Native American Jewelry

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, Rosenberg Library exhibited several examples of vintage Navajo and Zuni Indian jewelry from the William and Viola Pabst Collection as its November Treasure of the Month. The small display included stunning silver-and-turquoise necklaces, bracelets, and rings, all made by Native American artisans during the first half of the 20th century.

In the late 1930s, the Pabsts began collecting jewelry they purchased on Indian reservations and at trading posts in New Mexico and Arizona. Throughout the next two decades, the couple developed a true passion for collecting Native American art. In addition to jewelry, they collected pottery, weavings, baskets, and Kachina dolls. Rosenberg Library acquired the William and Viola Pabst Indian Artifact Collection in 1986.

 Native American Jewelry

The desire for personal adornment seems an almost universal human quality. Long before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, Native Americans in the Southwest region wore necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and other accessories. Often, these items were fashioned from natural materials like berries, seeds, bits of wood, shells, and stones. The existence of ancient trade routes allowed for the import of non-native materials from Mexico and the Pacific coast into the Southwest region.

When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, a rich heritage of native ornamentation was already in existence. However, the Spanish introduced new European forms of jewelry-making and materials to the Indians as well as the technique of silversmithing. It is not known exactly when the Native Americans began to work unfinished silver themselves, but most historians believe that this transition took place around 1850.

New Mexico was annexed as a United States territory in 1846, and in an effort to suppress Indian raids on white settlers, the U.S. Army launched a violent campaign against the Navajo Indians in 1863. Their livestock were killed, their crops burned, and their villages destroyed. Starving and desperate, the Navajo people surrendered and were forced to make a long and treacherous journey to the newly established Bosque Redondo reservation at Fort Sumner in the eastern part of the state. Tragically, many died along the way.

 Native American Jewelry

A social engineering experiment, Bosque Redondo was intended to become a self-sufficient community. The Navajo were taught modern farming techniques along with trade skills such as blacksmithing. Improper irrigation systems coupled with pest infestations led to failed crops and a lack of food and drinking water. Thousands of Navajo Indians died from disease and malnutrition during their incarceration at Bosque Redondo, and by 1868, the remaining Navajos were permitted to return westward to a new reservation near their original homeland in the Four Corners region.

The basic techniques of melting, hammering, and soldering became established on the Navajo reservation after the return from Bosque Redondo. Government agents supplied smiths with tools and materials for working silver. Throughout the 1870s, the silverworking techniques they learned at Bosque Redondo were improved and refined, and a small but growing number of Navajo artisans emerged.

Silverwork is a relatively recent form of Indian art work since silver mines did not exist in the American Southwest. The Navajo Indians were the first to adopt the craft, but this wasn’t until the mid 1800s when silver became more readily available. The primary sources of silver in Navajo jewelry were often coins or flatware which were obtained through trade. Smiths would melt down silver to cast into an ingot, or block. The ingot was then hammered into a flat sheet and worked into a finished design. It was smoothed down with stones and then polished with sand or ashes. Navajo silversmiths also made use of stone molds with pre-carved designs, an extremely time-consuming process.

During the early 1900s, the expansion of the Santa Fe Railroad into the American Southwest created a huge demand for inexpensive Indian-made curios. The need for financial security prompted many Indian artisans to go to work in commercial jewelry factories to mass-produce souvenirs for tourists. Non-traditional motifs and elaborate decoration were adopted in order to make Indian jewelry more appealing to the masses.

From about 1910 to 1940, traditional hand-made Navajo jewelry could only be purchased away from major trade centers along the railroad line. As discerning collectors, the Pabsts sought out these types of Indian art. With the onset of the Great Depression followed by World War II, the demand for Indian jewelry waned, creating an economic crisis for the Navajo people.

In 1934, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act which gave tribes the right to govern themselves in an attempt to restore tribal identity and traditional ways of life. The following year, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board was created to assist Native American silversmiths by helping them establish new markets for their goods. Vocational schools were founded specifically to teach the silversmith trade, and these artisans enjoyed a growing patronage by collectors and museums.

In decades since, Native American artisans have become more professionalized and individualistic in their approaches to jewelry design. Some contemporary Southwest jewelry is fashioned from steel or titanium. Other designers favor more traditional techniques and materials. The appeal of Native American jewelry — both antique and modern — has withstood the test of time.

Past Treasures