The hollow beads glisten softly as the silver necklace hangs in its case, a cross dangling from its bottom. The smith who made the necklace shaped coins into half-spheres, and soldered them together for the chain.
The exquisite jewelry is part of the exhibit “The First Phase: Early Navajo Textiles and Silver” at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. The show examines Navajo silver-making from just after the United States Army force-marched the Navajo people on the Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner, N.M., in 1863, until the tourist trade started 20 years later.
The exhibit also offers Navajo textiles that date before 1870, “so people can see what beautiful weaving they did before they were sent to Fort Sumner,” explains Willow Powers, education coordinator for the Wheelwright Museum.
The term “First Phase” refers to Navajo textiles made from 1800 until the Long Walk. The Wheelwright Museum brought together textile masterpieces from across the Southwest, including from the Durango Collection of the Center of Southwest Studies, the Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and the University of Colorado Museum. Among the examples on display are wearing blankets with stripes in brown, white and indigo. Their designs resemble the red, white and blue patterns found on the chief’s blankets people know today. Powers smiles.
“Exactly. They evolved into chief’s blankets. The big stripes started turning into big red blotches at the corners and on the center stripe. Eventually each corner contained a triangle that could be folded to make a diamond.”
But as it celebrates the history of Navajo weaving, “The First Phase: Early Navajo Textiles and Silver” also commemorates Navajo triumph over adversity.
According to Powers, the Spanish recognized the Navajos as weavers from the time they started keeping historical records in the Southwest. Navajo women learned to weave from the Pueblos in the late 17th Century, less than 100 years after the Spanish arrived with sheep.
The Navajos then acquired their own animals by raiding Spanish farms. The Spanish retaliated with raids of their own. By 1700, even though Navajo artisans produced textiles coveted by Europeans and Native Americans alike, the warfare, broken by brief periods of peace, was making life very difficult for people in the Southwest.
After the Americans arrived in the 1840s, the fighting interfered with pioneers building ranches and towns. In 1861, U.S. forces, commanded by Kit Carson, drove more than 8,000 Navajos from their homeland in the Four Corners to Fort Sumner, where the Army incarcerated them in the Bosque Redondo.
“[It] completely devastated their way of life, in which weaving was an important element,” says Powers.
In 1868, after four years of misery with little food, and wretched living conditions for both the soldiers and the Native Americans, the Army allowed the Navajos to return home “with anuity goods handed out by the federal government. Food, clothing, and sheep,” says Powers.
The Navajos also managed to save some of their own stock. The women started weaving again. By the 1880s, they were not only surviving, but prospering, says Powers, thanks to their “absolute determination to get back to a decent level of living.”
“Wool was a Wall Street commodity,” she says. “They got hooked into the larger economy.”
However, rebuilding herds, reviving the art of weaving, and making it into a profitable business took time. The Navajos turned to the silver trade to supplement their incomes.
For at least 50 years before the Long Walk, they had traded for silver ornaments with the Spanish and Mexicans. Now the Navajos exchanged silver bridles, belts, bracelets, and other items with the Americans for horses, sheep, cattle, and food.
Then, around 1870, a few Navajo men learned to work silver from itinerant Mexican smiths. The Navajos began wearing jewelry to show their new wealth. Silver ornaments became a form of identity for them.
The jewelry in “The First Phase: Early Navajo Textiles and Silver” dates between 1870 and 1890. Spanish motifs influenced designs, as did forms from the Plains Indians. “Jewelry is a new craft.” says Powers.
“They were experimenting. Learning to solder. Learning to make punches. First they used Mexican punches. Then they made their own.”
Besides necklaces and bracelets, the silver in “First Phase” contains a bridle with figures borrowed from the Spanish, and many necklaces, including the one with the cross. There is also a case of concho belts.
“That’s one of the first things the silversmiths started to make,” says Powers. “Very quickly, the style of conchos went from round to oval, which are much harder to make. The case is showing that Navajo silversmithing techniques become sophisticated in a very short space of time.”
The sophistication would lead to the appreciation of Navajo silver-smithing familiar today. By 1890, tourists were coming to the Southwest in large numbers, thanks to the 11-year-old railroad.
“They started trading with other Native Americans and selling to the tourist market, says Powers. The 20th Century would bring as much recognition to the Navajos for their silverwork as for their textiles.
“The First Phase: Early Navajo Textiles and Silver” runs through Oct. 29. The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is at 704 Camino Lejo Road in Santa Fe. For information, call 505-982-4636.