Monthly Archives: June 2014

Native American Jewelry in the Southwest

While there exists no known written record of the emergence of native silversmithing in the US southwest it is generally believed to have been sometime after 1850. In 1854 at Fort Defiance, agent Dodge hired George Carter, a blacksmith, and Juan Anaya as an assistant, a Mexican silversmith to teach the local Navajos the art of metal smithing. While records show they produced bridles, bridle bits, rings and etc., it should not be forgotten that a Mexican silversmith was an assistant to George Carter.

The Navajos were clearly making some items of silver jewelry by the early 1850’s. Several drawings exist showing Pueblo and Navajo wearing silver buttons on their pants as decoration. Written descriptions of Navajo dress also include leather belts with silver ovals attached.

The Navajo continued their almost constant raiding of the Rio Grande valley during the early 1860’s. The raiding had provided them with livestock, slaves and European ornaments. This raiding resulted in the Navajo campaign circa 1863-1864 which was led by Kit Carson. The Carson led campaign destroyed crops and orchards until they were able to defeat the Navajo and march them to Bosque Redondo. Located in southeast New Mexico near Fort Sumner Bosque Redondo was to be the Navajos home until 1868.

During their time at Bosque Redondo the Navajo appear to have honed their silver working skills. Some of the Navajo who were being instructed in metal working during this time apparently picked up the ability to make stamps and dies. The government used to issue metal ration tags which controlled the amount of food distributed. History indicates that the Navajo smiths were able to counterfeit the ration tags resulting in the government issuing cardboard ones instead.

By the time the Navajo returned to their reservation in 1868 they possessed a growing skill in silver smithing. Having learned to make stamps and dies they began to duplicate on silver the patterns seen in Mexican leather work. Those that worked for the government began to demand their pay in silver, which was later turned into items of decoration.

By 1880 silver smithing was pervasive throughout the Navajo reservation. Federal agents had encouraged the process by providing smithing tools and encouraging the sharing of techniques. Herding sheep, making blankets and silver smithing provided the Navajo with a reasonable economic foundation going forward. To be continued,,,,,