Some languages show rather than tell. Throughout human history people have used pictures, colors and materials to convey concepts, events and beliefs. These “languages” reflect the world around us and help us see into the lives of those who came before us. A good example of this type of communication is found in the materials used in Native American jewelry. Traditional materials show the long history of Native people, while materials used today represent how Native people are maintaining their culture in a modern world.
There are a number of natural materials long associated with Native American jewelry: stones, precious metals such as silver and copper, feathers and others. Stones such as turquoise, clay and shells were used to create beads for necklaces, earrings and adornment for clothing. Copper was used long before the first Europeans arrived on the continent, while silver and other metals gained popularity after the Spaniards came. Antlers, feathers and items such as porcupine quills were all used to create wearable items such as clothing, headdresses and jewelry. The natural world provided a veritable store for Native artisans to find beautiful items to add to their pieces.
The items used also reflect the connections, and the differences, in the world in which various groups lived. Certain stones could be found in particular geographic areas. Finding a stone from one area in the material remains of a group living far away indicates the presence of travelers, of trade routes that crisscrossed a wide swath.
It’s easy to believe that prehistoric people lived isolated lives, cut off from everything else in the world at the time. But the record doesn’t show that to be the reality. People traveled, they shared and they interacted. While doing so, they brought items of their own into other cultures. Geography plays a role as well. The types of animals living in an area, the presence of clay, or shells give a good idea of what the landscape around the people looked like and what kinds of things filled it. The use of these materials in jewelry and clothing give a good impression of how connected people were to the world around them.
Even today’s world shows the ongoing interactions of Native people with what they see around them. Traditional materials are used with more modern techniques or images. Native artists today shape their historic culture with the addition of the struggles and concepts they find in the modern world. Art is an ongoing, evolving language. It incorporates what those who create art see, hear and understand about the world around them. The world changes, but art includes the past and the present, with an eye toward the future. Who knows what materials will be found in jewelry from the next century?