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.

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. It is important to note that turquoise, as a jewelry item, had existed for centuries. It had been used in combination with other stones, shells, and metals long before 1880. However, the early Indians glued or otherwise attached the turquoise to the stone, shell or metal. It is known that Mexican silversmiths (plateros) toured the pueblos and Navajo enclaves in the early to mid 1800s selling and trading silver jewelry for Indian products. This is the likely origin of silver ornamentation in the Indian possession prior to about 1860. It is fairly certain that there was no indigenous Navajo or pueblo silver industry.

Early Navajo smiths used Mexican and U.S. coins for their silver. Often, if they were given a special order from a trader, local rancher, or businessman, they would receive silver in the form of candlesticks, tea pots, etc. to melt for their work. The Navajo preferred to use melted Mexican silver coins because they were easiest to work (.90275 fine). The next preferable source was whatever sterling silver was available (.9025 fine). Least desirable, but most available and durable, was silver from melted U.S. coins (.900 fine). In 1890, the U.S. made it unlawful to melt or deface (by soldering on hooks, eyes, jump rings or by “doming”) coins for beads. However, this was difficult to enforce, and U.S. coinage continued to be used in the developing Navajo silver industry. Now that there was a demand for materials and tools, the reservation traders began to stock many of the needed items. Although the Navajo were able to make flux from native materials, the commercial flux was superior. Likewise, commercial cutting, grinding, and fine polishing tools were more desirable than homemade ones. This was the beginning of a new economy involving the Indians, traders, and eastern suppliers.

Very shortly after Atsidi Sani began silversmithing, the craft spread across the area. He taught his sons 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. Research shows that a forge existed in Zuni in 1852. It is reported (see Rosneck and Stacy) 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 provenance (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.

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.

As the years progressed, the styles that were basically of Navajo origin were gradually modified by their pueblo students. For example, the Zuni, since prehistoric times, were excellent lapidaries. These skills 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 work was interrupted by World War II. Following the war, a government grant helped a silversmith training program with the Hopi Guild. 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 Guild also used kachina symbols, animal and clan motifs.

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.

References / Recommended Readings 

John Adair, The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths, University of Oklahoma Press, 1944.

Margery Bedinger, Indian Silver, Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers, University of New Mexico Press, 1973.

M.G. Brown, Blue Gold, The Turquoise Story, Main Street Press, Anaheim, CA, 1975.

Larry Frank, Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Westchester, Pennsylvania, 1990.

The International Turquoise Annuals, vol. I and II, 1975 and 1976 (only two published) Impart Pub, Reno, NV. Note in vol. I the article on pages 31–55 by D. Allen Penick, “Turquoise, the Mineral that’s an Accident.”

Carl Rosnek and Joseph Stacy, Skystone and Silver, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976.

Joseph E. Poque, Ph.D, The Turquoise, A report to the National Academy of Science, vol. XII, Second and Third Memoir, 1915. Reprinted in 1974 by Rio Grande Press, Inc., Glorieta, NM. (This reprint includes a foreword and details on Southwestern turquoise mines by Rex Arrowsmith and an excellent reference list. )

Stuart A. Northrop, Turquoise and Spanish Mines in New Mexico, University of New Mexico, Press, 1975.

Stuart A. Northrop, David L. Newman, David H. Snow, Turquoise, reprinted by General Printing and Paper Co., Topeka, KS. A reprint from El Palacio, vol. 79, No. 1, 1973, Museum of New Mexico.

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