Jewellery from the American Southwest
Henrietta Lidchi is an anthropologist and curator, currently the Keeper of the Department of World Cultures at the National Museum of Scotland, who has spent 20 years conducting research on the history of Native American jewellery in the American Southwest. Her book Surviving Desires investigates the politics of adornment and how commercialisation has affected Native American identity.
The title of the book is a play on the title of a 1993 Hal Hurtley film. It reflects that those who love jewellery often find it irresistible and that a desire to have something is never without context. Jewellery and turquoise have specific meanings in Native American culture and many people outside of Native American culture have a strong interest in the style. Lidchi speaks of the idea that it is not simply that this culture has survived and will go on surviving. They are not just surviving; they are using their culture as an expression of presence. Jewellery can act as a form of intercultural communication. It’s used as an expression of identity and we are often fascinated by the adornment styles of other cultures.
As she reads from her book photographs of Native American jewellery appear on the display at the back of the stage. Silver sheets beaten and chased into raised patterns and decorated with turquoise, necklaces made of coral, collar tips of turquoise drops. She tells us that the silver and turquoise have different origins. Turquoise has been used for thousands of years and had been an important part of Pueblo culture. In contrast the use of silver is relatively new, picked up by the Navajo during their internment in the 1860s and then expanded into a traditional art form. American coinage would be melted down, cast into an ingot and worked from there. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries jewellery was not just made from melted down coins, it also became a form of currency within the Native American trading system.
Gallup is a town on the edge of the Navajo reservation where everyone with an interest in Native American jewellery converges and it was there that she found a shop called Turquoise Village. While it has a retail section, it’s primarily a place for traders and jewellery makers. It sells tools and supplies and also takes commissions. While there Lidchi watched people coming in to sell items that they had made, sometimes achieving their desired result and sometimes being told to try again the next week. Others came in seeking opinions and advice on a commission for a client but also to advertise the work. One man brings in a set of rings in a new style that had been commissioned by another trader. He’s told that the shop would provide all the supplies and pay the cost of the labour if he will make them another set in the same style. Turquoise Village functions not simply as a shop but as a place for makers to run credit and find work.
Throughout she speaks of the various debates surrounding Native American jewellery. Should it all be made from scratch to be authentic? Is it no longer authentic if the maker buys sheet metal rather than beating down an ingot? What can be classed as traditional and contemporary? Is there a line between the two or is it simply a gradual shift across styles? Is something Native American art only when it has been made by a Native American? Or can something be called Native American art whenever it follows the style?
In the end it seems some of these questions are largely irrelevant to those actually wearing the jewellery. They will happily wear a piece with a fake stone or something made by someone with little connection to the culture because their decision to wear it is based on projecting a style and an identity, not on an abstract idea of authenticity.