The Art of Adornment | North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment

Leekya Deyuse (Zuni), double-strand necklace [c1935], Cerrillos turquoise nuggets, length 30, Millicent Rogers Museum of Northern New Mexico., jewlery, southwest art.
Leekya Deyuse (Zuni), double-strand necklace [c1935], Cerrillos turquoise nuggets, length 30, Millicent Rogers Museum of Northern New Mexico.

By Lois Sherr Dubin

The exhibit North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment is on view at the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art in San Diego, CA, from August 28 through January 2000. The following is an excerpt from a book of the same title that accompanies the exhibit, written by Lois Sherr Dubin and published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York City.

From the piñon-juniper forest and sage plains of the Colorado Plateau to the mesquite and cactus Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, the bluffs and canyons of the Southwest form a landscape of colored rock and blue sky unsoftened by the pale of moisture. Your gaze is riveted to the sky, where fast-moving storms end suddenly in the sun, a rainbow, and an endless sweep of blue.

The region’s generally arid climate has dictated the patterns of human life for at least 11,000 years. The land once sustained the ancient Pueblo, Hohokam, and Mogollon cultures and remains the source of Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, O’odham, and Yuma life. In return southwestern people have ensouled Mother Earth with their daily prayers, seasonal ceremonies, and adornment.

Every aspect of life, from daily pursuits to grand ceremonies, is guided by the conviction that one can coexist harmoniously with the supernatural. “In this dry country,” wrote anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz of San Juan Pueblo, “even after a mild rainfall, such strong fragrances emanate from the land that the earth itself seems to smell grateful for the moisture.” Beadworkers Terry and Joe B. Reano of Santo Domingo Pueblo say that “as you wet and cut down natural turquoise, it smells like rain.” Shell and turquoise are important and widely used materials. Coming from the water, shell is a symbol of life. Perceived as a piece of sky, turquoise has been revered since the ancient cultures and remains an integral part of Pueblo and Navajo adornment.

Southwestern cosmologies relate sacred geography (mountains and lakes), food (maize), and jewels (shell, turquoise, jet) to the origins of the First People. The cosmos is a complex pattern of contrasting but complementary pairs embodied in the familiar metaphor of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Rain links earth and sky; the womb of earth is the point of emergence of all life forms. Emphasis is placed on maintaining balance while recognizing the male and female sides of life and the universe as a whole. Integrating matter and spirit and achieving a state within that is identical to the great state of being in the cosmos at large is know by the Navajo as hozho, or harmony.

All groups regard the wind as the matrix of life. They clothe and adorn the first beings in nature’s abundance and describe a series of previous existences layered one atop the other out of which the ancient ones emerged. Among some Hopi Indians, the world is believed to have been formed by Huruing Wuhti (Hard Beings Woman), who was closely associated with the creation of turquoise and fire. One of the Hopi first beings was Masau’u, a consort of Huruing Wuhti in the underworld, who wore four strands of turquoise around his neck and very large turquoise ear pendants. In his face he had two black lines made of iron running from the upper part of his nose to his cheeks. Another origin story, of the Acoma Pueblo people, tells of Miochin, the spirit of summer, wearing a shirt made of woven corn silk, a belt of green corn leaves, a hat of corn leaves with corn tassels, leggings of moss, and moccasins embroidered with butterflies.

The Dine (Navajo) migrated upward to this world through four underworlds supported by pillars of precious materials: white shell, turquoise, abalone, and red stone. Navajo ancestors arrived at the confluence of four sacred moun-tains Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peak, and Hesperus Peak which each represent a cardinal direction. Light, which “misted up” from the four mountains, is said to have been the mountain’s breath. Four winds join the phenomena of light and color associated with the cardinal directions. White Wind, Blue Wind, Yellow Wind, and Dark Wind are reflected in the white of dawn, the blue of sky, the yellow of twilight, and the dark of night.

Featured in September 1999