Monday, December 26, 2011

A Winter Solstice Story

                                                          The Woods at Winter Solstice

Occurring in the deep chill of December, Winter Solstice is alive with magic, the appearance of angels, brotherhood among men, and hope for peace on earth. It’s that moment when the axial tilt of the planet’s polar hemisphere is farthest away from the star it orbits, the shortest day and longest night of the year.  Significant to ancient man because of the uncertainty of surviving winter with its threat of starvation or freezing. The Winter Solstice is the reversal of the sun’s ebbing presence in the heavens and is associated with the birth and rebirth of the sun god, source of all life.

                                             Diagram of Planet's Movement

The Winter Solstice dawned cold and hard in Northern Arizona this year with a sharp wind driving the temperature far below normal.  I was working at Cocopah North that day and among the people who came were two Navajos, one a medicine man who had driven down from the reservation to buy shells. 

                           Creekside Plaza: Cocopah North is at the Far Right, Just Above White Car.

(We carry shells, in addition to beads, as they are needed by Native Americans for certain healing ceremonies and in the construction of jewelry. See previous blogs about shells in Indian trade.)

                                                            Traditional Navajo Elder

An hour after they left, an elderly Native American man came shuffling in, leaning on his cane.  The tiny man, dressed only in a Phoenix Suns baseball cap, jeans and a windbreaker, looked to be about ninety years old.  He tried to communicate with me but he spoke no English.  I recognized the Navajo dialect but couldn’t understand him.  He had a few English words and said, “Cold,” making the unmistakable gesture of shivering.  I ran in the back room and grabbed a quilt to wrap around his shoulders. The weight of it almost sent him reeling so I gestured that he should come sit at the beading table but he didn’t want to leave the front of the gallery and continued to fix his intense gaze on the street, as if looking for someone.  I brought him a bottle of water and a chair so he could sit there and began to call around town to see if I could find a Navajo speaker.  People who came in the store treated it as an unexpected honor to have this ancient Indian wrapped in a patchwork quilt perched in the middle of the gallery. 

                               Navajo Sandpainting are used in Healing Ceremonies

I began to stress about what I should do and called Audrey Waite, our business manager, to come down and help me out.  Meanwhile, my friend, the writer Tamworth Grice, dropped in and had the brilliant idea to go online and find the phone number for the Navajo Tribe’s health service.  She reached them and put the social worker on the phone with him.  The social worker told Tamworth that he had come down with friends to buy shells and had being waiting in the back of their pick up truck when he had to relieve himself and went into the woods behind the building.  When he returned the truck was gone and he managed to make it into our gallery. 

Navajo Matron and Pick Up Truck

So now we have Tamworth, Audrey and I trying to care for him.  In comes a doctor from LA, a specialist in geriatrics, and we tell him what’s happening.  He instructs us to bring a cushion for his chair and proceeds to give him a back massage and wraps his quilt more snuggly.  The old man makes a gesture of eating and tries to give us two dollars which we refuse.  I suggest that Audrey get him a hamburger but she, sensibly, suggests soup since he has no teeth.  Ken’s Creekside Restaurant in the plaza sends him a bowl of their excellent southwestern chili chicken soup with bread, compliments of the chef. 

                                                  The Hogan, Traditional Home of the Navajo

He won’t leave his place near the window so we clear off a small table and set up his meal on it.  The man, despite his plight, maintains a quiet dignity, an unsmiling yet serene reserve that tells us his many years have taught him to survive such inconvenient episodes.  I feel that I’ve made a major breakthrough when he gives me a fleeting smile.

                                                  Part of Navajo Ceremonal Paraphanalia

By now, several friends arrive with season’s greetings and we decide it’s definitely time for tea.  All of us, and it’s a growing number, have a little tea party and Bobby Monroe (as we now know his American name) enjoys the tea and likes dipping the bread into his soup.

Then a police officer arrives and offers to take him to a hotel but I know that would traumatize him and he might not connect to the people he came with if he leaves here.  He was adamant with the social worker that this was the place he needed to be.  I tell the officer that he’ll be fine with us.

                                            On the Navajo Reservation

Audrey returns to the office where there’s a frantic call from Mr. Monroe’s son-in-law, the driver of the pick up.  We learn that Mr. Monroe was sleeping in the back of the king cab which had tinted windows while they came in to buy shells.  They didn’t notice he wasn’t there until they got to Winslow, about an hour and a half’s drive from Sedona.  They were on their way back to pick him up.  We get the social worker on the phone again and she tells him his family is on the way back to get him. 

                       Petroglyph at Canyon De Chelly on the Navajo Reservation

Hours pass. I finally reach his son-in-law on his cell phone and he tells me he’ll be there in about twenty minutes.  I want to tell Mr. Monroe not to worry, that they’ll be there soon.  Then, out of nowhere, two Navajo silversmiths, Sylvana and Randy Secatero, appear.  They’d been waiting hours in Sedona for a dealer who was going to buy their jewelry and stood them up.  They were counting on the money to get back to New Mexico.  They didn’t even have gas money.  Their work is amazing and I buy it all! I trade Tamworth one of their bracelets that she adores as partial payment for editing my forthcoming e-book, Waiting for Mr. Wu.

                                         Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona

Sylvana tells Mr. Monroe that his family will be here soon. He tells her that he has to go to the bathroom. He’s not stable enough on his feet to walk all the way up to the plaza’s bathroom, so Sylvana enlists Randy to take him to the nearest gas station.  Sylvana thanks me profusely for helping their ‘grandfather’ and offers not to leave town until the family arrives.   As closing time nears and his ride hasn’t materialized, I decide if they don’t show up to take him home with me and leave a note on the door where to pick him up.  Then his son-in-law comes running in, looking very distressed, to be greeted by Mr. Monroe who’s placidly drinking tea and being cared for by several women.  

