First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 41

EARLY SOUTHWEST SILVERSMITHING The first Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths transformed this precious metal into an artistic legacy that has beguiled generations of art lovers. By Denise Neil, PhD A LT HOU G H T H E A RT FORM was introduced by outsiders, silverwork has become a central feature of Southwestern Native artwork, as Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths have taken the medium and made it their own. Even though many think of it as an ancient American Southwest art form, Navajo and Pueblo silversmithing is rela- tively new to the region. Its beginnings only trace back to the mid-19th century. Initially made for community use, early Native silverwork was soon collected by railroad workers, military personnel, and tourists, who quickly saw its aesthetic value. Over time, the refinement of silver- smithing techniques, along with artistic innovations, led to a wide array of objects of personal adornment. Today, silverwork produced by Indigenous artists remains in high demand. Southwest tribes have produced objects of adornment, including necklaces made from shell and stone, for centuries. As early as 600 to 900 CE, ancestors of present-day Zunis carried bison hides and turquoise to the Pacific Coast to trade for shells. And before they learned to make jewelry from silver, Navajo people wore bracelets and ear hoops of brass and copper. “These metals were easy to work and often came in the form of heavy wire, above Slender Maker of Silver (Navajo, fl. late 19th century), Squash Blossom Necklace with Naja, late 19th-century, turquoise, silver, collection of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Jonathan Batkin. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of the Wheelwright Museum. opposite Slender Maker of Silver (Navajo, fl. late 19th century), Squash Blossom Necklace with Naja, late 19th-century, turquoise, silver, collection of the Wheelwright Museum. Photo: Addison Doty. which with little effort could be cut to a suitable length and bent into shape.” 1 The blacksmithing techniques used to work iron and, later, silver were more complex and required specialized equipment. Once Navajo and Pueblo artists mastered these techniques, their silversmithing became not only a form of artistic expression, but also an important source of income and means of self-expression. Outsiders’ interest in the history and development of Southwest silver- smithing emerged early. United States Army surgeon Washington Matthews, a self-taught anthropologist, documented silversmithing among the Navajo in 1880. While stationed at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, Matthews became inter- ested in Navajo culture, including the tools and techniques implemented by early Navajo silversmiths. Scholarship continued with the work of John Adair, who conducted interviews with Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths in the early 20th century. These firsthand accounts remain essential resources for under- standing the development of Southwest silverwork, and the history of its earliest Native craftsmen. Today, interest in the study of silversmithing continues in both academic circles and through museum exhibitions. The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe has 1. Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, “Early Metalwork,” exhibition text panel. SPRING 2019 | 39