Native American jewelry

Native American jewelry

Native American jewelry is the personal adornment, often in the forms of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, pins, brooches, labrets, and others, made by the Indigenous peoples of the United States. Native American jewelry reflects the cultural diversity and history of its makers. Native American tribes continue to develop distinct aesthetics rooted in their personal artistic visions and cultural traditions. Artists create jewelry for adornment, ceremonies, and trade. Lois Sherr Dubin writes, "[i]n the absence of written languages, adornment became an important element of Indian communication, conveying many levels of information." Later, jewelry and personal adornment "...signaled resistance to assimilation. It remains a major statement of tribal and individual identity."[1]

Metalsmiths, beaders, carvers, and lapidaries combine a variety of metals, hardwoods, precious and semi-precious gemstones, beadwork, quillwork, teeth, bones, hide, vegetal fibers, and other materials to create jewelry. Contemporary Native American jewelry ranges from hand-quarried and processed stones and shells to computer-fabricated steel and titanium jewelry.

Bai-De-Schluch-A-Ichin or Be-Ich-Schluck-Ich-In-Et-Tzuzzigi (Slender Silversmith) "Metal Beater," Navajo silversmith, photo by George Ben Wittick, 1883



While Native artists continue to incorporate new materials and techniques into their work, jewelry in the Americas has an ancient history. Beginning as far back as 8800 BCE, Paleo-Indians in the Southwest drilled and shaped multicolored stones and shells into beads and pendants.[2] Olivella shell beads, dating from 6000 BCE, were found in Nevada; bone, antler, and possibly marine shell beads from 7000 BCE were found in Russell Cave in Alabama; copper jewelry was traded from Lake Superior beginning in 3000 BCE; and stone beads were carved in Poverty Point in Louisiana in 1500 BCE.[3]

Necklaces of Heishe beads, that is, shell ground into flat discs, have been discovered in ancient ruins. Remnants of the seashells they used to make beads were also found. Oyster shell, mother of pearl, abalone, conch and clam have been important trade items in the southwest for over a thousand years.

Native beadwork was advanced in the pre-Columbian era. Beads were made from hand-ground and filed turquoise, coral, and shell. Carved wood, animal bones, claws, and teeth were made into beads, which were then sewn onto clothing or strung into necklaces.[4][5] Turquoise is one of the dominant materials of Southwestern Native American jewelry. Thousands of pieces were found in the Ancestral Pueblo sites at Chaco Canyon. Some turquoise mines date back to Precolumbian times, and Ancestral Pueblo peoples traded the turquoise with Mesoamericans. Some turquoise found in southern Arizona dates back to 200 BCE.[6][7]

Great Plains

Nickel silver comb by Bruce Caesar (Pawnee-Sac and Fox, 1984) Oklahoma History Center

Plains Indians are most known for their beadwork. Beads date back on the Great Plains at least to 8800 BCE, when a circular, incised lignite bead was left at the Lindenmeier Site in Colorado.[8] Shells such as marginella and olivella shells were traded from the Gulf of Mexico and the coasts of California into the Plains since 100 CE.[8] Mussel shell gorgets, dentalia, and abalone were prized trade items for jewelry.[9]

Bones provided material for beads as well, especially long, cylindrical beads called hair pipes, which were extremely popular from 1880–1910, although still very common in powwow regalia today. These are used in chokers, breastplates, earrings, and necklaces worn by women and men.[10]

Porcupine quillwork is a traditional embellishment for textiles on the northern Plains, but quillwork is also used in creating bracelets, earrings, hatbands, belt buckles, and hairclips, as well as umbilical cord fetishes. Glass beads, first introduced to the Plains as early as 1700, were used in decoration in all the ways quillwork was used, but they never fully replaced quillwork, and several award-winning quillworkers are active in the art world today, such as Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty (Assiniboine-Sioux).[11]

Metal jewelry came to the Plains through Spanish and Mexican metalsmiths and trade with tribes from other regions. Southern Plains adopted metalsmithing in the 1820s. They typically cut, stamped, and cold hammered German silver, a nickel alloy.[12] Plains men adopted metal pectorals and armbands.[13] In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, members of the Native American Church revealed their membership to others through pins with emblems of peyote buttons, water bird, and other religious symbols.[14] Bruce Caesar (Sac and Fox-Pawnee) is one of the most prolific Southern Plains metalsmiths active today and was awarded the NEA's National Heritage Fellowship in 1998.[15] US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) is an accomplished silversmith.[16]

Northeastern Woodlands

Contemporary wampum beads made Elizabeth James Perry (Wampanoag-Eastern Cherokee)

Before European contact and at least 1500 years ago indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands produced barrel-shaped and discoidal shell beads, as well as perforated small whole shells. The earliest beads are larger when compared to later beads and those of wampum, with hand drilled holes. The use of the more slender iron drills much improved drilling.

