Known to the world as the Navajo Nation, the Diné (meaning the People) are one of the more successful of the tribes at surviving colonialism in North America, making use of the rugged and vast Southwestern terrain to survive conquering attempts by the Aztecs, the Spanish, and later the people from the East. The Navajo remain on some part of their ancestral lands, rare in the fates of the tribes, retaining customs, a government, and even their language. Still on point, today they must resist the conquest of the global economy, which has an appetite for the uranium buried beneath their feet.
Throughout the world, they are also well known for their jewelry, a mixture of solid silver design with the most precious of local gems, turquoise, a rock the color of the sky. Interestingly, silversmithing was a late development, the result of contact with Mexico, beginning in the 19th century.
Expanding mainly from conchos (named for the seashell they resemble), ornamental slides useful for cinching leather cord and personalizing horse saddlery, the tribes developed a visual language of studded belts, rings, bracelets, and bolo slides. The bolo marks the earliest beginnings of trade, the silver tie piece filling in with people from the East for a late Victorian fashion inspired by Lord Byron, who started men wearing a bit of bright color around their neck. With silk a relative rarity in the wilderness, this Southwestern version of the silk tie was shaped by tribal hammers, still worn on the reservation as a kind of rebellion against the Yankees.
The Diné remember the name of their first trained silversmith, Atsidi Sani, who apprenticed with a Mexican silversmith between 1853 and 1868. Later he trained his sons and other members of his tribe, making original work part of an unbroken family tradition. Shortly after, in 1870, the Zuñi nation also had its first silversmiths, and eventually the Hopi between 1890 and 1895 had their own as well.
Part of the unique look of the buckles and pendants set with turquoise that makes Southwestern tribal silver identifiable, comes from the angular modeling that results from casting directly into knife-cuts in tufa stone (a soft pumice) abundant in the volcanic fields of northern Arizona. Similar to cuttlefish bone used to teach casting today, two slabs of the soft stone, one flat and one carved in relief with V-shaped cuts, are bound together to form a mold.
Among classic symbols important to the Navajo, the “squash blossom” necklaces are a regional specialty, worn by men and women. The flower is a misnomer, not the local squash at all, but a carryover of the popular Mexican pomegranate flower worn throughout the south. The necklaces typically have as their focal piece some variant of the crescent, called the Naja. One version of this symbol was translated through the grapevine… during their long occupation of Spain during the Middle Ages, the North African Moors introduced the custom of placing a crescent on the headstalls of their horses for talismanic protection, which the Spaniards brought to the New World. Another part of the story undoubtedly involves the moon and the sky.
Another important motif for the Navajos, found in buckles, conchos and wrist guards, is a four-fold symmetry, represented in a dynamic variety of forms. In general, the tribes of the Southwest share a tradition of a genesis myth involving moving through four worlds, as four forms, this world being the fourth. Worn in subtler patterns, the story is elaborated visually with detailed sand paintings, costumes, and dance.
In 1918 the Fred Harvey Company began ordering the tribal silver wholesale to sell in essentially the first chain restaurant in the country, The first class hotel-restaurants catered to major railroad and highway stops, often a town’s first ‘fine dining’, and helped to create the mystique of the Southwest as a kind of traveller’s paradise. For a time, with the wartime closure of European imports, Southwestern art grew in popularity and Americans took interest in the cultures in their own backyard, to such an extent that the Navajo style is now reproduced cheaply in factories across the ocean and one of the essential American icons. The Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild maintains quality rules and a register for those interested in the authentic.