Have you ever wondered what your favorite Native American jewelry signifies? From the type of material used, the placement of gems, to the carvings made on the stones, distinct visual elements of jewelry present different stories. Below is a brief guide that will help you uncover the real meanings behind your most favored Native American accessories. Read on.
Native American Jewelry: A Brief History
Long before the Spanish arrived, Native American tribal groups were already producing excellent jewelry items. In the beginning, said accessories were made mostly of copper, seashells, and stones. Eventually, as man discovers new materials, the jewelry production in the land becomes more advanced and complex. Gold and other precious metals were hammered and shaped into earrings, bracelets, rings, and necklaces. When the Spanish explorers arrived, some tribes learned the art of silversmithing and from thereon incorporated silver into their jewelry items. Shortly, thereafter, different designs and jewelry production techniques flooded throughout the lands. Among the most popular procedures include the repousse technique, which involves hammering the metal from the back to create a design, and the sand casting process, wherein molten metal is poured into a mold cavity made of compressed sand until it hardens into the desired shape.
From thereon, Native American jewelry pieces continued to evolve. Thousands of years later, some of the best-known jewelry designs pioneered by the Native American tribal groups continue to fascinate the modern world.
To date, Native American artists continue to recreate the different techniques and designs practiced by their ancestors in making jewelry. While most of the items available in the market now exhibit a mixture of traditional and contemporary styles, the distinct designs of Native American accessories continue to carry the collective memories and historical truths of the Indigenous peoples that date back thousands of years ago.
Purpose of Native American Jewelry
Generally, Native American jewelry pieces were used by the Indigenous peoples for various purposes. Primarily, the items were worn as mere ornaments. Different tribes used accessories to enhance their appearances and project their social statuses. Tusk shell jewelry, for example, is worn to symbolize wealth and power in some tribes. Some jewelry items were also used for religious ceremonies, such as masks exhibiting animal features, hair pipes, and ketohs. There are also those that are crafted to serve as amulets and charms, such as the popular squash blossom necklaces by the Navajos, engraved shells, and animal teeth.
Meanings Behind Popular Native American Jewelry Designs
The bear symbol is a common motif among Native American jewelry items. Many of the accessories worn by the tribal groups in the U.S. were found with bear-like features – from rings, pendants, to even bangles and bracelets. Up until today, many items produced by Native American artists continue to exhibit bear symbols.
Generally, this common design in Native American jewelry items is mainly rooted in the Indigenous peoples’ reverence for the bear. For most tribes, bears are considered sacred beings. Their strength, intelligence, and human-like qualities made bears worthy of awe, fear, and veneration. The Native Americans incorporate bear symbols in their jewelry items because they believe wearing the same will allow them to acquire the powerful attributes of the animal.
Generally, there is no single meaning attached to bear symbols. The meaning of such design varies, depending on the tribe that produced the jewelry. However, common connotations of the bear symbol include courage, wisdom, and even good health. The Iroquois people, for example, believed that bears have healing powers and therefore wear pendants with bear carvings to serve as their protection from injury. Meanwhile, some tribes use bear symbols to indicate their achievements and convey authority.
- Arrow Symbol
The arrow is another common symbol in Native American accessories. Generally, tribes rely on arrows and bows to hunt for their food, ward off predators, and even win battles against other tribes. Consequently, many tribal groups view the arrow as a symbol of bravery, defense, and protection. The same also signifies direction and movements.
For some tribes, the position of the arrow also signifies different meanings. An arrow pointing to the left functions as a charm that will help the wearer repel evil. Meanwhile, if it points to the right, the arrow symbol represents protection.
Crossed arrows also symbolize friendship, while arrows that point to each other indicate war. A bundle of arrows, on the other hand, translates to unity or strength drawn from a group.
- Man in the Maze
The “man in the maze” is the emblem of the Tohono O’odham people, also called the Papago. Generally, the design demonstrates a figure of a man above a labyrinth. According to O’odham’s oral history, the symbol represents life. The figure of the man and his placement on top signifies birth, while the intricate twists and turns of the maze symbolize choices and challenges. Finally, the center of the maze indicates death.
- Snake symbol
Another popular animal symbol in Native American jewelry pieces is the snake. Similar to the case of the bear, meanings of the snake symbol can vary depending on the tribe that manufactured the jewelry.
The Ojibwa and Pueblo tribes, for example, treat snakes as a symbol of rebirth and fertility due to the animal’s skin-shedding ability. The Cherokee tribe, on the other hand, views snakes with fear and reverence. Rattlesnakes, in particular, are believed by the tribe to be an ornament of the thunder god, with the poisonous animal serving as the god’s necklace.
Pawn/Sell Your Native American Jewelry
Impressed with these deep meanings associated with popular Native American jewelry designs? If you own any authentic Native American jewelry piece, you can pawn it or sell the piece to us here at Biltmore Loan and Jewelry. Simply contact us through our website. You can also visit our Chandler and Scottsdale locations – no appointments necessary!