Native American jewelry is known for its patterns, symbols, and materials. The traditional skills used in crafting each piece are a reflection of cultural and historical connections which continue into the world of today. This is especially true of materials that reflect the larger community of an ancient people.
Many make the mistake of believing that the ancient world here in the American Southwest was a small and isolated one. Assuming that the world before the arrival of “civilization”, as we like to think of modernity, was far from complex would also be a mistake. The desert may seem empty to modern people, used to highways, fast cars, and large cities, but there were a number of highly organized societies throughout the area.
What has been learned from the things left behind by these people tells a different story than many might expect. Communal and individual dwellings still dot the landscape out west, providing a glimpse of how populated the area was over a thousand years ago. Not only did a large number of people live in the area, those same people connected with other groups both near and, in some cases, far. The world of the Ancestral Puebloan people, the ancestors of today’s Pueblo groups, involved interactions with not only those near them geographically but others who lived much further away. Some of these societies included trade routes used by travelers from areas in South America.
Ancient roads, some of which still exist today, carried travelers from place to place, their goods arriving with them. Trade routes allowed for the exchange of objects from one area of another, with these objects leaving behind both physical remnants and cultural impacts. Items such as parrot feathers, the remains of macaws and shells found far from the desert have been uncovered by archaeologists. The extent of the trade routes isn’t clear but what is clear is the fact that groups living in the southwest communicated and interacted with people living far away. Their world was not so small and insular that they did not know of other places, people and things.
Today some of these items remain an integral part of Native American jewelry. Shells once valued as trade goods are still used in the making of heishe beads. Their presence as a trade item popularized their use in the jewelry of the ancestors, and that popularity remains evident. Abalone, conch, clam and oyster shells have been used in this beautiful art for years.
The past often appears simple and isolated from modern people. The truth, however, tells a different story. This story can be found in the impact made on Native cultures by their interactions with those around them, both near and far.