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Navajo Silver Jewelry History

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When the Navajo people returned to their beloved mesas and canyons in 1868, their new way of living led to many changes. Among other things, as they were no longer nomadic, they had greater opportunity to learn from each other. "The People" had long admired and used metal ornaments and horse equipment. They had used brass and copper wire to create bracelets and coins to fashion buttons.

Tools were crude and smiths had to improvise and create their own crucibles, bellows and emery paper. A smith could have had only a hammer and a piece of scrap railroad track for an anvil. Silver coins were melted for use.

By the 1890’s, traders took advantage of a new market with silversmiths and began selling them tools. Silver jewelry was used as barter on the Reservation where money was practically non-existent. Traders took silver and turquoise jewelry as collateral without giving a specific value to the piece. Any pawn unclaimed after an agreed period of time was considered "dead" and the trader could sell it.

So began a new and very lucrative way of life for the Native Americans.

The Navajo reservation is the largest Indian Reservation in the United States and covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Most Navajo silversmiths come from a long line of silversmiths in their family, for this is a time honored trade that is past down from generation to generation. Many of the artists today, both men and woman, produce jewelry which is better classified as art that is worthy of display in museums.

Personal adornment found in the southwestern area consisting of Arizona and New Mexico is thought to date back to the first half of the 1st millennium AD and consisted of bracelets made from a shell carved in the shape of a frog. Also found were birds and snake motifs in pierced work along with other jewelry made from shells and covered with turquoise mosaics. Evidence shows that as far back as the Archaic period people decorated shells with carvings and/or enamel work. Feathers and turquoise were the materials available to the Native Americans for personal ornamentation until the arrival of the white man, alot of Native American jewelry is heavily influenced by the Spanish jewelry.

It is our understanding that sometime around the 16th century the Spaniards came to the southwest and at that time the Mexican people learned how to smith silver from the Spaniards. It is generally believed that the Navajo Indians didn't actually start working silver until after their four year imprisonment at Fort Sumner where they had been taken after their capture by American forces under the command of Christopher (Kit) Carson in 1863-64. It was generally assumed that since they had no silver with them at Fort Sumner that they hadn't started working in silver yet. However, as Raymond Friday Locke in his book The Book of the Navajo points out, "people do not take valuables, such as silver jewelry, to prison with them." It is reported that the Navajo "Captains" wore silver belts in 1795 and then again in 1855, W.W. H. Davis said he saw the Navajos wearing "many valuable belts of silver." So whether they started working silver back in the mid 1800's because they were impressed with the silver buttons that the Mexican soldiers wore on their uniforms (as I have read) or they had been working silver since the 1700's, basically it isn't an ancient art to them. What we do know is that the Navajo are reported to be the first Indians to learn the skill of silversmithing from the Mexicans. A Navajo man named Atsidi Sani or Old Smith apparently learned to work silver from a Mexican after his return from Fort Sumner and then taught this to his sons. Then four years later, Atsidi Chon or Ugly Smith, the first Navajo known to make a conche belt moved to Zuni where he reportedly taught the Zuni Indians the craft of silversmithing. Twenty-seven years later a Hopi Indian named Lanyade learned this skill.

Many things influence the designs used in the Navajo jewelry. The designs seen from other traders from across the Mississippi River, the Spaniards, Mexicans and of course, it was just natural for them to carry their own designs and traditions into the making of their jewelry. There are designs dating thousands of years ago that were found etched on the walls of caves that are being used in jewelry that is made today . . . such as the famous hunched back flute player Kokopelli.

Although the beautiful gem stones, especially Turquoise are a very important part of the jewelry made by Navajo silversmiths, the Navajo's focus is mostly on the ornate detailed designs made with the silver. Over many generations they have developed their skills, talents and designs into an art form all their own. Many people from all over the world have come to appreciate and love the look of the southwestern jewelry that they handcraft today.

This is a brief bit of information & history of the Navajo Silversmith.

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