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Navajo Native American Jewelry- History

Jul 10, 2008
The Navajo are a Native American people thought to have settled about 900 years ago in what is now the southwestern United States. Raiding was a part of their early culture, and they supplied themselves in part by taking food, livestock and women from the nearby Pueblo Indians.

They were nomadic people when discovered by the Spaniards around 1540. The Spaniards introduced them to silversmithing, sheep and horses. Later the Navajo also became accomplished at farming and sheep herding, and adopted many agricultural practices of the Pueblos.

During the American Civil War, the United States army forced the Navajos to relocate. In what has been called a scorched earth campaign, American Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson supervised the destruction of Navajo homes, farmland and livestock. Upon surrendering in 1864 with more than 1,000 of their people injured, captured or killed, the Navajo were marched more than 300 miles to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico.

Known in Navajo history as the Long Walk, this journey caused the death of hundreds under notoriously brutal conditions. Five years later, the Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland and partially reestablish their traditional lifestyle.

Their art was intertwined with their religion, as was common among Native American tribes. The problem is that Indian cultures do not differentiate between art and religion. Just because a piece of art or a symbol has no ritual religious significance, doesn't mean it has no significance at all.

However many of the complex designs and patterns that adorn Native American artwork are not religious symbols nor do they have any specific symbolic meaning behind it. Well-known crafts like kachina dolls or dream catchers, for example, are traditionally placed in homes to help ensure good fortune. Over the years, non-Indians have concocted meanings that don't exist for many items. And this includes jewelry.

Most of the Navajo crafts are their weaving, jewelry making and sandpainting. The latter took place during religious ceremonies and involved using crushed minerals such as charcoal, sandstone, ocher and gypsum to create patterns in sand. More lasting was Navajo jewelry, which is particularly distinct for its use of silver and turquoise.

There are massive Navajo cluster bracelets resembling brilliant blue sunbursts; heavy concha (Spanish for "shell") belts, with large silver ovals on thick leather setting off a series of bright stones; and squash blossom necklaces with stylized open silver petals, seemingly sprouting from the stones and leading down to the traditional "naja" ("crescent" in Navajo) pendant.

With its color suggesting sky and water, it has always been central to much of their own mythology, starting at the beginning. One Navajo origin legend holds that when the first man and first woman made the sun, they fashioned it from a stone disk edged with turquoise.

Turquoise, long used by the Navajo as talismans for luck and protection against contagious diseases, symbolizes the medicine man's powers. Mount Taylor, a towering, 11,300-foot extinct volcano northwest of Albuquerque, is sacred to them; its Navajo name, Dzil Dotlizi, means "Turquoise Mountain."

Turquoise is still sacred to the Navajo. When they harvest pinon nuts, for instance, they thank the earth by leaving a turquoise in the area of the harvest. And they still count on it for protection from harm and illness.

Turquoise, even if it is produced in a few other countries around the globe, is an integral part of the New World culture. It has been for more than a thousand years.

So when you purchase Navajo silver and turquoise jewelry, you are wearing a bit of history and myth. May it also protect you from harm.
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