Tribal Jewellery | Native American

Tribal Jewellery | Native American

The jewellery we wear says something about who we are and how we think. It seems that this has always been the case and in fact the use of jewellery in this way extends back to the origins of wearable art. Take the Native Americans, for example – the subject of this particular article. The Native Americans often used jewellery for the purpose of personal adornment. It also became a mark of status and a way to divulge something about the wearer to other members of their society. But jewellery wasn’t simply reserved for individual use, it became a useful tool to navigate the intricate twists and turns of trade, whilst also being a form of decorative art. It wasn’t just a means of displaying status, is what we’re saying – the use of jewellery had to also be fun.

In the beginning Native American jewellery was made from naturally-occurring materials used in everything from necklaces to pins. A few jewellery-embellished items you might not of heard of are ketohs, which were leather armguards, wampums, a type of shell bead, and labrets, a body piercing usually worn below the bottom lip. Together these creations reflect the cultural diversity and ancient heritage of the Native American’s different tribal groupings. Many of the designs were borrowed from neighbouring tribes, which created a certain continuity, and yet at the same time the close level of communication and interdependence led to a variety of distinct aesthetics. This also resulted in the appearance of a number of recurring themes and motifs. At the same time individualism was always key in close-knit Native American society and this encouraged an outflow of personal artistic visions. In many ways this could be seen as the origin of Art Nouveau, in so far as the jewellery pays tribute to nature through the use of organic motifs and materials. Aside from individual adornment, this style of jewellery was often used for ceremonies, display and trade. Interestingly it also became the equivalent to a written languages and was a form of silent communication with many different levels of information, reached through the use of tangible symbols. What could be found on all these levels, no matter who it was conveying the information, was a common resistance to assimilation. The Native American had lived a nomadic, subsistence lifestyle for time immemorial, which was partly why their subculture had become so intimately evolved. Like a great oak they had roots that snaked deep into the earth and were embedded in the immovable dirt and stone.

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An example of modern Native American inspired jewellery, this Garden Blossom Turquoise Ring from Child of Wild

In order to make their jewellery the Native American favoured organic materials, as we said previously. Mostly they used hardwoods and vegetal fibres, often adorned with a mix of either precious or semi-precious gemstones. They also found decorative uses for the prey they caught and were accustomed to using every last tooth and strand of hair belonging to the animals they killed. That’s why you often find neatly-shaped beads of tooth or bone in their decorations, as well as a lot of rugged hide. Many of the tribes were very proficient at bead and quillwork and a few even had advanced metal-smiths, working alongside the more primitive beaders and carvers. Furthermore, Turquoise was particularly popular in Native American jewellery, as was any naturally-occurring treasure plucked from its secret home, like, say, oyster shells or mother of pearl. Many of their creations seem to convey their evidently innate belief that there is great beauty in the diversity of life. This is evidenced by their use of coloured abalone shells, taken from sea snails, or conch and clam shells, which were mostly traded in the Southwest. During the Columbian Era the Native Americans did seem to develop their jewellery beyond carved wood, bones, claws and teeth, which they shaped into beads, sewed into clothing and strung into necklaces. Silver began to appear more frequently and copper jewellery was traded amongst several tribes around the jagged waters of Lake Superior in 3000 BCE. Given this close relationship to Mother Nature it’s no wonder that such unique jewellery design has survived today, appearing in various contemporary styles with all kinds of materials, from hand-quarried stones and shells to computer-fabricated steel.

