"When I first started making jewelry, I reached back to my grandmother's teachings about the prayers and the four sacred colors....I would dream the colors, and I would wake up in the middle of the night and draw it out."
—Jesse Monongya, Navajo artist
The Navajo tribe is the largest in the Southwest: with 300,000 members, it has nearly four times the population of all the Pueblo tribes combined. Known more for sheep-herding than farming, the Navajos have historically been much more mobile than their Pueblo neighbors. The close resemblance between the Navajo language and Athapaskan languages from the far north suggests that Navajo ancestors came from Northwestern Canada and Alaska, later absorbing elements of Pueblo culture.
Today, Navajo culture is strong: traditional healing remains important, the Navajo language is widely spoken and Navajo weaving—and jewelry—are world-renowned. The Navajos learned silversmithing from New Mexican Hispanos in the mid-1800s, and in turn passed the art on to the Pueblos. Early Navajo jewelry was characterized by heavy silver pieces and precise stampwork. While many jewelers still work in classic silver-and-turquoise styles, Navajo jewelry today is strongly marked by its great diversity and innovation.
Raised by adoptive parents, Jesse Monongya did not learn until adulthood that he was the son of a famous jeweler. "I didn't know my dad, Preston Monongye, until after I came home from the Marines and Vietnam. Then I looked for him and found him. I didn't know he was a famous jeweler already. I'd watch him work, doing his silversmithing, but at first I didn't really have any interest in it.
"Then I had a dream that my mother found me—I never knew my mother either—but in my dream she found me and told me that I would become a famous jeweler. It was like a lightning bolt hit me. And I looked at my dad's work again, and it seemed like I knew what I was doing already, right off the bat. So I worked with him a while, and then I started entering competitions, and I won...beat my father and some of the other big-name guys. So that's how it started."
James Little's childhood deafness contributed to his introspective, reflective personality. "I had a hard time hearing when I was growing up. Because I couldn't hear, I was shy and very lonely. I was always doing something with my hands. I had never seen Anglo toys, so I used a lot of mud and played with this to make horses, sheep, cars, trucks—those were my toys. My mom was a rug weaver, and I watched her. She used a lot of traditional designs, and I put those designs in my beadwork.
"Some of my very special pieces are from my inside life: what I'm feeling and thinking. Earth, the air, the colors. Quietly, by myself, I work life into the pieces. I want to create life."
Raymond Yazzie is known for his intricate and original inlay work. "A lot of energy, a lot of time, and a lot of thought goes into my pieces. There's times when you say, 'Is this ever going to be done?' And there's times when you want to finish it sooner, and decide 'Should I take a shortcut and use larger pieces?' Because you're the only one that's going to know! But you won't feel good about the piece once it's finished because you know that wasn't the way it was supposed to be."
Yazzie's "Blessings" bracelet, painstakingly made from approximately 485 separate stones, includes in its abstract design a Katsina maiden and five Katsina masks, as well as rainbow, corn, star, and feather patterns. "I'm a full-blooded Navajo, but there's very little of that that finds its way into my work. As a matter of fact, if you look closely, you can actually find more of a Hopi influence—a Katsina mask, abstracted in the inlay."
Lee Yazzie, a Mormon bishop, describes his artwork as a highly spiritual endeavor. "When someone buys my jewelry, they don't know how much of me that they buy because of all that I go through in making that piece. I always see beauty in the eyes of people or in the faces of people. I see how I can enhance this beauty with what I can create."
"The most beautiful thing, though, is our spiritual being, what's inside of us, each one of us. That's where beauty is. That's where an Indian will tell you, that's where they find that beauty to create. And everybody has it. I feel blessed that I have a lot of ideas, a lot of designs that I haven't even made yet. And they are still coming."