Its all a ReMix anyway, right?
If you read your Navajo jewelry history you find out that the Navajo was taught how to make silver by Mexican silversmiths. This event takes place when New Mexico is a US territory, and only within a couple of years of being ceded by Mexico. Technically its not even possible to say the Navajo invented their own jewelry craft.
To add insult to injury, Trader Lorenzo Hubbell purchased a stash of Persian Turquoise to give to Navajo silversmiths and it is believed that those are the first used pieces of turquoise in Navajo silver. Today it is non-Native turquoise dealers who bring the admired blue rock to Gallup. Don’t forget the silver, our supply houses eagerly await deliveries from silver producers from states like Maine each week. At the end of the day on might think a turquoise bracelet is just that, a turquoise bracelet.
What is Native American Art?
So why do companies like Perry Null Trading Company spend so much time marketing authentic Native American art. Is there such a thing?
Of course there is. At its foundations, Native American art is the understanding and expression of Native peoples applied to common artistic media.
If we are going to make a case for authenticity, lets go back to a time before the first Navajos learned how to decorate silver in the mid 1800s. Maybe we should start with Pueblo Bonito where turquoise was uncovered. That turquoise would be around 1000 years old and comes from an ancient civilization that thrived before anyone else started showing up in the area. Some of the earliest turquoise work was very intricate and would have been worn as jewelry. Historians tell us of great trade routes in the Southwest that the Native American peoples used.
One of the most coveted stashes of American turquoise would be that from the Cerrillos mine in Northern New Mexico. Turquoise from this mine was finding its way into jewelry at the same time that Chaco Canyon was thriving. Turquoise was definitely part of that culture and due to the extensive trade routes it would surely have been introduced to the Pueblo Indians around the Gallup area.
Moving forward in time, we have the Mexican silversmiths or blacksmiths passing on their understanding of metallurgy to the Navajo. Oddly enough, I do not believe I have ever seen a Mexican squash blossom necklace. Mexico produces turquoise, and these Mexican blue rocks come through town on a regular basis, however, a history of Mexican turquoise jewelry does not seem to exist. Evidently the Navajo took the newly acquired skill of silver-smithing, combined it with turquoise that had been in the area for over 1000 years, and used it to express ancient style and tradition.
Turquoise and silver is Navajo culture. It is used to demonstrate standing within a community. Also, it is used as currency within our current trading system, just as it has been for the last 100 plus years.
When a small Navajo child grows up on the Reservation he is surrounded by jewelry. He or she grows up learning how to determine which pieces of jewelry are the best, and which pieces are Navajo made. That part of culture might influence the child to follow in the footsteps of a family member who makes silver. In return his designs are going to be influenced by what he sees as his People’s art and spirituality. It is a cycle that has been played out since the first smiths started making turquoise and silver.
What if its a Good Fake?
Does it really matter if your turquoise and silver jewelry is authentic handmade Native American art? After all, isn’t a bracelet made with turquoise and silver by a non-Native American still a bracelet? Think about something other than jewelry, say something like one of my favorites, Mexican food.
Lets say I am vacationing and my travels take me to North Dakota. It has been two weeks since I have been home and I am really missing my Mexican food. I take a look in the local telephone book and find an ad for an authentic Mexican food restaurant. My day of touring has left me famished and I decide to order that “local favorite” stuffed sopapilla. To my surprise it is tasty and not much different than what I find back home. As I am paying my bill I happen to see into the kitchen and notice my fixings have been put together by a White cooks. Those cooks had been inspired by the genuine thing and have found the proper way to prepare the stuffed sopapilla.
What about great artists that mimic Native American Art?
How about those great silversmiths who many consider to make excellent pieces of silver and turquoise, who happen to be non-Native American? I have personally seen excellent pieces of jewelry from these non-Native smiths. Their workmanship would make it very difficult to determine whether their art was Native made. No one complains, however, as this is appreciation of an art form. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and these artists have no intention to take credit, only to mimic and give honor to Native American culture.
Most of the individual non-Native jewelers make silver and turquoise Native American inspired art because they love it. There is something spiritual about creating works inspired by the culture and history of America’s first inhabitants.
So what is fake art?
Just like anything fake, it has three major commonalities: it is cheap, it is attributed wrongly, and it is parasitic to the real craft. Mass production of a design that is not copyrighted, but which nevertheless belongs to the spirit and tradition of a people is offensive. There are those that mass produce Native American style art in order to sell it at bottom dollar prices. No Native American ever comes in contact with this jewelry except maybe as the creator of the piece that was used for the production model. This is not art, it is machine tooling, and it is destructive to the actual art market.
So, it does matter if Native American craft is authentic?
The inspiration comes from somewhere! All of those items you see that resemble Native American art have been influenced by the genuine thing. This art is how the People express their culture to outsiders and share it with them. More importantly, this art is a way for many of them to make a living, and enjoy a fulfilling career.
See my next post that talks about how to know that what you are buying is authentic, not to be imitated.