Indigenous Women: Nations, Cultures, Voices

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Native Jewelry is Art is Culture

b2ap3_thumbnail_1039f6596cec77dfadd9159fc0550ab7--native-american-beadwork-native-beadwork.jpgNative American jewelry is one of the most highly visible expressions of Indigenous culture and art that is familiar to many people around the world. Silver-work, beading, weaving and use of turquoise are widespread components of Indigenous jewelry making, though the nations all have their unique cultural style and materials. Pictured is an example of some gorgeous Eastern Woodlands beadwork.

b2ap3_thumbnail_c60a6000f2231082bade632cb3827e75--native-american-beadwork-native-beadwork.jpgTraditionally, all objects Indigenous peoples created were done so with a high aesthetic value. In other words, utilitarian items (like a hairbrush or a basket strap) were also made to be beautiful. What this means today is that the handles of our can openers would be beautifully beaded or have silver and stone inlays! Even the most "mundane" items were, and still are, elevated to objects of artful beauty by Indigenous peoples. b2ap3_thumbnail_index-bracelet.jpgThis should tell you a lot about their outlooks on life (life is understood as reflecting beauty), their sense of time in creating these objects (careful patience and timeless perspectives), and the reality that everyone had beautiful items (no class/caste system).

In western culture, the wealthiest people among us and our leaders have the most beautiful, highly-decorated "stuff"--this was not true for most Indigenous nations that did not have class systems. In nearly all Native nations, no set of people worked so that other groups could live in leisure. b2ap3_thumbnail_images-brace.jpgThat said, for Native peoples who practice(d) Communal Gifting, for those people who accumulated a lot of "stuff" throughout the year because of their talents or abilities, they would ritually give away most of that stuff to people who did not have much. This was one way of avoiding a class structure of "Haves" and "Have Nots".

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior that was created b2ap3_thumbnail_9185972_orig.jpgin 1938. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a champion of this agency that meant to protect and perpetuate Indigenous culture through their artworks and provide economic development to the nations. Though this was a good idea, the notion of actually selling jewelry, baskets, beadwork, and pottery was repugnant to some Natives because these objects are created for spiritual and artistic expression for the good of the nation, not for monetary or any personal gain. Since then, however, the Agency has significantly assisted in fulfilling its mission and sponsors three museums in the American west.

b2ap3_thumbnail_d9042c236bf4fb42f424dba716ae69c3--powwow-regalia-native-fashion.jpgA problem with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and one way that it is deeply criticized by some Indigenous peoples, is that only Native artists who are identified as Indian by their federally-recognized Native nation can sell their jewelry, etc. as "Native American". If a Native artist is not federally-recognized (has a Red Card, as they are called by some), then they can be fined for selling so-called "fake" jewelry, baskets, etc. or some stores will not sell their jewelry. The issue, of course, is that some Indigenous peoples are not citizens of federally-recognized nations. They may have been raised in their culture, speak their Native language, and have a Native parent, but they can't get recognition because they do not have enough Indian blood mandated by their nation and thus cannot sell their jewelry as authentic. This is called the effects of colonization. b2ap3_thumbnail_8e5fdb3a87442e19a4df04979fa7a536--beadwork-native-americans-native-beadwork.jpgThe intent of the policy about identity is to prevent non-Native Americans from exploiting and culturally appropriating Native culture through jewelry-making, which is very important. Nevertheless, the Agency helps a lot of Native people, but there are serious drawbacks with some of their policies.

Another way to enjoy Indigenous wearable art is to visit one of the many museum exhibits around the country. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum of the Seminole Tribe of Florida is showing an exhibit of traditional beadwork from now until November 22. From their website, they write that "several tribal artists began their own renaissance of traditional Southeastern beadwork and rekindled the traditions within their own cultures to help reforge the chain of broken" culture. Pictured at your right is another stunning example of traditional beadwork.

Authenticity can be difficult to judge, but the hallmarks of culturally-authentic Native American jewelry include the quality of the materials, a signature or emblem on the piece (hence it is not factory made), and the lack of adhesives (glue) rather than inlaid stone. Inlaid stone requires great skill, as does silversmithing.

Though everyday objects were decorated and made to be beautiful, the most elaborately beaded objects and gorgeous jewelry are typically reserved for ceremony, public rituals like dancing at pow-wows, or for transformational junctures in one's life (like coming-of-age rituals, marriage, funerals). But decorating your pony, your baseball cap, your luggage, automobile or cell phone are all ways that beading, weaving, and silversmithing are used today to honor Native American roots.

One of the easiest ways to know if you are purchasing authentic Native American jewelry or beadwork is to buy directly from a Native-owned store or a store that clearly states that they are a member of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Here are but a very few places to buy authentic Indigenous jewelry and art:  Wrights Indian Art (, Southwest Traditions (, and The Indian Craft Shop in Washington, D.C. (

Native Americans are the First Artists of Turtle Island!

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Dr. Mays is a professional writer with a doctoral degree in Native American Studies who has taught at the college level for nearly two decades. She is committed to educating about Indigenous cultures, especially about practices that specifically relate to women, in order to raise awareness about current issues in Indian Country, dissolve stereotypes, and create healing among all communities.


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