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The History Behind Native American Jewelry

The History Behind Native American Jewelry

The History Behind Native American Jewelry

Today’s America is renowned for being made up of a rich cacophony of cultures, but before European colonization, the country was home to a wide variety of Native American tribes. Each one of these had its own spiritual beliefs and cultural practices, as well as their own individual styles in both clothes and jewelry. The latter was worn for a variety of reasons, and in many cases, it was as much a savings account without the use of banks as it was a means of decoration.

What is Native American Jewelry

What is Native American Jewelry

In general, Native American jewelry refers to personal adornment pieces including pins, rings, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces, along with labrets (a type of lower lip piercing) and ketohs, which are a type of bracer developed by the Hopi and Navajo people.

North American jewelry is often made from naturally-occurring materials as it has been for centuries, including a range of metals, semi-precious and precious stones, hardwoods, and animal matter including hide, bones, and teeth. Today, Native American jewelry can range from computer-fabricated titanium and steel pieces to items made from shells and hand-quarried or processed stones.

History of Native American Jewelry

History of Native American Jewelry

As long as 12,000 years ago, Paleo-Indians were transforming stone and shells into jewelry, marking a long history of making use of available materials to make pieces to adorn the body. Fish and animal bones were carved to make ornate pendants, and coral, stone, and shells were worn as whole pieces or were broken or chipped into pieces to make beads for decorating clothing and making necklaces.

Today, modern materials such as titanium and gold are used alongside other natural materials and gemstones, such as this Moldavite Necklace with Star Ruby. Turquoise is an important material, especially to Native American tribes of the southwestern areas, having both economic and symbolic value. Over the years, jewelry has been used for trade as well as for ceremonial and decorative purposes.

Moldavite Necklace with Star Ruby

Types of Native American Jewelry

Just as in modern jewelry, there have been many different forms of Native American pieces that have been created over the years, with many similarities to modern items worn by all sorts of different people today. Necklaces, for example, could be anything from simple pendants hung on leather thongs to strands of beads interwoven to create intricate patterns.

Breastplates and ornate headdresses were also created for ceremonial purposes, and necklaces and belts were made using wampum. This is a type of shell bead that became a popular trade item after European settlers arrived in America. Wampum beads were once a way to show off wealth and status with Native American communities.

Native American Jewelry in the Midwest

Many members of Midwestern tribes, such as the Chippewa, Blackfeet, and Sioux, were very skilled at beadwork and would make use of beads made from traded seashells and bones. Porcupine quills were also used. Sioux Indians regularly used animal bones for jewelry and also made metal jewelry. Sometimes trophies taken from conquered enemies were used as ornamentation by warriors, and finger necklaces were not uncommon.

Silver grew in popularity after Mexican and Spanish traders arrived and local artisans were wooed by its versatility. It was transformed into everything from armbands to combs and was patterned with delicate stamps or hammered to create individual designs.

Jewelry from the eastern woodlands

The close proximity of the Atlantic coastline made shell a popular material for tribes of the eastern woodlands. Clay, bone, stone, and pearls were also used for ear spool discs and necklaces. Antlers were also regularly used by tribes in the north, such as the Iroquois, who made hair combs with them. European glass beads were also made into necklaces, and gorgets (carved and polished pendants) were made from local stone such as slate. Gorgets were made from shell by tribes living further south along the coast and eventually from such metals as silver and brass. The Calusa tribe got the nickname of the Shell Indians because they used seashells to create everything from work tools and spears to jewelry.

Southwestern and western jewelry

Heishe necklaces were popular among the people of the Kew Pueblo and other southwestern tribes. These were made of small beads shaped like tubes or thin discs and arranged as a colorful pattern. These were valuable for trading and can sell for many thousands of dollars today.

Local stones, such as jet and turquoise, were often used, but once metalworking became popular among the Navajo during the 1800s, it was ornate silver bracelets, lets, and necklaces that increased in popularity among tribes such as the Zuni and the Hopi.