"Wampum" is a Wampanoag word referring to the white shells of the channeled whelk shell. The term now refers to both those and the purple beads from quahog clamshells.[17] Wampum workshops were located among the Narragansett tribe, an Algonquian people located along the southern New England coast. The Narragansett tribal bead makers were buried with wampum supplies and tools to finish work in progress in the afterlife.

Narragansett favored teardrop shaped shell pendants, and the claw pendants made of purple shell were worn by Iroquois in the Hudson Valley, around the Connecticut River. The Seneca and Munsee made shell pendants with drilled columns, decorated with a circular shell called a runtee. Whelk shells were carved into bird, turtle, fish, and other shaped pendants, as well as ear spools.[18]

Carved stone pendants in the Northeastern Woodlands date back as far as the Hopewell tradition from 1—400 CE. Bird motifs were common, ranging from the stylized heads of raptors to ducks.[19] Carved shells and incised animal bear, especially bear teeth, have been popular for pendants. Historically pearls are incorporated into necklace and bear teeth have been inlaid with pearls.[20] Seneca and other Iroquois carved small pendants with human faces, believed to be protective amulets, from bone, wood, and stone, including catlinite.[21]

Iroquois artists have carved ornamental hair combs from antlers, often from moose, since 2000 BCE. The combs are topped with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic imagery. These became more elaborate after the introduction of metal knives from Europe in the late 16th and 17th centuries.[22]

In the Northeast Woodlands and Great Lakes regions, rectangular gorgets have been carved from slate and other stones, dating back to the late archaic period.[23]

Copper was worked in precontact times, but Europeans introduced silversmithing to the northeast in the mid-17th century. Today several Iroquois silversmiths are active. German silver is more popular among Great Lakes silversmiths.[24]

Northwest Coast

Haida silver bracelet featuring an American eagle, ca. 1900, Seattle Art Museum

In the past, walrus ivory was an important material for carving bracelets and other items. In the 1820s, a major argillite quarry was discovered on Haida Gwaii, and this stone proved easier to carve that ivory or bone and was adopted as a carving material.[25] Venetian glass seed beads were introduced in great numbers by Russian traders in the late 18th century, as part of the fur trade. Red and amber were the most popular colors, followed by blue. Historical Chinese coins with defenestrated section were strung as beads.[26]

Copper, initially traded from tribes near the Coppermine River in the interior, was worked into jewelry since before European contact.[27] Later silver and gold became popular materials for jewelry. Bracelets in particular are hammered and then carved with heraldic or mythic designs and given away at potlatches. Northwest Coast jewelers increasingly use repoussé techniques in metalworking.[28] Charles Edenshaw (Haida, 1839–1920) and Bill Reid (Haida, 1920–1998) were highly influential Northwest Coast jewelers.

Dentalium shells have been traditional beads, used in necklaces, earrings, and other adornment. Kwakwaka'wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth people used to harvest the shell from the waters off Vancouver Island,[29] but that stock is depleted and today most dentalia are harvested from southeast Asia. Abalone shell provides beads and jewelry. High-ranking women traditionally wore large abalone shell earrings.[30]

Today Haida and Tlingit basket weavers often create miniature red cedar, yellow cedar, and spruce root baskets to be worn as pendants or earrings.

Southeastern Woodlands

Contemporary Shell gorget carved by Bennie Pokemire (Eastern Band Cherokee)

In the Mississippian culture of the Southeast, dating from 800 BCE to 1500 CE, clay, stone, and pearl beads were worn. Shell gorgets were incised with bold imagery from the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. These are still carved today by several Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee jewelers. Long-nosed god maskettes were made from bone, copper and marine shells. These are small shield-shaped faces with squared-off foreheads, circular eyes, and large noses of various lengths. They are often shown on SECC representations of falcon impersonators as ear ornaments.[31] Before Europeans brought glass beads to the southeast in the 16th century, pearls and Job's tears were popular materials for necklaces. Ear spools of stone, or sometimes wood overlaid with copper foil, were popular, and many have been found at Spiro Mounds from 1100-1400 CE.[32]

