When it comes to cultural adornments, nothing is quite like the beautiful jewelery crafted by the various Native American tribes of the United States. Further, nothing captures the primal majesty like the Native American in his (or her) full regalia – headdress, face paint (or masks), beads and hand-made clothing.
Every tribe’s jewelry style differs slightly, either in the techniques by which it is crafted, or its presentation. However, Native Americans of many tribes already had a long-standing familiarity with the ingredients that went into making it (beads, shells, copper, silver, bone, turquoise, amber and other stones) by the time they first countered Europeans. Since the 1800s, when the Native Americans picked up silver smithing and other advanced techniques from the Spanish, such advancement has only improved the scope of their efforts, allowing Native American craftsmen to offer some of the most unique, evocative and memorable jewelry seen today. The inclusion of European techniques fused with traditional designs brought about the hitherto unseen yet beautiful squash blossom necklace, bracelets overlaid in silver, and turquoise inlaid rings, as well as earrings, chokers pins and pendants. Every year, markets in the Southwestern United States showcase masterwork from the Hopi, Jemez, Navajo, Taos, and Zuni tribes, and more besides. With all these advancements brought by the foreigners, it would be easy to forget the inherent skill of the tribal craftsmen. Native beadwork, especially when compared to their still-developing use of metals, was already very well established even prior to colonization. They knew then, how to finely grind turquoise, coral and shell beads, making them into elaborate Heishi necklaces. They also knew how to delicately carve the individual wood and bone beads, and the process to intricately stitch hundreds of beads together, into the flawless jewelry and museum pieces we know today.
Tradition Meets Beauty
As with any culture, Native Americans have traditions surrounding worship, their views on life, death and the world in which they live. Nothing symbolizes this quite so much as their regalia. A Native American in full traditional attire is a sight to behold, and though such an elaborate costume has become fodder for children’s Halloween costumes and the imaginations of eager, if ignorant tourists, there still exists an air of mystery and power when watching ceremonial dances and rituals. The problem with conception is that what many imagine a Native American looks like is inaccurate. Take for instance, the long, flowing headdress of eagle feathers. There were only a few tribes who actually wore them, though as other tribes relocated (to the Plains, for example), they adopted the headdress as a means to appease tourists and visitors who expected them to look a certain way. More common were the roaches crafted of dyed porcupine quills. These were shorter and easier to mange, sometimes worn in combat, but typically for ceremonial purposes. For certain ceremonies, kachina dancers of the southwest would often wear masks, to represent a certain aspect of the culture, natural world or cosmos. This could be either intangible things or representations of people – a revered ancestor, an element, a location, a quality, a natural phenomenon, or a concept that has a particular poignant meaning for the tribe. The Plains Indians also wore buffalo masks in some of their ceremonies. Authentic tunics, trousers (or breech cloths with leggings attached), and moccasins are also common, each featuring intricate stitching, beadwork and possibly metalwork. Garments could either be woven, or crafted from hide and leather. Moccasins often were made of sturdy hide, the better to protect against the elements.