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Fancy Jewelry Article

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

The History of American Indian Jewelry

The History of American Indian Jewelry
An article by Lee Anderson

“Indian jewelry,” as we call it today, probably has origins that predate the advent of the persons we describe as American Indians or Native Americans. However, for the purpose of this paper, we will consider prehistoric man as prehistoric Indian. Archeological evidence shows us that stones (including turquoise), shells, and fetishes predate the Christian (epoch). Turquoise found in Hohokam excavations in southern Arizona dates back to 200 B.C. Likewise, turquoise from central Mexico dates back to about 600–700 B.C.; from South America, ca. 900 B.C. Other beads are even earlier. Since Indian jewelry and turquoise are so closely associated, this paper will discuss both.

Turquoise, as a mineral deposit, is isolated to a rather limited geographical area in the Southwestern U.S. Some — very little — is found in Mexico, and there are some deposits in western South America. We will concentrate on that found in the U.S.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 (the wood would have deteriorated). 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. This article focuses on Southwestern mining localities.

Turquoise has been dominant in 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. These finds not only prove early and prehistoric man’s interest in, and use of, jewelry, but it reveals important economic information. It shows the existence of trading in his lifestyle. It also provides a glimpse into probable status levels of these people.

One might argue that this historical context has little to do with the development of Indian jewelry as we know it. However, as some (the Hopi and Pueblo cultures of the Rio Grande) are indeed descendants of the Anasazi and, as 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) the early Spanish. As we will see, the Navajo were instrumental in spreading this craft to other Southwest tribes.

The Navajo were nomadic within their Dinetah or homeland. They were farmers only to the extent of planting a crop, leaving it to the vagaries of the weather, and eventually returning to reap the harvest, if any. They and their Apache cousins could be likened to the early Mongols of the 12th and 13th centuries. They not only raided but also took, kept, and developed whatever suited them. Beaded necklaces (a symbol of prestige), decorated “ketoh” (bow guards), and concha/concho likely originated from their most frequent conquests, the Spanish and their Pueblo neighbors.

The Navajo were in constant contact — sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly — 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. This is discussed later in the section on the origin of the Squash Blossom necklace.


In time, the Spanish became dominant in the area. Although raids continued into the 19th century, the period was better described as one of “suspicious-cautious coexistence.” It was a 200-plus-year period of close association and sharing of the best of several cultures. 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 was bright and wore well), copper, brass and to a much lesser extent, silver. They learned to appreciate and hold dear the symbols of their prowess or their wealth. The early Navajos’ wearing a cross or the crescent-shaped naja on a rawhide necklace was likely an ornament of beauty and pride, not a reflection of their appreciation for Christianity or for the Moorish influence on the Spanish. If one person had such an ornament, others wanted one —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 displayed gave way to stone, shell, silver, or other metal beads.

The studies vary regarding the actual date that the Navajo began making silver jewelry. The two best works are by John Adair; subsequent research and writings are by Carl Rosnek and Joseph Stacy (see suggested reading list). All seem to agree that Atsidi Sani (“Old Smith”) was the accepted first Navajo silversmith. He learned the blacksmith trade in the early 1850s and possibly even dabbled in silver in the early 1860s.

After much warfare, the Navajo were captured by the U.S. Cavalry and marched into captivity in 1864. Approximately 8000, including Atsidi Sani, were sent to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, where they were weaned from a nomadic, warlike lifestyle and taught to be farmers. The experiment failed and in 1868 they were returned to the Four Corners area, the Dinetah. Although many accept 1868, including the great Navajo leader of the time, Chee Dodge, 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 tantalizing 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.

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