On Sept. 28, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 3001 Central St., will open the exhibit “Stunning Stories in Native American Jewelry.”
The exhibit reveals the deep symbolism and multi-faceted cultural stories each piece tells about the preservation of culture, histories, and spirituality in the face of cross-cultural assimilation.
“In developing the exhibit, we reached out to the artists and tribal communities to share their intimate stories of what their prized jewelry means to them – the materials, symbols, and experience making, wearing, and even losing their treasured pieces” says Kathleen McDonald, the exhibit curator and museum’s Executive Director since 2009.
The nearly 100 pieces of jewelry on display in the exhibit are from the museum’s collections as well as private collectors and represents tribes and prominent artists from throughout the U.S. and Canada, but focuses predominantly on jewelry from the Southwest.
The exhibit opens with the different materials and techniques used in jewelry making including tradit ional bone, shell, copper and seeds but also the influences of Europeans and other cultures who introduced refinements in mining turquoise, silversmith techniques and new materials such as glass beads and other semi-precious stones.
Many traditional materials continue to be used today, even in more modern designs by artists like Charles Loloma or Ray Tracey, to define the piece as Native American.
Some jewelry is explicit in creating a picture of Native American lifeways and people.
These “storyteller” pieces show the southwest landscape, portraits of indigenous people and scenes of lifeways from herding sheep to revealing everything a goat ate. Concha belts often depict scenes of Navajo life from activities around the hogan (a traditional Navajo building), to weaving and traditional cooking. The exhibit also highlights a spectacular Aleutian storyteller belt by Denise and Sam Wallace.
The exhibit then explores the less explicit symbols of legends and spiritual and ceremonial figures prominent in southwest cultures.
Familiar Kokopelli and Yei figures are shown as well as a series of dance figures and kachinas.
While sacred in their true form, these pieces were created to share their culture through exquisitely executed jewelry and it became a good source of revenue. High-
lights include a Deer Kachina bolo tie by Leo Pablano, Zuni; Eagle Dancer bolo tie by Helen Long, Navajo; and a Shalako Kachina bolo tie by Ronnie Calavaza, Zuni.
Animals are also prominent symbols in Native American cultures. Artists often show animal symbols in their jewelry, from clan animals like turtle and bear with deep tribal meanings to more whimsical animals popular with tourists.
Native American jewelry makers also demonstrate the changes in Native American cultures from religious conversion to Christianity or Judaism. They acknowledge the U.S. flag and new citizenship, and showed innovative use of materials during the hard times of World War II. During the Great Depression plastic combs and LP records would be crafted into beautiful thunderbird necklaces and pins.