European contact introduced glass beads and silversmithing technology. Silver and brass armbands and gorgets became popular among Southeastern men in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sequoyah was an 18-19th century Cherokee silversmith. Until the 19th century, Choctaw men wore horsehair collars when playing stickball. Choctaw women's dance regalia incorporates ornamental silver combs and openwork beaded collars.[33] Caddo women wear hourglass-shaped hair ornaments, called dush-tohs when dancing.[34]


The Southwest is especially known for its silverwork. Southwest jewelry includes designs of channel inlay, cluster, mosaic, and petite point and materials of shell, gemstones and beads. While the Navajo favored the squash blossom necklace, they often also combined turquoise, coral, and other semi-precious gemstones. They were set into silver scrolls, leaf patterns, and strung on cord for necklaces.

Heishe necklaces have been made by several southwest tribes since ancient times. The word "heishe" comes from the Santo Domingo word for "shell."[35] A single heishe is a rolled bead of shell, turquoise, or coral, which is cut very thin. Shells used for heishe included mother-of-pearl, spiny oyster, abalone, coral, conch and clam. Tiny, thin heishe was strung together by the Santo Domingo to create necklaces, which were important trade items.[36]

Silverworking was adopted by Native Southwest artists beginning in the 1850s, when Mexican silversmiths had to trade their silverwork for cattle from the Navajo. The Zuni admired the silver jewelry made by the Navajos, so they began trading livestock for instruction in working silver. By 1890, the Zuni had taught the Hopi how to make silver jewelry.[37]


Both Apache men and women have traditionally worn a variety of jewelry. Earrings and bracelets were strung beads of shell and turquoise. Some bracelets are made of silver, and rings have been brass or silver. Apache women tend to wear more necklaces, from chokers to strung beads of abalone and other shells, turquoise, jet, stones, glass beads, and certain seeds, such as mountain laurel seeds,[38] and event plant roots. Necklaces often featured abalone shell pendants.[39] When trade beads became available from Europeans and European-Americas, Apache women were many layers of string glass bead necklaces. Mirrors obtained from traders were worn as pendants.[38]

An Apache jeweler can use any color but traditional favorite color combinations including black and white, red and yellow, or pale blue and dark blue.[39] The beadwork of Plains tribes influenced eastern Apaches tribes.[38] Even today, young Apache girls wear necklaces with scratching sticks and drinking tubes during their puberty ceremonies.[40]

San Carlos Apache jewelers are known for their use of peridot, a green gemstone, in silver bolo ties, necklaces, earrings, and other jewelry.[41]


Sikyatata became the first Hopi silversmith in 1898.[42] Hopi Indian silversmiths today are known for their overlay technique used in silver jewelry designs. The scarcity of silver kept the primary jewelry components used by the Hopi to shell and stone until the 1930s and 1940s, and very few Hopi knew how to work silver.

In 1946, Willard Beatty, director of the Indian Education for the US Department of the Interior, saw an exhibit of Hopi art and was inspired to develop a silversmithing program for Hopi veterans of World War II. The veterans learned cutting, grinding and polishing, as well as die-stamping and sand casting of stylized Hopi designs. The students then taught fellow tribesmen silversmithing, which they used to stylize traditional designs from the decorative patterns of old pottery and baskets.

The Museum of Northern Arizona encouraged the early silversmiths to develop their own style, district from neighboring tribes. Victor Coochwytewa was one of the most innovative jewelers, who is often credited with adapting the overlay technique to Hopi jewelry, along with Paul Saufkie and Fred Kabotie. The Hopi Silvercraft Cooperative Guild was organized by these early students.[43] Saufkie's son Lawrence continued making silver overlay jewelry for more than 60 years.

Overlay involves two layers of silver sheets. One sheet has the design etched into it, and then is soldered onto the second sheet with cut out designs. The background is made darker through oxidation, and the top layer is polished where the bottom layer of silver is allowed to oxidize. The top un-oxidized top layer is made into a cutout design, which allows the dark bottom layer to show through. This technique is still in use today in silver jewelry.

Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma (1921–1991) transformed mid-20th century Native American jewelry by winning major awards with his work that incorporated new materials and techniques. Loloma was the first to use gold and to inlay multiple stones within a piece of jewelry, which completely changed the look of Hopi jewelry.[44]


Contemporary Navajo bracelets with turquoise
Silver overlay bolo tie by Navajo silversmith, Tommy Singer

Navajo people began working with silver in the 19th century. Atsidi Sani, or "Old Smith," a blacksmith, is credited as being the first Navajo silversmith. He learned silversmithing from a Mexican friend in the 1850s.[45]

Early Navajo silverwork did not have added gemstones. Decorations were made with punches or dies in designs copied from Mexican leather tooling. Early Navajo silversmiths used leather stamps on their silver.

