In short, their fingerprints remain visible and so by peering into the effusion of, say, a gemstone item, one can actually discover a depth of character and a diversity of feeling therein. With gemstones the properties of each piece divulges the care with which it was made and the audacity that went into its discovery. However this inherent quality is not simply specific to gemstones. Native American jewellery is a fine example of the way in which a culture can continue to express itself, simply through the appearance of its jewellery. The range of distinctive designs, from the complex to the simple, has been wrought over thousands of years of cultural evolution. Some things have changed in the culture over the millennia, yet, more surprisingly, much has remained the same, particularly the simple cultivation of their nomadic lifestyle and reliance on nature. This unique way of living, diversified by a variety of different tribes, has had a distinct effect on the Native American style of jewellery.
At the same time designs also differed depending on the artistic vision and domain of each tribe, from those in the wild forests to those that roamed the Great Plains under the biblical skies of an ancient, unfound world.
Native American jewellery was effortlessly seminal, informing such spirited movements as art nouveau and many abstract collections that favour natural materials like turquoise, shell and coral. The culture thrived on keen insights into the natural world, particularly through the use of symbolism. The simplistic pieces they made acquired a hereditary meaning after each cherished possession was passed down through generations. Generally speaking they became the markers of a familial bond and a habitual connection with the surrounding habitat. Personal adornment was the primary application of jewellery. Sometimes they would also be sold, bartered with or even celebrated as individual pieces of art. For the most part the indigenous American people favoured necklaces, ketohs (leather armguards lined with silver and/or turquoise), wampum (white shell beads) and labrets (shards of shell, bone or stone inserted through the lip). The manifest variations of design indicate the interaction between the neighbouring tribal groups that shared their trades and equally benefited from an atmosphere of communal interdependence. At the same time designs also differed depending on the artistic vision and domain of each tribe, from those in the wild forests to those that roamed the Great Plains under the biblical skies of an ancient, unfound world.
The preferences of each different tribe created varied spheres of fashion. Take the Apache tribe whose roaming ground included towering mountains, humid valleys, arid canyons and deserts. The men and women of this widespread tribe often wore strung beads of shell and turquoise. Sometimes their jewellery revealed their honed prowess, perhaps best evidenced by the use of turquoise and silver inlays. The beadwork of the southern plains tribes also influenced the Apaches. Young Apache girls took to sporting necklaces of scratching sticks and drink tubes for ritual puberty ceremonies. Later, in 1853, Navajo metalsmith workers learned the qualities of silver from a Mexican smith and began to craft ornate buckles, bridles and buttons. The early Navajo smiths experimented with intricate rocker-engraved and filed designs. Soldered silver cast jewellery has also been found decorated with scrolls, beads and leaf patterns. However that shouldn’t tar the image of Native Americans absorbed by nature and ancient practices. The majority of their jewellery was much more simplistic, crafted using natural materials such as hardwoods, vegetal fibres and animal materials too, like teeth and bones.
The Native Americans of the plains belonged to a nomadic equestrian culture. They roamed the plains in pursuit of herds of buffalo from which they acquired almost everything they needed to build a subsistence society. The jewellery of these tribes featured an array of beads and in fact the first finding of incised plains beads dates as far back as 8800 BCE. They also worked with spiralling marginella and olivella shells, which were traded and brought inland from the Gulf of Mexico and pristine coasts of California since 100 CE. It’s presumed that a variety of glass beads were introduced as early as 1700. The Lakota tribe became particularly proficient at crafting glass beads, as well as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe that roved the prairies and rode the rivers in their birch dugout canoes. By the 1820s metal-smithing made its first ringing appearance with cut, stamped and cold hammered German silver used for pectoral armour and armbands. Interestingly the indigenous people of the sprawling North-eastern Woodlands (the modern day US Midwest and south-eastern Canada) seemed to opt for more organic materials. Amongst the possessions recovered by historians are discoidal shell beads and colourful wampum shells with hand-drilled perforations. Along the scenic New England coast the Narragansett tribes were known to bury prized wampum supplies and tools with their jewellery makers, hoping that they would continue their work in the afterlife. The artistry of the Narragansett tribe is perhaps one of the reasons why they saw fit to keep their jewellery makers in business, even after their death. Over the centuries they produced an impressive collection of skilfully wrought natural pieces, including incised bear teeth, teardrop-shaped shell pendants and coloured whelk shells carved into birds, turtles and fish. Indeed bird motifs were very common, ranging from stylized hawk heads to ducks poised mid-flight.
The beauty of these designs gives testimony to the important role jewellery played in Native American society. It had to do with more than just individual adornment, it was about the preservation of Indian society and the value of natural forms; a kind of alphabet of symbols, still used today, notably in the hippy and Romani communities, to signal a resistance to conformity and societal assimilation.