For thousands of years, the Native peoples of North America have made extraordinary jewelry and other adornments. Today throughout the continent that tradition is still alive—and vibrant.
Some of the most spectacular jewelry then and now has been created by the peoples of two very different geographic regions, the American Southwest and the Northwest Coast. Native artists from the Southwest often embrace strong colors and angular geometry, while those from the Northwest typically create more fluid, sculptural forms. Yet beneath these differences, the jewelry has much in common.
Native jewelry employs a visual language that communicates on many levels. Bracelets, belts, and rings embody complex cultural beliefs and symbols, but in miniature. Like other Native arts, jewelry provides evidence of a rich, living tradition, passed down from elders and mentors to the next generation. Today's talented artists respect age-old traditions—and yet reinvent them in exciting and sometimes surprising new ways.
Native jewelry reveals cultural continuity from one generation to the next.
Native jewelry from both the Northwest Coast and the American Southwest draws on forms, styles and materials dating back many centuries.
Northwest Coast art is often sculptural and fluid, while Southwest art typically embraces color and angular geometry.
In Southwest Native arts, color is a primary mode for communicating ideas. This painterly style is frequently achieved in jewelry by shaping, cutting and inlaying colorful gems.
Native jewelry, like other Native art forms, embodies symbols and motifs with deep cultural significance. Yet unlike totem poles, blankets and the large ceremonial mask displayed here, jewelry is small enough to be held in the hand.
In the Northwest Coast, animal symbols--called crests--represent the history and ancestry of extended family groups. Such supernatural images have long been carved on wooden objects, from totem poles to boxes, bowls to house fronts.
As creative individuals, today's Native artists inevitably explore new directions. Some incorporate unique personal visions. Others introduce unfamiliar materials or dramatically different approaches to older forms.