One specific event in 1864 marked the beginning of what was to become the prized American Indian art of jewelry making. More than 8000 Navajos were settled by the United States army in a reservation created at Fort Sumner, in New Mexico. In their captivity the Navajos began to create jewels using metalwork, whereas previously they had only used such natural materials as turquoise and seashells. Metallurgy and the use of silver had been introduced into America by the Spanish; they passed on their know-how to the Mexicans, who in turn transmitted it to the Indians.
At first the Navajos produced jewels in copper, bronze and iron, but not in silver, which was too costly for the natives. The first artifacts, as well as showing Spanish and Mexican influence as we have seen, owed something to the shapes found among the groups of the Great Plains, such as the Utes, Comanches and Sioux, who maintained constant trading links with the Indians in the Southwest. The introduction of silver coincided with a period of crucial social change in the lives of the Navajos, who from being warriors and horse breeders now found themselves sedentary residents in a dedicated reservation. They soon began to feature the reins used by the caballeros, rosaries, Spanish crosses and medals, squash blossom necklaces and concha belts in fashions that combined the imported style with the indigenous character. By the end of the nineteenth century there were numerous jewelry makers among the Navajos, Hopis and Zunis. As time went on their output increased, involving more and more Indians, especially following the opening of the railway line which took tourists to Santa Fe in search of prized jewels. It was however not only on account of the tourist market that jewelry making became a source of wealth and prestige among the Navajos. They were the first Indians to combine silver and turquoise, influencing the Zunis and Hopis who went on to develop their own style in this new branch of handicraft. While silver is a recent introduction into the jewelry of the Far West, turquoise has always been used, and has an almost sacred connotation. It is legendary aura was linked with the color of the skv, and it was offered up in rituals to bring rain to the arid environment. Turquoise took on great economic importance when it began to be used as a token in exchanges. Its value was calculated on the basis of the quality of the stone and the quantity of work required to produce an artifact. The Pueblo Indians valued a necklace of turquoise discs, stretching from shoulder to shoulder, as the equivalent of a Navajo horse. The extensive network of exchanges which linked the Southwest with the Pacific seaboard, the Midwest and the plains fostered a boom in jewelry making as well as trade in artifacts. As the trade in skins diminished, replaced by the exchange of silver objects, the Indians began to produce ornaments both for themselves and for other groups.
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