The Plains Americans were a nomadic tribe so-named because they roamed the Great Plains, tracking herds of buffalo under the vast biblical skies of the Old World. Examples of their artistic beadwork date as far back as 8800 BCE when a circular lignite bead was found at the archaeological Lindenmeier Site in Colorado. They were also known to trade special mussel, abalone, marginella and olivella shells around the Gulf of Mexico and along the sun-kissed Californian coasts. As with many other Native American tribes they seemed to favour bones and beads, particularly long, cylindrical beads, as well as hair pipes, which were increasingly popular between 1880-1910. At the same time jewellery appeared in numerous other articles of clothing and accessories, including breastplates, ceremonial headdresses, belt buckles and hair-clips. At the same time quillwork was widespread across the plains, namely porcupine quillwork that appeared in the elaborate textiles of the Northern Plains. Glass beads found their way onto the plains around the 1700’s and were popularised by the Lakota, as well as members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, in Western Dakota, where traditional Native American quillwork still exists today. The last trend that  the Plains Americans was metal jewellery introduced by Spanish and Mexican metal-smiths, along with the cut, stamped and cold hammered silver and nickel alloy of the German smiths.


‘The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas. He fits into the landscape, for the hand that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings. He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers, he belongs just as the buffalo belonged…’

– Luther ‘Standing Bear’ Oglala of the Sioux (1868-1937)


The Americans of the Northeastern Woodlands refers to the indigenous people of the tall Northeastern Woodlands, notable for their work with barrel-shaped, perforated and discoidal shell beads. They also crafted refined wampum with hand drilled holes and channeled whelk shell detailing. They also experimented with purple beads, rare quahog clam shells and set-up advanced wampum workshops like the Algonquian tribes of southern New England. Then there was the Narragansett tribe renowned for their bead makers and refined wampum supplies placed in burials to accompany the deceased on their journey into the afterlife. Interestingly these woodland dwellers seemed to favour tear-shaped shell pendants, as well as incised teeth and ornamental claws worn by the Iroquois of the fecund Hudson Valley, close to Connecticut River. Popular motifs included stylised birds, turtles, fish and other wildlife.Some of their pendants were even carved with eerie, snub-featured human faces.

The Native Americans of the Northwest Coast were known for their engraved silver Haida Bracelets, copper bracelets with mythic designs and walrus ivory pieces. However they commonly carved stone, which is much easier to fashion into motifs or pendants than ivory and bone. In addition they worked with Venetian glass seed beads provided by Russian traders during the late 18th century, at the height of the fur trade. Tribes from this region were known for their use of colours like red and amber and their skilled basket weavers, namely those in the Haida and Tlingit tribes, who worked with sinuous red and yellow cedar and spruce roots.


A Sterling Silver Hummingbird Cuff Bracelet from the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast 

The Native Americans of the Southeastern Woodlands whose jewellery has helped historians to describe their culture, the remains of which can be traced  800 BCE and 1500 CE, and mostly consists of simple clay, stone and pearl beads. They also made common use of shell gorgets emblazoned with flashes of bold and wild imagery, whilst testing their artistic skill with long-nosed, squared maskettes carved from bone, copper and naturally patterned marine shells.

Finally there were the Native Americans of the Southwest who were celebrated for making ‘heishe’ necklaces, derived from the Santo Domingo word for ‘shell’. The traditional heishe necklace usually featured a rolled bead of shell, turquoise or coral, often cut thin. For the most part these shells belonged to spiny oysters or they were the typical pink-tinged conchs. In the early 1800’s Spanish influences began to emerge and later there were manifest Mexican touches, such as the silver buttons and bridles unearthed in the cracked earth of Arizona and Utah, where trade was prolific. Smithing was a trade passed amongst tribes and down through generations, as with the Zuni, who admired the Navajo’s silver jewellery and learnt to mimic their artistry. Then in turn the Zuni instructed the Hopi metal-smiths, who continued the art in 1890.

During the life span of the art lapidary we have seen countless expressions of far-flung and offered extinguished cultures that offered us frozen and timeless expressions of who they were and what they loved, preserved in the jewellery they made. Native American jewellery is defined by ancient traditions passed between travelling clans and is mostly distinguishable for its individuated aesthetic and keen focus on the importance of nature. Take a look at any archive that displays their wearable art and you’ll find a stunning array of pieces, many of which will feature their prized blue or green Turquoise, complemented by stone-on-stone mosaic inlays, intricate cluster work and other polished semi-precious and precious gemstones.


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