Navajo jewelers began sand casting silver around 1875. Silver was melted and then poured into a mold, which was carved from sandstone. When cooled and set, the piece required a great deal of filing and smoothing. Sometimes cast jewelry was also engraved.

Turquoise is closely associated with Navajo jewelry, but it was not until 1880 that the first turquoise was known to be set in silver. Turquoise became much more readily available in ensuing decades. Coral and other semi-precious stones became common in 1900. Sterling silver jewelry was soldered and surrounded by scrolls, beads and leaf patterns. Navajo jewelers are known for squash blossom necklaces, which features silver beads that resemble blossoms from the squash plant.[46]

Sheet copper and copper wire from European-American traders also was made into jewelry. Very few tools are employed and are simple to make. The bellows consist of a skin bag about a foot long, held open with wooden hoops. It is provided with a valve and a nozzle. A forge, crucibles, an anvil, and tongs are used during the melting process. Molds, the matrix and die, cold chisels, scissors, pliers, files, awls, and emery paper also come into play. A soldering outfit, consisting of a blowpipe, and a torch made of oil-soaked rags, used with borax, is manipulated by the skillful smith. The silversmith used a grinding stone, sandstone dust, and ashes for polishing the jewelry, and a salt called almogen was used for whitening.

The Navajo silversmiths made buckles, bridles, buttons, rings, canteens, hollow beads, earrings, crescent-shaped pendants called "najas," bracelets, crosses, powder chargers, tobacco boxes, and disks used on belts.

In 1903, anthropologist Uriah Hollister wrote about the Navajo. He said, "Belts and necklaces of silver are their pride... They are so skillful and patient in hammering and shaping that a fairly good-shaped teaspoon is often made of a silver dollar without melting and casting."[47]

Santo Domingo Pueblo

Santo Domingo Pueblo, located on the Rio Grande is particularly known for heishe necklaces, as well as a style of necklace consisting of tear-shaped, flat "tabs" strung on heishe shell or turquoise beads. The tabs were made from bone inset with a design in the traditional mosaic style using bits of turquoise, jet, and shell. These beautiful, colorful necklaces are also sometimes identified as Depression jewelry, but they were certainly made earlier than that, and are still made today.

Gail Bird is a contemporary Santo Domingo jeweler, known for her collaborations with Navajo jeweler Yazzie Johnson and their themed concha belts.[48]


Zuni jewelry-making dates back to Ancestral Pueblo prehistory. Early Zuni lapidaries used stone and antler tools, wooden drills with flake stone or cactus spine drillbits, abrading tools of wood and stone, sand for smoothing, and fiber cords for stringing.[49]

With the exception of silver jewelry, which was introduced to Zuni Pueblo in the 19th century, most of the materials commonly worked by Zuni jewelry makers in the 20th century have always been in use in the Zuni region. These include turquoise, jet, argillite, steatite, red shale, freshwater clam shell, abalone, and spiny oyster.[50]

Since precontact times, Zuni carve stone and shell fetishes, which they trade with other tribes and even non-Natives. Fetishes are carved from turquoise, amber, shell, or onyx. Today, Zuni bird fetishes are often set with heishe beads in multi-strand necklaces.[51]

Lanyade became the first Zuni silversmith in 1872.[42] Kineshde, a Zuni smith of the late 1890s, is credited for first combining silver and turquoise in his jewelry.[52] Zuni jewelers soon became known for their clusterwork.

Following the Sitgreaves Expedition in 1854, Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves illustrated a Zuni forge, which was still in use in the early part of the 20th century. The forge was made from adobe. Bellows were hand made from animal skins. made of two skin bags. Silver was cast in sandstone molds, and finished by tooling as opposed to engraving Thin sheets of silver were cut with scissors and shears.[53]

The establishment of the railroad, with the accompanying tourist trade and the advent of trading posts heavily influenced Zuni and other Southwest tribes' jewelry. In the early 20th century, trader C.G. Wallace influenced the direction of Zuni silver and lapidary work to appeal to a non-Native audience. Wallace was aided by the proliferation of the automobile and interstate highways such as Route 66 and I-40, and promotion of tourism in Gallup and Zuni. [50] Wallace employed local Zuni people as clerks, jewelry makers, and miners. He provided tools, equipment, and silversmithing supplies to the jewelers with whom he did business. Wallace influenced Zuni art by encouraging the use of specific materials that sold well at his posts, such as coral, and discouraging others, such as tortoise shell. [50]

