Top Native American Jewelry Making Tribes
The Hopi, “Peaceful Ones”, ancestry traces back to the Ancient Anasazi who were the prehistoric inhabitants of the Four Corners. The Hopi nation totals approximately 8,500 people. They are located on mesas (table shaped mountains) within the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. The Old Oraibi pueblo was built before 1150 A.D. and is said to be the oldest continuously occupied village in the United States. The Hopi speak a Shoshonean language. Early Hopi Indian jewelry was made from turquoise, shell, wood and seeds. Around 1890, silversmithing was introduced to the Hopi. In the 1930’s a distinctive style emerged known today as overlay. The Hopi Silvercraft Guild was founded in 1949. In overlay, two sheets of silver are soldered together after cutting out designs in the top layer with the under layer visible which has been oxidized and textured with chisel marks or stamp work. A matte or satin finish is usually given to their silverwork using steel wool. Typically, no stones are used. Other tribes and silversmiths also create overlay but it is usually plain, untextured, and made of a thinner gauge of silver sheet than the Hopi use. They are also known for their pottery, baskets and Kachinas.
The largest Southwest American Indian reservation and the nation’s largest tribe is the Navajo with more than 160,000 members. The Navajo Indians call themselves Dine’, “the people”. Their reservation is located in Northern Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Utah. The Navajo ancestors were hunters and gatherers from the north who wandered into the Southwest around 500 to 800 years ago. The Navajo were the first Southwest American Indians to learn silversmithing. The first Navajo to learn silversmithing was Atsidi Sani, or “Old Smith”, in the 1850’s. It is believed he learned to smith from Mexican silversmiths. The earliest Navajo Indian jewelry was made using American or Mexican silver coins as well as ingots. Today, the squash blossom necklace and concho belt are the best known form of Navajo silversmithing. In general, their bracelets, watchbands, rings, earrings and necklaces are larger scale than the Zuni work and often use freeform stones instead of the calibrated stones the Zuni use. The Navajo are well known for their intricate hand stamping of designs in the silver. This is a very creative and open minded group of artists who love to combine interesting colors and shapes. They are also know for their rug weaving, pottery, baskets, kachinas (carved dolls), flutes, weapons and pipes. They sign their work with a stamped hallmark of initials and sometimes symbols.
The Santo Domingo Indians are one of the Rio Grande River pueblo tribes of New Mexico descended from the Ancient Anasazi. They are located south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Santo Domingo create silver, shell, and authentic turquoise jewelry. The Santo Domingo traditionally made rolled turquoise and shell heishi beads similar to those of their prehistoric ancestors. To make a strand of heishi beads, the stones or shells are drilled and carefully ground and polished into a disk shape by pulling them across a grinding stone. The thinner the strands are the more skill and time is required which increases the cost. The Santo Domingo are also known as the first inlayers. They cut pieces of stones and shells and made mosaic designs on shells or flat slabs of stone. Santo Domingo jewelry is highly collectible. The Santo Domingo rarely sign their work with a hallmark (stamped symbol or letters.)
The Zuni Indian pueblo is set along the western border of New Mexico. The Zuni reservation has around 6,000 members and is on a high plateau lying between 6,000 and 9,000 feet elevation. The Zuni language is spoken by fewer than 8,000 people and no other people speak a language even similar to Zuni. The Zuni’s ancestors are the Anasazi and Mongolian. They have been making Zuni Indian jewelry for over 1,000 years. There are approximately two hundred Zuni craftsmen working at this time. The Zuni are known for their intricate stone cutting: petit point, needle point, inlay and detailed stone carvings known as fetishes. Their favorite motifs are birds, butterflies, and flowers. They also prefer to work with stones used in their traditional jewelry like jet, turquoise, mother of pearl and coral. Newer stones and bright colors like green gaspeite, orange spiny oyster, various purple stones, and transparent stones would be used by the Navajo tribe rather than the Zunis. The Zuni generally sign their work with a hallmark spelling out their full name.