History of American Indian Jewelry Making

Published on February 25, 2014 by Amy

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History of American Indian Jewelry Making
History of American Indian Jewelry Making

Although Native Americans were taught to work in silver by Mexican silversmiths during the mid-nineteenth century, they were quick to change in the face of larger non-Indian social demands.

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Navajo Indian Jewelry

For instance, Navajo Indian silversmiths, working from 1870 to 1900, learned the stamping of Indian ornaments from Mexican leather workers, rather than from the silversmiths who had taught them.

Atsidi Sani taught his four sons to craft silver and they, in turn, taught others. Later, in the 1880s, J.L. Hubbell hired several Mexican silversmiths to teach the craft to Navajos at his trading post in Ganado, Arizona. The Navajos learned to cast silver in sandstone or tufa as well as produce hand-hammered work. Turquoise, a traditional favorite of the Navajos, began to be combined with silverwork in their making of American Indian jewelry the 1880s.

J.L. Hubbell capitalized on its popularity by importing Persian turquoise for trade to the Navajos. Eventually, the local supply of turquoise increased as more mines were opened.

Originally, Navajo Indians made silver jewelry for themselves or for other Indians. After 1900, they began to create jewelry for commercial consumption as well. The availability of turquoise and silver, together with better silver working tools, enabled craftsmen to supply the growing market among Indian traders and tourists who were arriving in droves by railroad to visit the Southwest.

Field work by John Adair in the 1930s, working with Navajo informants with memories dating back to the 1870s and 1880s, provided a clearer picture of developments after 1868. Adair research, confirmed by others, identifies Atsis Sani (active 1860s to 1890s, d. 1918?) as the first Navajo to work silver, and another early smith, Atsis Chon (active 1870s to ca. 1900), as the first to set turquoise onto a silver piece.

These smiths taught a number of other Navajo men, spreading knowledge of the craft to various Pueblo neighbors, thus moving the impetus for silversmithing throughout the Southwestern region.

Atsidi Sani’s younger brother, Slender Maker of silver (active 1880s to 1890s, d. 1916), has been credited with numerous innovations in silver and stonework design during the 1880s and 1890s. Early Navajo works from the 1870s are generally clean, plain silver pieces, marked by simple surface decoration (punched and stamped).

Some of the more commonly used designs may have been derived from Spanish colonial horse gear and male dress ornamentation. Lapidary work increased during the 1890s; more and more Navajo pieces were set with clusters of turquoise as this material became more available from regional mines, and heavy pieces with well-balanced decoration developed with late nineteenth-century jewelry.

One of the Navajo artisans’ greatest innovations was in their inventive use of die stamping for decorative effect, with many smiths devising their own handmade stamps, which were often passed down through the enerations. Navajo smiths often made silver settings, known as “blanks,” that were then set with stones by Zuni (or Pueblo) lapidarists.

The early twentieth century brought improved tools and techniques and introduced commercially produced materials. Commercialism influenced Navajo jewelry-making as early as the 1910s and 1920s, when Indian Traders and railroad vendors, such as the Fred Harvey Company, offered incentives

Zuni Indian Jewelry

The pueblo of Zuni Native American Indians is located in western New Mexico (south of Gallup) near the Arizona border. Jewelry-making is the major craft industry of the village. Like other Pueblo peoples, Zuni Indian artisans possess a true talent for lapidary work.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many Zuni Indian craftspeople learned silversmithing as well. Evidence points to Lanyade as the first Zuni Indian to learn to work Silver, sometime around 1872. He instructed other village men, and later raveled to Hopi Indian where he taught their first smiths.

The number of Zuni Indian men and women engaged in silversmithing and lapidary work steadily increased as the twentieth century progressed. There is documentation to support the belief that one silversmith, Keneshde, was the first Zuni Indian to set turquoise on a piece of silver jewelry around 1890.

However, early Zuni Indian jewelry-making efforts often took the form of collaborations between Navajos and Zuni Indians, in which a Navajo smith would cast a silver piece-by sandcasting or another method-and a Zuni Indian lapidarist would set in the stones. Zuni Indian was also the site of much Indian trader. The best documented of these individuals was C.G. Wallace, who stimulated sales and new directions for Zuni Indian jewelry.

At the start of the twentieth century, beadmaker Zuni Indian Dick was well known for teaching turquoise grinding and shaping for personal adornment, and he often appears in the photographs of visiting ethnographers and recorders of life in Zuni Indian Pueblo.

Hopi Indian Jewelry

Jewelry created by members of the Hopi Indian Native American Indian tribe, whose traditional homeland is on three isolated mesas in northern Arizona; the major Hopi Indian villages are Walpi (on First Mesa); Shungopovi, Mishongnovi, and Shipaulovi (Second Mesa); Oraibi (Third Mesa); and the farming community of Moencopi to the west of Third Mesa.

Much of Hopi Indian jewelry is done in Overlay style. In the mid- to late 1930s, Hopi Indian jewelry was promoted and championed by the Museum of Northern Arizona in nearby Flagstaff. The publication of Frank Waters’s The Book of the Hopi Indian (1963), reignited non-native interest in the Hopi Indian world-view, with its descriptions of legends, rituals, and ceremonies.

Before their first contacts with Europeans, Hopi Indians fashioned jewelry from bone, seeds, shell, and local stones (including turquoise, according to ancestral ways.

Metalsmithing techniques, including silversmithing, came to Hopi Indian somewhat later than to other Southwest tribes. Prior to the mid- to late nineteenth century, Hopi Indian’s geographical remoteness precluded sustained local trade with Anglo traders.

The earliest Hopi Indian metal ornaments were usually items salvaged from discarded brass bullet cartridges and copper wire. The first silversmith Sikyatala of Walpi (First Mesa), learned the process from Lanyade after visiting him in Zuni Indian around 1898.

Lanyade accompanied Sikyatala back to Hopi Indian; soon, various men from First and Second Mesa, including Duwakuku and Tawahonganiwa (whose four sons also became smiths) were learning the craft in the first years of the 1900s. The earliest Hopi Indian silver jewelry was little different from Navajo and Pueblo work.

Hopi Indian’s lack of traders and distance from sizable towns and cities made the economics and promotion of such works difficult, particularly once the Great Depression started in 1929.

Nevertheless, there were sufficient examples of jewelry from the early twentieth century, along with other objects of Hopi Indian material culture, that were gathered into major museum collections in the eastern United States, such as those at Harvard University (Peabody Museum), Yale University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the University of Pennsylvania.

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