Years ago, I expressed an interest in purchasing jewelry that would compliment my collection of broken-in Levi's. My friend, who specializes in western antiques, showed me a Texas tie called a bolo. "I'd be proud to have my husband wear this," she said. "It's old. Hand-made out of the finest silver and turquoise. And, it's signed. Real cowboy. Wear it for a few days. You'll love it."
When I returned the neck-tie one week later, I couldn't explain why. Nor, could I find anything else that suited me. My friend's jewelry was filled with symbolic imagery. It was shiny and fancy and fashioned by what seemed to be great artisans, but it wasn't for me. It didn't feel Indian.
Feared for their fighting prowess, a decision was made by the U.S. Government in 1861 to round up Navajo nation from their beautiful homeland in the four corners of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, and dispatch them to a wasteland in east/central New Mexico. Fighting ensued. In 1864, U.S. militia led by Kit Carson finally prevailed. The Navajo surrendered and began the grueling 300 mile "Long Walk" to Bosque Redondo Reservation.
Unsurpassed blanket weaving skills, and many other culturally important "old ways" of the Navaho were all but lost at Bosque. When their farms failed, white men began issuing families stamped copper food ration tickets. This early woeful experiment in social engineering would introduce the Navajo to metalworking. Taught by Mexican silversmiths called Plateros, they soon began forging exact copies of their ration tickets. When overseers discovered two meals were being served for every ration, the white men produced newly designed copper tickets that were exactly duplicated again. Frustrated, the army finally ordered paper coupons from Washington.
In 1870, following four terrible years in which a quarter of their population died, the Navajo people were permitted to return to the "Dinetah," an area comprising approximately 1/5 their original homeland. Sadly, their self-sufficiency would never return. Although many skills were lost, the Navajo had brought with them a new trade: jewelry making. Indian silversmiths acquired high status. In the early days, much of their work was commissioned by tribe members who paid lofty barters for their custom-made jewelry. Old measurements of success, livestock and crops, had all but been destroyed. Silver jewelry helped fill the void.
Prior to 1920, the Navajo jeweler procured his silver by melting down coins received in trade. He worked with copper and brass when silver was unavailable. Silver was always the emphasis. Turquoise and other stones were used as a means of complimenting the silver. Engraving and stamping was accomplished chisel, shaped steel piping, awl, and punch. Design was strongly influenced by geometric patterns found on Mexican leatherwork.
Early authentic Navajo jewelry rarely includes design work with symbolic or religious inference. Jewelry incorporating trite designs like rain clouds, swastikas, teepees, arrowheads, or buffaloes was more likely designed by a profit-minded anglo trader than a Navajo.
Traditional Navajo jewelry is symmetrical, repetitive and balanced in design. The silversmith usually worked from the middle out. The finest Navajo jewelers envisioned a piece before it was made. This vision includes the "chiaroscuro," the oxidation and patina silver acquires with time. The blackish grime that finds a home in the crevices of an old bracelet or bolo may well be part of its art.
Other tribes like Zuni, Hopi, and Pueblo also made, and continue to make, jewelry. We'll talk more on the subject next week. By the way, I finally did find my bolo. Its simply designed, old, worn and patined. Most importantly, it feels Indian.