Southwest: Contact

Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

© AMNH / Denis Finnin

Centuries of Change: Shaping Southwest Style

Life in the Southwest changed dramatically when Spanish colonists arrived in the 1500s. With violent force, the Spanish claimed the land and tried to convert Native villages to Christianity. The people resisted. In the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, they rose up and drove the Spanish out for the next 12 years. Along with such conflicts came sweeping cultural changes. When the Spanish conquered the region once more in 1692, some Pueblo people took refuge among the Navajos, passing on techniques for weaving and pottery-making during their stay. In the 1700s, the Navajos acquired sheep and horses from the Spanish and gained strength as successful herders and raiders.

In 1821, the Southwest came under Mexican rule, and in 1848, it was ceded to the United States. More hardships followed as the U.S. army launched a campaign to subdue the Navajos. Those who surrendered were forced to make the Long Walk—a 300-mile march to an outpost in eastern New Mexico called Fort Sumner, or Bosque Redondo. After four years at this bleak reservation, the Navajos returned to their lands. Like other Native groups of the Southwest, they held onto their home, using art and ingenuity to adapt to the changing times.

Early Metalwork

As Spanish and Mexican settlers entered the Southwest, they brought iron tools, copper and brass cookware, and bridles and belts trimmed with silver. Native people acquired metal objects through trade at first, then learned how to make their own. In the mid-1800s, many artists formed bracelets from heavy brass and copper wire. The Navajos learned to work silver from Mexican metalsmiths, later passing the skill to the Pueblos. By the 1880s, silver jewelry made by Native smiths was earning renown across the Southwest.

Patterns in Silver

New styles of jewelry developed as artists tried out different tools and materials. Starting in the 1880s, artists crafted their own metal stamps to punch designs into silver, borrowing a technique used on leather for saddles and bridles.

U.S. and Mexican silver coins were heated, pounded, and stamped to make beads or ornamental buttons for leggings, leather bags, and moccasins. These blouse ornaments were made of slugs of silver known as ingot, supplied by white traders. Silver also came from readymade objects such as serving platters or spoons.

Classic Combination

Around 1880, Navajo artists began setting turquoise in silver rings and bracelets, using recycled stones or raw nuggets obtained through trade with Santo Domingo Pueblo. Trading companies later supplied artists with cut and polished stones for more refined settings.

The ketoh, or bow guard, was originally worn to protect the wrist when shooting with a bow and arrow. In the late 1800s, Navajo jewelers started ornamenting these simple leather bands with a silver cap, often richly decorated and studded with turquoise.