Wallace provided large chunks of turquoise to Zuni artists, giving them the opportunity to carve figures in the round. Wallace also encouraged the increased production and improvement of small-stone techniques like needlepoint and petit point in the hope that these styles would thwart the production of machine-made jewelry. He also urged jewelers to experiment with silver construction to satisfy his customers' preferences for lightweight jewelry. [50]

See also


  1. ^ Dubin, 17
  2. ^ Dubin 466
  3. ^ Dubin, 29
  4. ^ Adair
  5. ^ Morgan, William Henry. League of the Ho-D-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois. Volume 2. 1851
  6. ^ Anderson, Lee. (n.d.). "The History of American Indian Jewelry."
  7. ^ 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. 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. 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.
  8. ^ a b Dubin 239
  9. ^ Dubin 241
  10. ^ Ewers, John C. "The Substitution of the Bone Hair Pipe." Hair Pipes in Plains Indian Adornment: A Study in Indian and White Ingenuity. (retrieved 6 Aug 2011)
  11. ^ Indyke, Dottie. Juanita Growing Thunder-Fogarty. Southwest Art. (retrieved 6 Aug 2011)
  12. ^ Dubin 284
  13. ^ Dubin 285
  14. ^ Dubin 291
  15. ^ "Lifetime Honors: Bruce Caesar." National Endowment for the Arts. (retrieved 6 Aug 2011)
  16. ^ Strogoff, Jody Hope and Ernest Luning. "InnerView with Ben Nighthorse Campbell." Colorado Statesman. 25 March 2011 (retrieved 6 Aug 2011)
  17. ^ Dubin, 170-171
  18. ^ Dubin 169, 174
  19. ^ Dubin 157
  20. ^ Dubin 158
  21. ^ Dubin 168
  22. ^ Dubin 166-7
  23. ^ Bostrom, Peter A. "Two Hole Gorgets." 31 May 2007 (retrieved 4 August 2011)
  24. ^ Dubin 185
  25. ^ Shearar 16
  26. ^ Shearar 19
  27. ^ Shearar 30
  28. ^ Shearar 24
  29. ^ Shearar 37
  30. ^ Shearar 15
  31. ^ "Native American:Prehistoric:Mississippian". Illinois State Museum. Retrieved 2010-07-30. 
  32. ^ "Stone Ear Spools." Oklahoma Archaeological Survey. (retrieved 23 April 2010)
  33. ^ Dubin, 213
  34. ^ Dubin, 217
  35. ^ Dubin, 538
  36. ^ "Totems to Turquoise: Santo Domingo." American Natural History Museum. (retrieved 12 July 2011)
  37. ^ Hewett, Edgar. Native Peoples of the American Southwest. 1968
  38. ^ a b c Haley 104
  39. ^ a b "Tribal History: Jewelry." Fort Still Apache: Chiricahua-Warm Springs Apache. (retrieved 12 July 2011)
  40. ^ Dubin 512
  41. ^ "White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation." Arizona Handbook. (retrieved 4 August 2011)
  42. ^ a b Dubin, 483
  43. ^ "Hopi Silverwork & Jewelry." Northern Arizona Native American Cultural Trail. (retrieved 4 August 2011)
  44. ^ Dubin, 534–5
  45. ^ Adair, 6
  46. ^ "Squash Blossom Necklace." Fernbank Museum of Natural History. (retrieved 7 Aug 2011)
  47. ^ Hollister, Uriah. "Full Text of The Navajo and His Blanket." Internet Archive. (retrieved 18 April 2010)
  48. ^ "Many Beautiful Colors: Jewelry by Native American Artists." Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. (retrieved 23 April 2010)
  49. ^ Slaney, Deborah C. "The Evolution of Zuni Jewelry." Southwest Art. 1 August 1998 (retrieved 4 August 2011)
  50. ^ a b c d Cirillo, Dexter. "Southwestern Indian Jewelry". Abbeville Press, 1992.
  51. ^ Dubin 510-511
  52. ^ "History of Native American Turquoise Jewelry in the USA."] 9 September 2007 (retrieved 4 August 2011)
  53. ^ Smith, Harlan I. "Primitive Work in Metal." The Southern Workman. Hampton Institute. Vol. 40, Issue 12, 1911. Page 217.


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