The History and Beauty of Native American Jewelry
November is Native American Heritage Month, and so we wanted to celebrate and explore the history of Native American jewelry, particularly here in the Pacific Northwest, where tribes native to this region include The Tlingit, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Salish, Chinook, Tillamook, and others. Like in many cultures around the world, jewelry was traditionally used in many aspects of Native American life, such as ceremonies, showcasing one's social status and wealth, and giving it away in special feasts known as potlatches. Several fascinating jewelry making techniques were used by these tribes, such as hammered metal working, making dentalium shells into beads, as well as turning walrus ivory into bracelets and other decorative items. To find out more about the jewelry that originated from the natives of this region, keep reading!
One of the primary uses of jewelry for Pacific Northwest native tribes was to display a tribe's wealth and social status. A primary but complex way that they would show off their prosperity was by hosting lavish
feasts called potlatches where possessions are given away, or destroyed, to display wealth, generosity and enhance prestige. These ceremonies took much time to plan and organize, and were primarily put on by tribes' highest ranking chiefs.
But jewelry was not the only thing exchanged at potlatches, as native leaders often took the opportunity to transfer titles, positions, and privileges to their children in order to validate the change before an audience of witnesses. In addition, the celebrations often coincided with weddings, births and funerals, and served as an opportunity to redistribute wealth within the tribe, thus creating a gift economy.
Unfortunately, when settlers began interacting and trading with the Indigenous people, however, they saw potlatches as wasteful and excessive, and shortly banned them in order to force them to assimilate to colonial culture. The ban was lifted in 1934, after natives continuously petitioned the government to allow the practice, comparing it to the generosity of the Christmas holiday. Some tribes, such as the Kwakiutl still carry on the tradition today, and many even believe the American word "potluck" derived from the Native American ceremony.
Materials and Techniques
Native jewelry in the Pacific Northwest features many fascinating materials and techniques, as well as highly stylized work. Because many of the tribes lived near the sea or in the river valleys, their climate was mild and food was easily harvestable. These conditions allowed them to form large settlements and devote more time to endeavors besides survival, such as art and jewelry making, which became a crucial aspect of native life and social structures.
Some of the most common and versatile art mediums included walrus ivory, argillite, and dentalium shells, though once they began trading with other tribes and European traders, materials such as coins, copper, and venetian glass beads were introduced. In order to show social status, some mediums were strictly reserved for high ranking members of society to set them apart from everyone else, such as the large abalone earrings worn by the woman in the photo to the right. Another intricate technique used in jewelry making was repousse metal working, in which the metal was hammered down and then carved with intricate mythical designs.
Overall, there are many beautiful and captivating meanings and materials tied to Native American jewelry and art that deserve to be celebrated and recognized throughout history and still to this day.