What is the meaning of Indian jewelry?


Last Updated: 4 years


I have been searching for information on the significance of Lakota jewelry in the past. I am a teacher and during watching a film on Lewis & Clark, which included some references to the Lakota, some students were very interested in the pictures of the beautiful bear claw necklaces, etc. They wanted to know what the jewelry really meant. So far, I’ve had no luck with internet searches. Can you help?
~Submitted by Jewell S.


Hi J,

The choice of material for necklaces in the Lakota (and most other tribes) was generally a personal one. They believed in spirit guides or totem animals, and each type of animal, root, stone, tree, and plant was thought to have different properties or skills or life lessons that were passed on to the person with that “medicine.”

Animal Jewelry

In the Lakota philosophy, all things both animate and inanimate are living beings and they all have their own medicine or powers and lessons to teach. A native person would often carry something from their personal guides or totems in a medicine bag or bundle because they felt it empowered them or protected them in some way. This belief often extended to their choices of personal adornment.

For example, bears generally represent medicine and healing as a totemic entity in the Lakota tribe.

Spirit guides could be aquired in several different ways. An animal or plant might come to the person in the form of a vision during a vision quest, (the most powerful), or be taken on as a guide after a significant encounter with a particular animal, or after dreaming of it in a particularly vivid dream in natural sleep. 

Persons who went on a vision quest and didn’t have a vision (about 2/3 of those who sought a vision didn’t have one) could buy the right to use the properties of a particular totem from someone who had received that power thru the vision quest.

A Lakota who survived a bear attack, or killed a bear, particularly in hand-to-hand combat, would probably believe the bear sacrificed it’s life to give it’s powers to the warrior, so he would be very likely to make a necklace from the claws or a headdress from the bear’s head, or wear clothing made of bear fur, etc. 

He might call upon the powers of the bear to give him bravery in battle, or more likely, to help him locate medicinal plants for different illnesses, or food plants, etc. Bears have a particular tendancy to seek out roots and berries, so those are the plant parts that would probably have medicinal powers used by a person with bear medicine.

If you study how different animals act in nature, whether they are pack animals or loners, hunters or prey, timid or aggressive, always working or rather lazy, etc you will begin to see the different powers they possess and can impart to the person who has them as a spirit guide. 

Totem animals help to teach life lessons to the individual that he/she needs to learn. If you are a loner, a pack animal might come to you to teach you how to interact with others of your species. If you are quick to anger, a patient animal might cross your path to teach you patience and humility. If you are too quiet and afraid to speak your opinion, a song bird might come to show you how to find your voice, etc.

If the same kind of animal frequently crosses your path, or you see it in environments or places where it is rare to encounter that animal, it may be a totem animal trying to get your attention and give you guidance, if you will listen.

Turquoise Jewelry

Turquoise has been mined and used for adornment by native american tribes for at least 1,000 years. Geronimo wore a turquoise nugget and thought it protected him from bullets. But turquoise jewelry did not become widely popular until the Reservation Era began, when a few tribal members learned the art of silversmithing and used turquoise in their work, mainly because it was plentiful in the areas where they lived.

When they realized they could support their families selling this jewelry to the tourist trade, it became a popular art form, particularly in the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo tribes.

While the Lakota counted their wealth mostly in horses, in the Navajo tribe, silver and turquoise jewelery eventually became the most common symbol of personal wealth. Even today, many older Navajo women wear their squash blossom necklaces and multiple heavy silver bracelets and rings on every important occasion, some on a daily basis.

Beaded Jewelry

Beadwork patterns from various tribes are usually based on symbolism that has been common to that tribe for hundreds of years. Geometric patterns are common, as are animal symbols.

color combinations are usually favored by a particular tribe over another. Sometimes certain colors represent specific elements like the sky and sun, and some patterns represent specific life entities or events or cycles. 

Other times, specific colors were common in a tribe because that is what was available from the traders who visited that area, and over time, those colors became traditional. The Lakota have a preference for colors in the blue pallete, while Blackfeet beadwork usually contains shades of yellow or orange, for example.

However, in modern times, I have even seen traditional dancers with bead patterns such as Tweety Bird on their regalia, which clearly is more of a personal choice than a tradition or totem representation.

Just like everyone else, native americans sometimes select jewelry just because it is pretty and appeals to them, or they are fond of a particular character, and it has no meaning beyond that. 


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