Over the centuries the American Indians established a culture based on hunting and the gathering of the fruits of nature, in common with the initial phase of human civilization, with animal husbandry and agriculture developing subsequently. The changes in the means of procuring subsistence went hand in hand with an evolution in the techniques and materials used in making body ornaments, The type of jewels worn by any particular group was closely related to the availability of the relevant materials in the local habitat. Bones, teeth and animal claws, seashells, wood, feathers, and semi-precious stones like turquoise were the first natural resources to be used as ornaments. In the Southwestern United States, corresponding roughly to the current states of New Mexico and Arizona, there were various pre-Columbian cultures. The Mogollon, Hohokam and Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as the Anasazi, and the immediate precursors of the Pueblo Indians) inhabited the Southwest from approximately 300 BC to 1600 AD.
These peoples developed a sophisticated art of mosaic jewelry, using jet, seashells and turquoise stone. The materials took on a special significance because they were an integral part of their costumes, serving both sacred and secular functions. Decorative materials and jewels were bartered by the indigenous populations using an elaborate network of exchanges and social alliances which was already in place before the arrival of the Europeans. The Southwest had long been a strategic area for cultural encounters and exchanges in the North American continent. Seashells, like all materials obtained from water, were considered life-giving symbols. They were exchanged between coast dwellers and the hinterland, and circulated widely from as early as 3000 BC.
The Hohokams, who flourished between 200 and 1400 AD inthe area of Arizona and Northern Mexico, bartered seashells from the Pacific Ocean (including Olivella, Abalone, Glycymeris, Spondyllus and Conus) with the products of the Great Plains (skins,obsidian, trade cloth) and Mexico (copper and feathers). As a result of its strategic position on trading routes, the Hohokam culture produced jewels which combined the influences of various different civilizations and regions. Pendants and bracelets were made using the bivalve mollusc Glycymeris, and images of birds, turtles, frogs and lizards were made out of turquoise stone. All these forms and techniques are still to be found in the modern ornaments of the Indians from the American Southwest.
Over the last five centuries three distinct cultures have met and mixed in the vast open spaces of this immense tableland, which is desert-like but nonetheless life sustaining. One is the culture of the native peoples, with traditions going back to pre-Columbian civilizations; then that of Spain, brought by the Spanish conquistadores from the 16th century onwards; and thirdly that of the Anglo-Americans, following the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico in 1848. Two ethnic subgroups can be briefly identified in the indigenous cultures of the Southwest: that of the Pueblo Indians, the oldest stock descending from the Ancestral Pueblo Indians, belong to the different, unrelated language groups of Tanoan, Keresan and Zuni, and one comprising the Navajo and Apache Indians, both Athapaskan in origin, which appear to have arrived from the North, or as some suppose from the Asian continent, in the 13th or 14th century. The Hopi, who speak the Uto-Aztecan language, are sometimes classified as belonging to the Puebloan groups but consider themselves a separate tribe.
Over the centuries the continuous interchange among the indian ethnic groups brought about radical changes in the means of procuring subsistence. As an example we can cite the Navajo: originally hunters and gatherers, on coming into contact with the sedentary agricultural culture of the Pueblos they acquired some knowledge of farming and opted for a semi-nomadic lifestyle, growing maize, beans, squashes, herding sheep and practising the crafts of weaving on an upright loom, basketry and also jewelry. It is interesting that the Navajos have not given up their characteristic dwellings, the hogan, which may be round or hexagonal in shape and are made out of branches and mud with a central air flue. This construction is surprisingly similar to the yurt, the circular tent of the Uzbek people, and would seem to have common Asian origins. Another striking analogy with Buddhist populations in Central Asia is the custom of composing pictures in sand, what the Tibetans call mandalas. In both cultures these are ritual compositions, using sand and colored powders, associated with ceremonies which seek to re-establish harmony and equilibrium both for the individual and for the community. Once completed they are immediately destroyed as a token of the creator's humility.
One more affinity can be seen in the use made by both Navajos and Tibetans of coral and turquoise in silverware ornaments. Naturally this in itself is not enough to postulate Asian origins for the Navajo indians, but it does undoubtedly represent one more intriguing coincidence. When the first Spanish explorers arrived in what is now New Mexico at the beginning of the 16th century, they found an indigenous population living in villages comprising low, flat-roofed houses made out of mud and straw grouped round a communal square, or plaza. These sites reminded them of the villages in the Spanish countryside, and they called them pueblo, a word that came to be the generic term for the indigenous inhabitants, the Pueblo Indians, perpetrating Columbus’s mistaken identification.
Today there are still 19 groups of Native Americans who are known by the name given to the community by the Spanish missionaries followed by "pueblo": Santo Domingo Pueblo, Santa lldefonso Pueblo, Isleta Pueblo, and so on. Nowadays the territories of the American Southwest are home to a significant concentration of Native Americans. In all they number more than 300,000, including about 5000 Hopis, living in Arizona, 7000 Zuni, in Arizona e New Mexico, 19 Puebloan groups, living in the Rio Grande drainage basin of New Mexico, and lastly the 130,000 Navajos or Dine ("men" in the Athapaskan language), which constitute the largest group and occupy the most extensive indian reservation straddling Arizona and New Mexico. The current lndian groups represent only three quarters of the native population which lived here when the Spaniards began their conquest.
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