History of American Indian Jewelry Making

       Navajo Indian Working Silver in 1940.
Photos Courtesy of Denver Museum Digital Archive and Library of Congress.

Although Native Americans were taught to work in silver by Mexican silversmiths during the
mid-nineteenth century, they were quick to change in the face of larger non-Indian social demands.

Navajo Indian Jewelry
For instance, Navajo Indian silversmiths, working from 1870 to 1900, learned the stamping of
Indian ornaments from Mexican leather workers, rather than from the silversmiths who had taught

Navajo Silversmith, Atsidi Sani

Atsidi Sani taught his four sons to craft silver and they, in turn, taught others. Later, in the 1880s,
J.L. Hubbell hired several Mexican silversmiths to teach
the craft to Navajos at his trading post in Ganado, Arizona. The Navajos learned to cast silver in
sandstone or tufa as well as produce hand-hammered work. Turquoise, a traditional favorite of the
Navajos, began to be combined with silverwork in their making of American Indian jewelry the

J.L. Hubbell capitalized on its popularity by importing Persian turquoise for trade to the Navajos.
Eventually, the local supply of turquoise increased as more mines were opened.

Navajo Silversmith, 1930

Originally, Navajo Indians made silver jewelry for themselves or for other Indians. After 1900,
they began to create jewelry for commercial consumption as well. The availability of turquoise and
silver, together with better silver working tools, enabled craftsmen to supply the growing market
among Indian traders and tourists who were arriving in droves by railroad to visit the Southwest.

Field work by John Adair in the 1930s, working with Navajo informants with memories dating back
to the 1870s and 1880s, provided a clearer picture of developments after 1868. Adair research,
confirmed by others, identifies Atsis Sani (active 1860s to 1890s, d. 1918?) as the first Navajo to
work silver, and another early smith, Atsis Chon (active
1870s to ca. 1900), as the first to set turquoise onto a silver piece.

These smiths taught a number of other Navajo men, spreading knowledge of the craft to various
Pueblo neighbors, thus moving the impetus for silversmithing throughout the Southwestern region.

Atsidi Sani's younger brother, Slender Maker of silver (active 1880s to 1890s, d. 1916), has been
credited with numerous innovations in silver and stonework design during the 1880s and 1890s.
Early Navajo works from the 1870s are generally clean, plain silver pieces, marked by simple
surface decoration (punched and stamped).

Some of the more commonly used designs may have been derived from Spanish colonial horse gear
and male dress ornamentation. Lapidary work increased during the 1890s; more and more Navajo
pieces were set with clusters of turquoise as this material became more available from regional
mines, and heavy pieces with well-balanced decoration developed with late nineteenth-century

One of the Navajo artisans' greatest innovations was in their inventive use of die stamping for
decorative effect, with many smiths devising their own handmade stamps, which were often passed
down through the generations. Navajo smiths often made silver settings, known as "blanks," that
were then set with stones by Zuni (or Pueblo) lapidarists.

The early twentieth century brought improved tools and techniques and introduced commercially
produced materials. Commercialism influenced Navajo jewelry-making as early as the 1910s and
1920s, when Indian Traders and railroad vendors, such as the Fred Harvey Company, offered

Zuni Indian Jewelry
The pueblo of Zuni Native American Indians is located in western New Mexico (south of Gallup)
near the Arizona border. Jewelry-making is the major craft industry of the village. Like other
Pueblo peoples, Zuni Indian artisans possess a true talent for lapidary work.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many Zuni Indian craftspeople learned
silversmithing as well. Evidence points to Lanyade as the first Zuni Indian to learn to work Silver,
sometime around 1872. He instructed other village men, and later  raveled to Hopi Indian where he
taught their first smiths.

The number of Zuni Indian men and women engaged in silversmithing and lapidary work steadily
increased as the twentieth century progressed. There is documentation  to support the belief that
one silversmith, Keneshde, was the first Zuni Indian to set turquoise on a piece of silver jewelry
around 1890.  

Zuni Indian Drilling Turquoise, 1930

However, early Zuni Indian jewelry-making efforts often took the form of collaborations between  
Navajos and Zuni Indians, in which a Navajo smith would cast a silver piece-by sandcasting or
another method-and a Zuni Indian lapidarist would set in the stones. Zuni Indian was also the site
of much Indian trader. The best documented of these individuals was C.G. Wallace, who stimulated
sales and new directions for Zuni Indian jewelry.

At the start of the twentieth century, beadmaker Zuni Indian Dick was well known for teaching
turquoise grinding and shaping for personal adornment, and he often appears in the photographs of
visiting ethnographers and recorders of life in Zuni Indian Pueblo.

Hopi Indian Jewelry
Jewelry created by members of the Hopi Indian Native American Indian tribe, whose traditional
homeland is on three isolated mesas in northern Arizona; the major Hopi Indian villages are Walpi
(on First Mesa); Shungopovi, Mishongnovi, and Shipaulovi (Second Mesa); Oraibi (Third Mesa); and
the farming community of Moencopi to the west of Third Mesa.

Much of Hopi Indian jewelry is done in Overlay style. In the mid- to late 1930s, Hopi Indian jewelry
was promoted and  championed by the Museum of Northern Arizona in nearby Flagstaff. The
publication of Frank Waters's The Book of the Hopi Indian (1963), reignited non-native interest in
the Hopi Indian world-view, with its descriptions of  legends, rituals, and ceremonies.

Before their first contacts with Europeans, Hopi Indians fashioned jewelry from bone, seeds,
shell, and local stones (including turquoise, according to ancestral ways.

Metalsmithing techniques, including silversmithing, came to Hopi Indian somewhat later than to
other Southwest tribes. Prior to the mid- to late nineteenth century, Hopi Indian's geographical
remoteness precluded sustained local trade with Anglo traders.

The earliest Hopi Indian metal ornaments were usually items salvaged from discarded brass bullet
cartridges and copper wire. The first silversmith Sikyatala of Walpi (First Mesa), learned the
process from Lanyade after visiting him in Zuni Indian around 1898.

Lanyade accompanied Sikyatala back to Hopi Indian; soon, various men from First and Second Mesa,
including Duwakuku and Tawahonganiwa (whose four sons also became smiths) were learning the
craft in the first years of the 1900s. The earliest Hopi Indian silver jewelry was little different
from Navajo and Pueblo work.

Hopi Indian's lack of traders and distance from sizable towns and cities made the economics and
promotion of such works difficult, particularly once the Great Depression started in 1929.

Nevertheless, there were sufficient examples of jewelry from the early twentieth century, along
with other objects of Hopi Indian material culture, that were gathered into major museum
collections in the eastern United States, such as those at Harvard University (Peabody Museum),
Yale University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Navajo Indian Silversmith 1930
Atsidi San, Navajo Indian Silversmith
Navajo Indian Silversmith, 1940
Zuni Indian Drilling Turquoise, 1930's
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