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Native American Jewelry – Tribal Differences in Design The Great Plains and Northwest Coast

There is an enormous focus on the Native American jewelry of the southwest, and this is what we sell here at Indian Traders. While incredibly distinctive, this Navajo, Hopi and Zuni jewelry is not the only form of Native American jewelry that is made, and other tribes from other US regions have their own distinct designs and jewelry styles, very much influenced by materials available locally.

Great Plains Indians

The American Indians of the Great Plains include the two broad groups: The nomadic horse culture tribes which followed buffalo herds (e.g. Blackfoot, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Crow, Apache, Lakota, Sioux, and Cree) and the semi-sedentary village-based tribes which hunted buffalo, raised crops, and traded with other tribes (e.g. Iowa, Kaw, Omaha, Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, Dakota, and Missouria).

The Indians of the Great Plains are most renowned for their beadwork, which dates to 8800 BCE. The Indians traded for marginella shells, olivella shells, and abalone from the California coast as well as from the Gulf of Mexico. They also used bones to make beads. These beads were used to craft breastplates, chokers, necklaces, and earrings.  Porcupine quillwork was also commonly used to embellish clothing and to make headdresses, buckles, hatbands, and jewelry, and glass beads were introduced from about 1700 CE.

Contact with Spanish and Mexican metalsmiths, as well as trade between tribes from other areas, saw metal incorporated into Plains tribal jewelry.

The Northwest Coast Indians

The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest originate from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon and Northern California. Tribes native to this region include The Tlingit, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Salish, Chinook, Tillamook, and others.

For millennia, walrus ivory was used to carve bracelets and other decorative items. Since the 1820s, argillite stone has been used. Venetian glass beads were introduced to the indigenous peoples by Russian fur traders in the 1700s, and the most popular colours of these were red, amber, and blue.

Chinese historical coins were strung as beads by the natives, and copper was incorporated into jewelry designs after it was traded from other tribes from the south.

American Indians of the northwest are known for hammered metalworking (repoussé technique) and mythic designs are carved into these.

Dentalium shells, derived from tusks or teeth, were used to craft beads for making jewelry, and tribal women of high rank wore large earrings made of abalone shell.

Native American jewelry reflects the history and cultural diversity of its creators; in the absence of written communications in the native languages, jewelry of the various tribes played a huge role historically in conveying many things.

For authentic Southwest American Indian jewelry, shop at Indian Traders today.