Native American Jewelry: A Memoir

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Renowned for its distinctive style and designs, Native American jewelry has been in the making since the earliest times of the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, and Anasazi. Authentic Native American jewelry is a work of art, crafted by indigenous artisans who took inspiration from the world around them, their spiritual beliefs, legends, as well as the culture of the individual regions. 

Since its Native American Heritage Month, we wanted to honor them with a walk down the prestigious history of Native American jewelry. Let’s dive right in, shall we? 

An ancient art form 

The year is 10,000 BC. You’ll see Paleo-Indians and other Native American tribes using stones, shells, bones, antlers, feathers, and other materials to create jewelry. When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they introduced the indigenous peoples to strange (read: European) forms of jewelry-making and materials.  

It is also believed that the technique of silversmithing came into the picture not long after this. There is also evidence of turquoise being used. In fact, turquoise was considered lucky. The Pima and the Navajo thought it to bring good fortune, while the Pueblo Indians believed that its color was stolen from the sky. This is why shells and turquoise were strung together with feathers and hung everywhere. Bracelets and necklaces made from yarn, sinew, and leather were also seen during this period.  

Their creative methods and materials were passed between tribes. For instance, in the 1870s, the Zunis included silver into their jewelry after adopting it from the Spanish. This knowledge soon travelled to and was adopted by the Navajo, the Hopi, and the Apache, among others.  

A business formula 

Much of what is recognized as Native American jewelry today, comes from the Arizona and New Mexico regions. Now traditionally, Native American jewelry was used to display their history, ranks, and individuality. However, they soon travelled from Mexico and the Pacific region into the Southwest via the ancient trade route that existed at the time. 

When money was hard to come by during the World War II, Native Americans used petrified wood to make and sell jewelry. Turquoise was scarcely found on the reservation, so they used whatever was available to hammer the wood they collected. Silversmiths used to hone down their stones on buckskin. Electricity was unavailable, so polishing became almost impossible, so they used facial oils and pants to achieve their final finish. 

A new dawn 

The Native American jewelry is synonymous with the beliefs of the indigenous people. Tourism and trade increased their market presence, especially at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, the Zuni is the largest of New Mexico’s pueblos with almost 80 percent of households earning their livelihood through the production of jewelry. This includes a massive use of silver, turquoise, corals, and even precious gems. 

The Native Indian jewelry is an art that is celebrated to this day and will continue to be in the generations to come. However, the Native American artisans of today aren’t creating the same kind of jewelry as their ancestors. They’ve turned into contemporary artists with the influence of technology and modern trends, which they merge with their traditional designs to honor their past.

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