Skip to Content


Home > Coral > The Coral Story > The Onset Of The Native Indian Tradition

< Previous | Next >

The Onset Of The Native Indian Tradition

One specific event in 1864 marked the beginning of what was to become the prized American Indian art of jewelry making. More than 8000 Navajos were settled by the United States army in a reservation created at Fort Sumner, near Bosque Redondo in the furthest eastern reaches of New Mexico. In their captivity the Navajos came into contact with Mexican plateros (silversmiths), who had assimilated the custom and techniques of working silver from the Spaniards. Prior to 1800 the natives produced their jewelry using such natural materials as turquoise and seashells. The Navajos were the first tribe in the Southwest to learn the techniques of metal working. Trading between the Navajos and the tribes living in the Plains, as well as with the Mexicans, led to the gradual spread of these techniques.

The first Navajo silversmith on record was Atsidi Sani (“old craftsman”) who appears to have begun working silver in the years 1853 - 185842. Born in 1830, Atsidi was an artist, spiritual guide, medicine man and Navajo leader (he was one of the six chiefs who signed the treaty sanctioning the return of the Diné people to their land following the period of captivity). He too was imprisoned at Fort Sumner, where he learnt from the Mexicans and showed great skill in working silver, at first producing bridles and other horse tack, and then knives, concha belts and bracelets. Four of his numerous sons learnt the craft and gained a living as accomplished jewellers towards the end of the century. Grey Moustache, a grandson of Atsidi Sani and himself a Navajo silversmith, recalls how ornaments were bartered between tribes: “The Hopis and Zunis would exchange turquoise and silver beads with the Navajos. I made ketoh43 for the Zunis, and would exchange one for a necklace of seashell beads. I went to the Zuni village several times a year to sell my silver”44. The first jewelry produced by the natives used copper, bronze and iron, but not silver, which was too costly. These artefacts, as we have seen, showed Spanish and Mexican influence in the elaborate relief designs on horse tack, simply made using a metal punch directly on the silver. Other decorations and forms owed much to the groups of the Great Plains, such as the Utes, Comanches and Sioux, who maintained constant trading links with the Indians in the Southwest. The introduction of silver coincided with a period of crucial social change in the lives of the Navajos, who from being warriors and horse breeders found themselves from 1868 bound to reside in a dedicated reservation, following the period of captivity at Bosque Redondo. Trading posts were soon established in the new reserve, favouring the exchange of goods. Silver coins carried by American soldiers were melted down to make jewels, and these became a significant item in the burgeoning Navajo economy, for they could be bartered for other commodities. The Navajos soon began to incorporate features of the reins used by the caballeros, rosaries, Spanish crosses and medals, squash blossom necklaces and concha belts in fashions that combined the imported style with the indigenous character.

The Zunis learnt the techniques of working silver from the Navajos in about 1870. It appears that a Navajo craftsman, Atsidi Chon, taught the procedure to a Zuni called Lanyade45. Silver never gained great popularity, however, amongst the Pueblos of the Rio Grande: the Santo Domingos, for example, preferred to go on producing heishi in turquoise or seashell. Nonetheless, by the end of the nineteenth century there were numerous jewelry makers among the Navajos, Hopis and Zunis. As time went on their output increased, involving more and more Indians, especially following the opening of the railway line which took tourists to Santa Fe in search of jewels for personal use and as collectors’ items, tangible souvenirs of adventurous times in the “Wild West”. The tourist trade favoured lightweight jewels rather than the massive ornaments that the Navajos made for themselves and for the Pueblo groups. In 1899 the Fred Harvey Company, set up to develop tourism in the Southwest, ordered a series of lightweight jewels featuring pre-cut turquoise stones from the mines of Nevada, launching the commercial exploitation of Indian jewelry46. The initiative was so successful that in 1910 a firm in Denver began producing the same jewels with its white workforce.

The extensive network of exchanges which linked the Southwest with the Pacific seaboard, the Midwest and the plains fostered a boom in jewelry making as well as other artefacts. As the trade in skins diminished, replaced by the exchange of silver objects, the Indians began to produce ornaments both for themselves and for the growing tourist trade. Jewelry production became a sign of wealth and prestige for the Navajos. They were the first Indians to combine silver and turquoise, influencing the Zunis and Hopis who went on to develop their own style in this new branch of handicraft

While silver is a recent introduction into the jewellery of the Far West, turquoise with its almost sacred connotation has always been used. Its legendary aura was linked with the colour of the sky, and it was offered up in rituals to bring rain to the arid environment. Turquoise beads were sealed into niches in the walls of the ceremonial chambers of the Pueblo kiva, to highlight their ritual character. Turquoise took on great economic importance when it began to be used as a token in exchanges. Its value was calculated on the basis of the quality of the stone and the quantity of work required to produce an artefact. The Pueblo Indians valued a necklace of turquoise discs, stretching from shoulder to shoulder, as the equivalent of a Navajo horse.

42Tisdale S., 2006, p. 56; Adair J., The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1944, p.4; Woodward A., Navajo Silver: A Brief History of Navajo Silversmithing, Flagstaff, Northland Press, 1971, p. 20; Cirillo D., Southwestern Indian Jewellery, New York, Abbeville Press, 1992, p. 67.

43Wristbands used by archers for protection from the bowstring as the arrow was loosed.

44Adair J., 1944, p.9

45Totems to Turquoise, Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest, exhibition catalogue, American Museum of Natural History, Kari Chalker, General Editor, 2006, p. 86

46Op. cit., p. 87

< Previous | Next >

^Back to Top^