the early Spanish designs such as the Moorish inspired crescent and the pomegranate blossom became key to Navajo jewelry design.
The Navajo wore ornaments they obtained from those they conquered and from their trading partners. These ornaments were made from German silver (a copper-nickel-zinc substance that is bright and wears well, but contains no actual silver), copper, brass and to a much lesser extent, silver.
Wearing a cross or the crescent-shaped naja on a rawhide necklace was likely an ornament of beauty and pride to the native american indian, who valued it as a jewelry item and symbol of their wealth, not as a reflection of their appreciation for Christianity or for the Moorish influence on the Spanish.
If one person had such an ornament, others were likely to want one, or if possible, something even better. Thus the pendant cross evolved, as did the naja, into a multitude of variations and blends. The simple thong on which they were once displayed gave way to stone, shell, silver, or other metal beads over time.
Atsidi Sani (“Old Smith”) was the first Navajo silversmith. He learned the blacksmith trade in the early 1850s and possibly even dabbled in silver in the early 1860s. The Navajo were captured by the U.S. Cavalry in 1864, and Atsidi Sani and about 8,000 other Navajo, were sent to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico.
Later, in 1868, they were returned to the Four Corners area, to the land called the Dinetah. Although many (including Chee Dodge, the great Navajo leader of that era) accept 1868 as the year Atsidi Sani learned silver making, some evidence suggests that this is not wholly correct.
Major Henry Wallen, the Commandant of Fort Sumner in 1864, made the comment, “Some of them are quite clever as silversmiths.” Of course he may have mistaken German silver for real silver. In any event, Atsidi Sani wears the mantle as the first Navajo silversmith.
The early Navajo silver work concentrated on concha (concho) belts, bracelets, bow guards, tobacco flasks and necklaces. Rings, earrings, pins, hair ornaments, buckles and bolos evolved from these. A full line of silver jewelry existed throughout the reservation by the 1880s.
The earliest Navajo work consisted of hammered work with file decoration. Turquoise, a very popular and much respected stone by the Navajo, appeared in silver jewelry around 1880. Turquoise as a jewelry item had been used for centuries, but prior to this time, it was glued to other stones, shells, and metals.
Atsidi Sani taught his sons silversmithing, and they taught others. The craft appeared in Zuni around 1872. Atsidi Chon (Ugly Smith) taught his close Zuni friend, Lanyade, the skills. The Zuni were already skilled in metalworking, making items in copper, brass, and iron. It is said that Lanyade paid Atsidi Chon “one good horse” for his instruction.
Lanyade learned the trade well. He began touring the various pueblos selling his jewelry. While on Hopi First Mesa at Sichomovi, he taught the first Hopi silversmith, Sikyatala, the skills. Since Lanyade was taught by a Navajo and the Hopi were taught by Lanyade, all the jewelry of the period was Navajo in style.
As a side note, this is why history of origin-ownership is so important for 19th century jewelry in properly identifying its origin. It’s too easy to say that because it looks like Navajo work it is therefore of Navajo origin. This is simply not true.
During these early years, the use of solder was learned and developed, as was the skills of making silver dies. Soldering permitted the artistic and permanent joining of two or more metal pieces, resulting in a multitude of design possibilities and the ability to set stones. Die making was probably adopted from the many leather tooling dies used by Spanish, Mexican, and later Indians, to work both leather and tin.
Over time, the styles that were basically of Navajo origin were gradually modified by their pueblo students. The Zuni, who were excellent lapidaries, slowly changed their work to the fine and channel inlay we now associate with them. However, the Hopi change occurred a bit more abruptly.
In 1938, the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona, working with Hopi silversmiths Paul Saufkie and Fred Kabote, began a program of developing a style that was exclusively Hopi. The “overlay” technique they created involved the cutting of designs in a heavy gauge silver sheet and then soldering this to a solid silver sheet.
The designs were usually adapted from the pottery shards found in the Sikyatki Pueblo ruins of the 15th and 16th centuries. These pre-Hopi designs were mostly bird motifs. The Hopi also used kachina symbols, animal and clan motifs.
Today’s Indian silversmiths
Today’s Indian silversmiths are, in many cases, also goldsmiths and lapidaries. They cross tribal design boundaries with will and abandon. No longer can you look at a piece and say, “It’s Zuni style so it must be Zuni-made.” The artist of today may incorporate into a single piece all the styles available, plus his or her own innovation. Indian jewelry today transcends tribal styles, and may even be contemporary in it’s design style.
The best way to determine what tribe a particular piece of jewelry came from is to verify the tribe the artist belongs to. In modern times, an artist can register a hallmark symbol that can be stamped on the back or inner surface of a piece of jewelry. This mark can be a particular small design, the artist’s initials, or even his/her full surname. This is like a brand, signifying the jewelry piece was made by the particular artist who registered that jewelry mark.
Real sterling silver jewelry may also contain a stamp that says “sterling,” “ss,” or “.925.” Any of these markings verify the item is made from silver that is at least 92.5 % pure silver. Silver jewelry is never 100% silver, or it would be too soft to stand up to wear.
