Sunday, March 1, 2020

Native American Jewelry

Put jewelry into Google and the first response says, “The first jewelry was worn by the Cro-Magnons, ancestors of Homo sapiens. Their jewelry included crude necklaces and bracelets made of bone, teeth and stone stitched to animal sinew … there is evidence as far back as 8,800 BC that the Paleo-Indians shaped stones and shells into jewelry pieces by using a thin stone drill.”

If you look closely at an arrowhead, aside from its shape and purpose, the notches were also decorative The main reason given that Paleo- Indians wore jewelry was, for adornment and to signify social status and the more the better. This remains true universally: “My diamond has more carats than your diamond”. 

The Coe Center in Santa Fe recently did a small exhibition of jewelry called, “How it was Handed to Me.”  The focus was the work of the Caesar family who have specialized in Plains jewelry made of nickel “german” silver, an alloy. In conjunction with this the Coe organized panel sessions with Native jewelers addressing the handing down of the art from one generation to the next within a family and the broader tradition of mentorship.  It was Bruce Caesar speaking of his learning from his father who also worked in nickel silver, that the name of the show came from. Here is a crown in the exhibition which he made for the young women in the tribe.

The panels revealed some cultural conflicts.   Many artists that I have met do not like to be pigeonholed, but the artists in these sessions wanted to be identified with their heritage. At the same time, they wanted to elaborate on tradition going in new and different directions.  Several of them talked of the new materials, techniques and tools that they were exploring.
Some interesting practicalities came up in their discussions such as the cost of materials.  One artist who wanted to work in gold explained that this would entail an investment risk.  To cover the cost of the material she might have to price the work too high to sell easily. 

Another issue was, whether it was legitimate to use the computer for design. All the participants replied in the affirmative though it could be frowned upon in some of the competitions they attended.  They were asked if they liked these contests and they did.  It was a very good way to be recognized in their field.

Most of the artists wanted to work in more than one medium such as paintings and jewelry or maybe wood carving and jewelry.  I will only touch on a few of the artists on the second session panel but after going to both panels of about 1 ½  hours each you can see what an exhaustive subject jewelry can be.  Considering how old the art is that is not surprising!

Kenneth Johnson (Muscogee/Seminole) is an influential figure in the field and a member of the Coe Center board of trustees. He curated the Caesar family exhibition, rounded up the panels and was the MC for the two evenings.  Calling on artists, teachers and students in the audience, he demonstrated the close relations between members of the Native jewelry community. 

Johnson has the unique distinction of having made rings for all of the women justices who have served on the Supreme Court. He works in a wide range of metals, including, copper, silver, gold, platinum and palladium, He is particularly known for his stampwork and engraving which are illustrated in his own silver wedding ring. He also incorporates coins and bead-set gemstones. Native Peoples magazine featured him on the cover with a gold ring (in the center detail) he made for a couple’s 40th wedding anniversary with a 4 carat diamond, 1 carat for each decade of their marriage as well as the wife’s birthstone, an emerald, underneath.

One of the panelists at the Coe was Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose (Navajo/Southern Ute).  He was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis as a child. However, from his wheelchair, he can do computer generated digital work.  He was accepted into Santa Fe Indian Market in 2018 breaking a barrier that has restricted participants to traditional techniques.  Here is a picture of Adrian and a design he made with his 3-D printer.

Samuel LaFountain (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa/ Diné (aka Navajo)) specializes in making one of a kind pieces. Even though people usually want what they have seen somewhere else, he prefers to always be challenging himself.

Another panelist, LeOreal “Effie” Wall (Ute Mountain Ute, Northern Ute), is still a teenager and a senior at the Institute for American Indian Arts. She   was passionate and articulate, offering great praise for the mentorship that many of the established artists give to young students, opening their studios to them and in some cases hiring them as assistants.  This follows in the tradition of the European Old Masters who also took in apprentices, who became assistants and often went on to be independent artists. Rembrandt had over 40 students many of whom became the leading lights of the Golden Age of Painting in Holland.

As regular visitors to Santa Fe’s Indian Market we have noticed how jewelry has developed over the years to the point that it is the most innovative of the art forms presented and the most successful in terms of sales. The Coe programs gave insight into just how this has come about. 

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