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Native American Jewelry – Tribal Differences in Design The Navajo and the Santo Domingo

Native American necklaces and Native American bracelets have been crafted for adornment and trade purposes by the American Indians and the Native Americans of Canada for many thousands of years. While Spanish settlement on the North American continent introduced the indigenous Americans to silver-smithing in the 1800s, Native American tribes have been making use of natural resources for many thousands of years to craft necklaces, rings, pins and brooches, buttons, earrings, bracelets, bridles, and more.

Commonly-used resources included bones, shells, wood, feathers, animal hides, turquoise, coral, and more, and the resources used by each tribe were determined by availability and location. As such, there are significant differences in the types of jewelry by design that are crafted by the many tribes across the USA and in Canada, as well as to the south in Mexico.

Native American Jewelry – Cultural Significance

Native American jewelry was certainly used for adornment, but it traditionally served a far greater function. Tribal jewelry was used as collateral or currency for trade and, with the arrival of European settlers, it was an essential element to the survival of the Native Americans.

Authentic Native American jewelry is deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of its creators, which have been passed down through the generations. It is prized for its unique, tribal-centric and timeless designs, craftsmanship, and symbolism.

Some tribes throughout the USA are particularly renowned for their exquisite jewelry creation, and regional differences can be stark.

The jewelry of the Native Americans of the Southwest is particularly noted from the Navajo, the Zuni, the Hopi, and the Santo Domingo, and for its use of silver and turquoise.

Navajo Jewelry – as the largest tribe in the USA, the Navajo are renowned for their jewelry throughout the world. Jewelry-making became a major industry for the Navajo when they were introduced to silver by the Spanish, and many early Navajo pieces were crafted with melted silver coins. The addition of turquoise made the jewelry even more popular and today, Native American turquoise jewelry is widely associated with the Navajo.

Many of the traditional Navajo designs are believed to have originated with the Spaniard settlers. The Navajo have an extensive portfolio of designs that includes motifs such as flowers, silver leaves, beading, hand-stamping, sandcast jewelry, naja pendants, and the renowned squash blossom.

The squash blossom piece, believed to have been inspired by the Spanish pomegranate motif so popular amongst the colonial Spanish settlers, is comprised of a silver beaded necklace with beads of squash blossom petals, set off by a crescent-shaped naja pendant at the base of the necklace.

Santo Domingo Jewelry – descended from the Anasazi ancients, this tribe is renowned for its jewelry crafted from turquoise, shell, and silver (in 1893 the first Santo Domingo silver-smithing was performed). Their signature pieces include the Thunderbird necklace, designs of mosaic inlay over bone or shell, and heishe beads.

Heishe beads (“shell bead” in the Eastern Keresan language spoken by the Santo Domingo) are crafted from bone, stone or shell and are tiny disc or tube-shaped beads that have been polished. These beads are traditionally ground, drilled, and strung by hand.