Native Arts | Benson Manygoats

By Dottie Indyke

The secret is in the water, Benson Manygoats likes to say, in reference to the process of crafting his dramatic inlaid jewelry and boxes: The more water used, the less likely the precious stones are to crack. But playing in water is also a longstanding pastime for Manygoats, whose favorite activity growing up in Tohatchi, NM, in the heart of Navajo country, was wading in mud puddles—the dirtier the better—and washing 18-wheelers.

Every summer when he was young, he’d travel to the Chuska Mountains for an extended stay with his grandmother. While she sat under a tree weaving her rugs, he’d herd sheep, chop wood, and help around the hogan. Not long ago Manygoats returned, after years away from that idyllic time, to take a look around. Childhood memories inspired him to make a necklace he titled grandmother’s love and joy, a diminutive depiction of his grandmother’s loom with a reversible pendant featuring miniature purple and blue rugs. As with all of Manygoats’ pieces, the detail is striking, from the minute spool of yarn to the threads of warp and weft to the tiny ladybug crawling up the loom’s post. The recipient of a best-of-division ribbon at Santa Fe Indian Market, a best of show award at the Navajo Nation Fair, and several other prizes, the piece is made of 14-karat gold with inlaid sugilite, mother of pearl, and Acoma jet.

Although Manygoats’ mother’s maiden name means “silversmith” in Navajo and his paternal grandfather practiced the Navajo art form the old-fashioned way, casting his pieces with ash and fire, Manygoats is essentially self-taught. In high school he learned to cut metal and solder, and he experimented with mosaic inlay by wrapping small stones in a rag and hitting the bundle until the stones crumbled into small pieces. After graduation he answered an ad placed by jewelry designer Ray Tracey seeking artisans with inlay and silversmithing skills. “Ray drew some designs and asked if I could make them,” Manygoats recalls. “He liked the way I worked, so he hired me right then.” In 14 years with the company, Manygoats continually surprised Tracey with techniques that the more experienced artist didn’t think possible. “I put some of my ideas into his jewelry,” Manygoats says, “but I wanted to save some for myself.”

At his wife’s urging, he periodically tendered his resignation to go off on his own but was lured back each time. Finally, in 2002, he made the leap permanent and quickly racked up several best-of-show awards at Indian art venues. Along the way he has had help from dealer Ellis Tanner, who has been a mentor to the 39-year-old Manygoats. With discipline and a dedication to improvement, he has mastered the soup-to-nuts process of jewelry making and now produces contemporary designs inspired by traditional Navajo motifs, notably the familiar patterns of Navajo rugs. He is a lapidary expert who can cut fragile stones into perfect geometric shapes. His own birthstone, the diamond, has become a signature; in the MANY GOATS bracelet, each incised goat is capped with a different, diamond-shaped stone. Every element of his jewelry and boxes, right down to the clasps, is handmade.

Each morning Manygoats heads into his studio, based in an old trailer behind his Tohatchi home, prepared for a long workday. Dozens of projects are on tap that require him to stretch and innovate, such as the dazzling ladybug bracelet he conceived when one of the bugs landed on his arm as he and his wife sat eating lunch in their car on a summer day. Ideas, he says, come to him at all hours of the day and night.

“I like to use stones that are more than an eighth of an inch thick, because they last longer,” he notes. “I like bright stones with no cracks, and I like when the stone is real clear. I still learn things, like not to throw old tools away. I sharpened the edge of an old saw, and it turned out to be a really good tool for me. I use old files that have been worn down. To do engraving, I bang with a hammer so I have a nice straight design.”

No one is more delighted than Manygoats by his 11-year-old son’s interest in jewelry making. “He has done a little bit of inlay,” his proud father declares. “Like me, he likes to put his hands in water.”

Manygoats’ work can be seen at Ellis Tanner Trading Company, Gallup, NM; the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, Phoenix, AZ; and the Southwest Indian Art Fair, Tucson, AZ.

Featured in “Native Arts” March 2007