Early Native American Jewelry Traditions

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What Do You Think Of?

Most people probably visualize lots of ornate silver with turquoise when they think about Native American tribal jewelry. Surprisingly, North American Indian artisans did not start using this style until the 1800’s when they learned it from the Spaniards. It was not initially Native American at all, even though today many Indian tribal jewelry artisans fully embrace it.

Native Americans certainly wore jewelry before the arrival of the Europeans. In alignment with nature, they used the natural materials to make meaningful ornaments and beads.

How Did They Do That?

With their primitive tools, the process was a pain staking and time-consuming process. They meticulously handcrafted each bead from antler, shell, horn, bone, quills, feathers, claws, teeth, wood, and stone. These components provided the wearer with a spiritual connection to nature – and spirituality is a defining characteristic of all Native American cultures.

Except for the unique copper jewelry of the Great Lakes region, most of this early Native American tribal jewelry did not survive. Only a few isolated stone beads remain.

Trade Changed Everything.

Things changed when the Europeans arrived. They brought trade with them – and trade meant a steady supply of colorful, uniform, and plentiful glass beads. Native American crafts of all kinds- especially textiles and tribal jewelry suddenly acquired a new aesthetic.

Despite these changes, Native American artisans continued to integrate traditional symbols into their work. The exact symbolic meaning varied from tribe to tribe, but is enlightening nonetheless.

What Does It All Mean?

bearFor example, the bear was considered a cosmic guardian and fierce humming birdprotector by many tribes people. Birds carried prayers to heaven – especially the spirit bird depicted in flight. Kokopeli playing a flute assured the tribe of crops and babies. The three sisters – corn, beans, and squash – gave both spiritual and physical nourishment. These are just a few of the repeating symbols that continue to embellish Native American tribal jewelry even today.

NEXT: Some Native American Jewelry Traditions in North America Today

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Andrea @ Tribal Muse  www.tribalmuse.com