However, not all native american indian jewelry will contain this artist mark or one of the sterling symbols. Many professional artists only sign what they consider to be their best work, and many indian artists on remote reservations never bother to register their mark.
The Meanings of Turquoise
Turquoise has been native to jewelry in the Southwest for over 2000 years. As mentioned earlier, turquoise was a very important item to the early inhabitants of North and South America. The stone was used in religion, art, trade, treaty negotiations, and jewelry. It was considered by some to be associated with life itself.
Turquoise has also been used for medical purposes. These uses varied from land to land and from age to age. Some thought it could prevent injury through accident, prevent blindness (by placing perfect stones over the eyes or ground into a salve) and cure stomach disorders, internal bleeding, and stings from snakes and scorpions, when ingested as a powder.
Turquoise also found its way into the mystic arts. Its color could forecast good or bad, predict the weather, and influence dreams. It was good for nearly every ailment —including insanity. As a good luck talisman, it found usage in nearly every culture.
According to the Pima, turquoise was a talisman of good fortune and strength to renounce ailments. However, if you lost a turquoise you would be afflicted by a physical ailment treatable only by a Medicine Man.
The Zuni believed the blue turquoise was male and of the sky, and that green was female and of the earth. Most Zuni fetishes were either made of turquoise or had turquoise properties such as eyes, mouths, or attachments of turquoise, to give it more power. Turquoise was powerful and important to most early ceremonials.
The Hopi have many traditions regarding turquoise. They adorn their most important fetishes with turquoise to enhance their powers. In one legend, turquoise is the excrement of lizards, an animal that is greatly respected for his above- and below-world connections.
The Hopi believed that turquoise can hold back floods, a common problem in the desert Southwest.
The Apache felt attaching turquoise to a gun or a bow will cause the weapon to shoot straight. It brought rain and could be found at the end of all rainbows. It was key to the strength of their medicine men. Geronimo is said to have always carried a piece of turquoise wherever he went.
According to the Navajo, wearing turquoise brings good fortune and insures favor with the Yeis, who mediate between man and the supernatural. When thrown into a river with the proper ceremonies, turquoise will help bring rain. Turquoise is offered to the Wind Spirit to appease him; the Navajo myth is that when the wind is blowing, it is searching for turquoise.
The Navajo carve fetishes out of turquoise for increased powers and fortunes. Turquoise is the sacred stone and color of the south and the upper world. The “Sacred Mountain of the South,” Mt. Taylor near Grants, New Mexico, is made from a mixture of turquoise and earth. The mountains are inhabited by Turquoise Girl. Turquoise plays many roles in their healing ceremonies and sand paintings.
The Squash Blossom Necklace
The squash blossom necklace is often the cornerstone of Indian jewelry collections. However, this particular necklace style did not exist before the 1880s, at least it wasn’t mentioned by Washington Mathews in his Navajo Silversmiths Second Annual Report, 1880–1881.
The squash blossom necklace itself orginiated with the Navajos. but was adopted by the Zunis who added turquoise on each of the blossoms, which was copied by later Navajo artists. The Navajo word for the “squash blossom” bead is “yo ne maze disya gi,” which means simply “bead that spreads out.” Nothing in the word denoted squash or pomegranate blossom. It is unclear where the squash blossom reference came from.
The principle part of the necklace is the crescent shaped pendent. This was first seen by Southwestern Indians as iron ornaments on the horse bridles of the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s.
These crescent shaped pendants, originally brought from Spain, were called najahe or naja, and reflected the influence of earlier Moorish conquests and the occupation of Spain.
Captured or traded for, these ornaments became popular and the ornament was reproduced in various metals. Because the Navajo wear their finest jewelry during special ceremonies, this necklace became associated with ceremonials. As most ceremonials were related to the agricultural cycle the naja was eventually associated with crop fertility. In earlier times, this ornament was probably worn on a simple rawhide string.
The first Navajo silver beads were large, unornamental and round. From these, more complicated ones developed, such as fluted beads and oval beads. Often dimes and quarters were fastened to a silver shank and strung between the beads. Occasionally these coins were domed, filled and made into beads.
The Navajo and Zuni also used Spanish-Mexican trouser and jacket ornaments, often fashioned to resemble the pomegranate, a common Spanish decorator motif, as beads. Early Navajo “squash blossom” beads show a striking similarity to the Mexican ornament and the pomegranate. Still, despite the similarities, there is quite a bit of doubt that the original Navajo artist attempted to depict this blossom in his bead.
Today, the squash blossom necklace is a favorite of both Navajo and Zuni indians, and the non-indian collectors of native american indian jewelry.
Related links on this site:
A brief history of Indian silver work in the Southwest.
Indian Jewelry Guide.com
Many interesting sections on identifying native american indian jewelry, buying tips, and the history of Navajo jewelry.
American Society of Jewelry Historians
Glossary of jewelry terminology.
Native American Art Museums
Link list to web pages from real, physical institutions you can visit.