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About Beads: Culture & History

No Word for Art?

By April 27, 2017 No Comments
north american turquoise

North American Turquoise

natural mediterranean coral

Natural Mediterranean Coral

The North American Indian Language May Have No Word for Art! Because….. and this is what I find to be so wonderful – artistic expression was not a separate entity, but fully integrated into their daily activities and spiritual lives.  Jewelry and art from Native Americans dates back as far as 8800 BCE, when indigenous tribes shaped multicolored stones and shells into wearable items. Objects were crafted dependent on the lifestyle and available resources, and since there were no craft stores around, it’s wonderful to see what they did with bone, horn, leather, sinew, shell and more. 🙂
I’m dedicating this blog to my mom, because growing up in the 70’s, I was enchanted by her hippie love for turquoise and silver!  One of my very first pieces of “real” jewelry that I remember owning in elementary school was a turquoise ring set in silver from a family trip to Arizona.
I love the bold and intense colors that are in “southwest” style jewelry, with the rich reds, deep blues, blacks, bright oranges – and I wanted to share a tiny bit of how these colors, beads and jewelry come into play into Native American jewelry.  I took the liberty of cutting and pasting from various internet resources and am linking to the original citations – and put together a quick history of the rich cultural history of jewelry made by people of the American Southwest and Northwest Coast – which I learned have two visually different styles!


Wampum: white beads made of welk shell and purple from quahog or North Atlantic hard-shelled clam

pectinidae scallop shells

Pectinidae Scallop Shells

Two of the most prominent elements in Native American jewelry are gemstones and symbols. Precious gemstones are incorporated into most American Indian jewelry, as the stones carry meaning for the wearer and serve to create the desired image. Symbols, too, are often shaped out of material or carved into silver and metal to represent beliefs and meanings.
Lois Sherr Dubin (author of The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present) writes, “[i]n the absence of written languages, adornment became an important element of Indian communication, conveying many levels of information.” Later, jewelry and personal adornment “…signaled resistance to assimilation. It remains a
major statement of tribal and individual identity.”[2]
I googled Lois Sherr Dubin to find out what she’s up to, and she’s the curator to the American Museum of Natural History’s “Totems to Turquoise” exhibition, and I was excited to read more about Native American Jewelry, and included little excerpt below, or you can click here to read more!

Some of the most spectacular jewelry then and now has been created by the peoples of two very different geographic regions, the American Southwest and the Northwest Coast. Native artists from the Southwest often embrace strong colors and angular geometry, while those from the Northwest typically create more fluid, sculptural forms. Yet beneath these differences, the jewelry has much in common.

Native jewelry employs a visual language that communicates on many levels.

Bracelets, belts, and rings embody complex cultural beliefs and symbols, but in miniature.

Like other Native arts, jewelry provides evidence of a rich, living tradition, passed down from elders and mentors to the next generation.

Native jewelry reveals cultural continuity from one generation to the next.
Native jewelry from both the Northwest Coast and the American Southwest draws on forms, styles and materials dating back many centuries. Knowledge is sometimes handed down directly, as when an elder teaches an age-old technique to a young artist. Yet jewelry makers also learn from the past on their own, studying the designs of older artworks on view in their communities, reproduced in books or displayed in museums.
In Southwest Native arts, color is a primary mode for communicating ideas.
This painterly style is frequently achieved in jewelry by shaping, cutting and inlaying colorful gems. Southwest styles often feature straight lines and angles, perhaps influenced by the landscape-the region’s flat horizons and mesas create an angular setting.
Native jewelry is portable symbolic art–a window into the culture of the artist.
Native jewelry, like other Native art forms, embodies symbols and motifs with deep cultural significance. Yet unlike totem poles, blankets and the large ceremonial mask displayed here, jewelry is small enough to be held in the hand. Still, this miniature artwork is powerful. The wearer of a sea creature pendant, for example, forges a personal connection with that supernatural creature and all that his image represents.
The same motifs are found in many art forms, including blankets, ceramics, boxes and jewelry.
In the Northwest Coast, animal symbols—called crests—represent the history and ancestry of extended family groups. Such supernatural images have long been carved on wooden objects, from totem poles to boxes, bowls to house fronts. As silver and other newly available metals were first shaped into bracelets and pendants in the 1800s, these too displayed this rich iconography.
For more detailed information on beads, check out Lois Sherr Dubin’s book, The History of Beads, or stop by the store and take a peek at my 6 pound book! It’s awesome!

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