History of Native American Jewelry

Modern America is famous for being a rich blend of world cultures, but this development is extremely new. Before European colonization, America was home to many different tribes of Native Americans. Each tribe had their own unique culture, spiritual beliefs, and sense of style. In a world without steel safes, wealth had to be portable, and jewelry was as much a bank account as it was decorative.

History

Native American jewelry production began as early as 12,000 years ago. Paleo-Indians transformed materials like shell and stone into wearable jewelry, and tribes across America followed suit with the materials available to them. Animal and fish bones could be carved into ornate pendants, while stones, shells, and coral could be chipped into tiny beads for necklaces or clothing decorations. Native American tribes today continue to produce beautiful pieces of jewelry with modern materials like gold and titanium.

  • Turquoise in the Life of American Indians (PDF): Turquoise is a material widely revered and treasured by many cultures around the world, but it is especially important to many southwestern Native American tribes. This article provides a detailed history of turquoise as well as the symbolic and economic value it contributed to Native American culture.
  • Jewelry and Trade: For many tribes, jewelry wasn’t only for decorative or ceremonial purposes. It held a large and valuable place in the trade economy. Northern Arizona University has a collection of online interviews that dives into the history of the market for American Indian jewelry.
  • Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and its Meaning: Did you know that turquoise was once in such high demand that people made fake turquoise to trade? The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture has an excellent article on the often turbulent history of this gem.

Types of Jewelry

The jewelry created by Native American tribes would not look much different from the types of jewelry worn by Americans today. Necklaces could be as complicated as interwoven strands of beads or as simple as a carved pendant hung on a leather string. Men and women wore chokers, rings, bracelets, and earrings to signify their status. Ornate headdresses and breastplates would be worn for participation in special ceremonies. A special kind of shell bead, called wampum, was used for belts and necklaces, although it didn’t become a popular item for trade until after the arrival of European settlers.

  • Adornment: Native American Regalia (PDF): Beading and jewelry were frequently integrated into a wide variety of clothing items, such as gauntlets, boots, and dresses. This educational packet provides a brief introduction to the different kinds of decoration that can be found on Native American clothing.
  • Stone Ear Spools: Similar to the ear gauges popular today, ear spools were worn as jewelry and used as gravesite offerings by Native Americans. The ones featured on this page come from Oklahoma in the early 1400s.
  • All About Wampum: In modern times, wearing a gold watch or expensive gemstone necklace can be a way of displaying an individual’s wealth and status. Wampum beads served the same purpose for Native Americans and had the additional bonus of being a way to send specific messages.

Midwestern Jewelry

Many tribes of the Midwest, such as the Sioux, the Blackfeet, and the Chippewa, were particularly skilled at beadwork, utilizing beads carved from bones or traded seashells. Porcupine quills could, in the hands of a skilled artisan, become bracelets, hair clips, earrings, or clothing ornamentation. After the arrival of Spanish and Mexican traders, silver became a popular material for Midwestern artists. The versatility of metal meant that it could easily be transformed into combs or armbands and was usually hammered or stamped with a delicate pattern. This provided another useful way to keep and carry valued goods without bank safes.

  • American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South (PDF): Native American artists and jewelers frequently drew inspiration from their culture and natural surroundings. This guide from the Art Institute of Chicago examines some of the most popular designs and the symbolism behind them.
  • Sioux Bracelets: Sioux Indians used animal bones to make jewelry, but they were also accomplished metalworkers. You can see four Sioux bracelets online, provided by the National Museum of the American Indian.
  • Finger Necklace: Not all necklaces were made of beads or bone. Sometimes, trophies from conquered enemies wound up as a warrior’s ornamentation.

Eastern Woodlands Jewelry

Shell was a popular jewelry material for tribes who lived in the eastern woodlands, thanks in part to the easy accessibility of the Atlantic coast. Pearls, stone, bone, and clay were all carefully worked and carved into beads for necklaces or discs for ear spools. Northern tribes, like the Iroquois, transformed antlers into hair combs and European glass beads into necklaces, while gorgets (a type of polished, carved pendant) could be created from regional stone like slate. Tribes farther south down the coast made gorgets from shell and, eventually, from metals like brass or silver.

  • The Calusa Indians: Tribes who lived near the coast had an ample supply of beautiful raw materials to integrate into their jewelry. The Calusa, nicknamed “the Shell Indians,” collected and used seashells to make everything from jewelry to spears and work tools.
  • Shadows of a People: Native American tribes have been making jewelry for generations, but the art blossomed with the introduction of trade. North Carolina has seen many different tribes come and go over the past ten thousand years, and this article provides a quick overview of what life might have looked like for each different time period.
  • Iroquois Beadwork (PDF): Iroquois beadwork is a great example of their artistic skill and patience, and it decorated many 19th century purses and keepsakes. This article discusses the history of Iroquois beadwork and includes many color photographs of the beadwork itself.
  • Wobanaki Clothing From 1660: The Wobanaki people lived in Massachusetts, and as European settlers arrived, they began to adopt small characteristics of the new foreign wardrobes. This online article details the different aspects of a typical Wobanaki wardrobe as well as the role jewelry played in daily life.

Western and Southwestern Jewelry

A special kind of necklace originating from the Kewa Pueblo people, but used by many southwestern tribes, is called a heishe. Heishe necklaces were composed of many small beads shaped into thin discs or tubes and arranged to produce a colorful pattern when viewed. Production of a heishe necklace required a careful hand and dedication to perfection, since these necklaces doubled as valuable items for trading and a single mistake in stringing a bead could ruin the product. Heishe necklaces could bring the same value to a trade as a couple of European safes full of money, and even today, they sell for thousands of dollars. Regional stones like turquoise and jet were frequently used in jewelry, but after the introduction of metalworking to the Navajo in the 1800s, ornate silver necklaces, belts, and bracelets blossomed among tribes like the Hopi and the Zuni.

  • Southwest Jewelry: When asked how to identify jewelry from southwestern Native American tribes, many people will look for turquoise and silver in the materials used. However, these materials are a relatively new introduction into a craft that spans back thousands of years.
  • Jewelry of the Apache: Apache men and women both wore different kinds of jewelry, ranging from earrings to bracelets and rings. This website from the Fort Sill Apache Tribe provides more information on the different materials and styles used in Apache ornamentation.
  • Geometry of Native American Art (PDF): Art and jewelry produced by southwestern tribes is revered for its beautiful, clean geometric lines. This paper examines some of the most popular motifs used by southwestern and southeastern Native Americans.
  • Use of Turquoise by Indians: You might be familiar with turquoise as a popular jewelry material, but did you know that there are many different types of turquoise? Different geographical regions yield different types of turquoise unique to each tribe.
  • 13 Pieces of Navajo Silver Jewelry: It can be hard to imagine what jewelry looks like just from a description. This online exhibit clears away the confusion with a look at real Navajo jewelry.

"It's the best thing I ever bought for myself. I wear my jewelry now. I'm just sad I missed out all these years, but there's no going back I am so glad I finally did this!"

- Patrice in LA