The History Behind Native American Jewelry


Native American jewelry has very deep roots, with jewelry artifacts found in Alaska dating all the way back to 10,000 BCE. These bone pendants are a stunning example of a long-standing history of jewelry-making by Native Americans. Other archaeological finds have uncovered evidence of pendants created with seashells around 8000 BCE, with copper pieces cropping up in the Michigan area around 3000 BCE. There is also evidence to suggest that Native Americans were working with turquoise—one of the stones that dominates much of modern Native American jewelry—as far back as two thousand years ago.

Different tribes specialize in different types of jewelry, usually depending upon what resources are available in their regions. For instance, Plains Indians are particularly well-known for their work with beads. Since 2000 BCE, Iroquois jewelry makers have been crafting ornate hair combs out of moose antlers. The Apache are a prolific tribe when it comes to jewelry, crafting a wide assortment of pieces and famed for using the peridot stone in many of them. Meanwhile, the Navajo have been very well-known for their silver pieces ever since silver was introduced to their area. For the past few centuries, they have been combining silver and turquoise to make magnificent jewelry pieces, belt buckles and bolo ties.

Although Native Americans are often known for their metalwork—such as in the multitude of distinctive squash blossom necklaces—metal is a relatively new material when compared to others that have been used for thousands of years. Through trade with Mexican metalworkers in the 1800s, Native Americans started crafting some of the metal pieces for which they are now so well-known. In fact, U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse, who represented Colorado, is a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and is a successful silversmith. His father taught him how to work metal at a very young age, and he has continued to craft unique pieces throughout his life.

Through their oral histories and their induction of the youth into their ancient culture, many Native Americans have passed on their knowledge of jewelry making to younger tribe members. Many jewelry enthusiasts are immediately able to spot Native American pieces; their iconic craftsmanship is very distinctive. Moreover, this kind of jewelry connects us to a tradition that is tens of thousands of years old. Connecting people to their natural habitat through the use of area resources, hopefully these pieces will continue to be made for thousands of years to come.