                     Old Patchwork Quilt Similiar to the One Given to Mr. Monroe

Mr. Monroe clung to the patchwork quilt so I gave it to him, along with a shell that Navajos favor for a certain ceremony.  His son-in-law told us that he is a high medicine man, an honored and revered elder.  He tells us that Mr. Monroe blesses us.  Then Mr. Monroe leaves, wrapped up in his quilt, and we’re left to ponder this auspicious moment at the time of solstice.   

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Iroquois Wampum Beads and Belts in the Eastern United States

                                               Iroquois Chief from a Painting, circa 1850

“Wampum played a great role in our culture…It is still important that we should have wampum to communicate matters.” Jake Thomas, Cayuga, 1986 

                                                  Map of the territory of the Eastern Indians

            The use of wampum by the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) people dates to the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy centuries ago.  Ancient oral traditions tell of Hiawatha (Aiionwatha) gathering freshwater shells from the shores of Lake Ontario. 

                                               Lake Ontario where Hiawatha Gathered Shells

            He wove them into strings to use in as a condolence offering for a friend.  At that time Hiawatha himself was devastated by the death of his daughters, yet he continued to work with the Peacemaker to establish the Iroquois Confederacy.  Journeying from village to village he carried the message of peace and brotherhood, trying to get warring tribes to unite into a confederacy. 
At night by his campfire he reflected, “This would I do if I found anyone burdened with grief even as I am. I would take these shells strings in my hand and console them. The strings would become words and lift away the darkness with which they are covered. Holding these in my hand, my words would be true.”
            In time the Peacemaker came to Hiawatha and took the strings of shell, speaking words of sympathy. That moment was the beginning of the Iroquois Condolence Ceremony and the advent of the use of wampum in Iroquois culture.
            The mythic shells that Hiawatha gathered at the lake’s edge evolved into oblong cylindrical beads drilled lengthwise and strung into one or more strands for ceremonial purposes or woven together into belts that were used for diplomacy, correspondence or to establish authority. Wampum established legitimacy for the message that accompanied it.
                                                   Iroquois Elders reading a Belt, Circa 1900

            Treaties and binding legal agreements had a large amount of wampum woven into the belt associated with them.  Every Chief and Clan Mother in the Iroquois Confederacy has strings of wampum that indicates position. The wampum is then transferred to their successors when they leave office. 

                                                            Iroquois Wampum Belt

            The word, wampum, is a contraction of the Algonquin term ‘wampumpeak’ or ‘wampompeage.’ ‘Wamp’ defines ‘being white’ and ‘umpe’ or ‘ompe’ means a strand of shell beads.  ‘Ak’ or ‘ag’ is a sign of the plural. So the significance of the whole word is literally ‘strings of white shell beads.’ From this word, the slang term ‘peak’ was used by the early colonists to describe this wampum. While the word wampum is now commonly used to define all Indian shell beads regardless of tribal or geographical location, in its correct usage it refers only to the purple and  white cylindrical beads of the Algonquin and Iroquoian Indians of the northeastern United States, particularly the latter who developed the use of these beads to their highest degree.

                                      Quahog clam, the favorite shell for wampum

The vibrant purple hues of the quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) made it one of the most sought after shells for wampum beads. Also used for wampum are the Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatum), Lightening Whelk (Busycon sinistrum), and the Snow Whelk (Busycon Laeostomum).

                                Channeled Whelk, used to make white wampum

Three significant belts help define the early history of the Iroquois people: The Hiawatha Belt which is the national belt of the Iroquois. It establishes the five original nations of the Confederacy and their agreement to live together in peace:

                                       Chart of the origin of the Hiawatha Belt

                 The Hiawatha Wampum Belt, Nation Belt of the Iroquois Confederacy     

            The middle symbol is the great tree of the Onondaga Nation where the Peacemaker planted the Tree of Peace under which the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk and Onodaga chiefs buried their weapons and agreed to form the Confederacy.
            The George Washington Belt was commissioned by Washington in 1794 at the signing of the Canadaigua Treaty.  The six foot belt depicts human figures and a longhouse. Thirteen human figures symbolize the thirteen original colonies. Two figures and the house represent the the Mohawk who are Keepers of the Eastern Door and  the Seneca who are Keepers of  the Western Door. Each figure is connected by a wampum belt that forms the chain of friendship representing the treaty between the United States and the Iroquois Confederacy. 

                                                  The George Washington Wampum Belt

            The Two Row Wampum belt establishes an agreement made between the Iroquois and the Dutch government in New York in 1613. The Indians consider this treaty as the basis of all treaties made with any United States government. The belt has two rows of purple wampum on a background of white wampum. The purple rows symbolize two ships, Indian and Euro-American, traveling the river of life side by side. Though customs are different, both people are equal. The three bands of white wampum beads signify friendship, peace and respect.

                                                           The Two Row Wampum Belt

            Iroquois oral tradition tells of their reply to the Dutch treaty proposal:

You say that you are our Father and I am your son. We say, We
 will  not be like Father and Son, but like Brothers. This wampum
 belt confirms our words. These two rows will symbolize two
 paths or two vessels, traveling down the same river together. One,
 a birch bark canoe, will be for the Indian People, their laws,
 their customs and their ways. The other, a ship, will be the for
 the white people and their laws, their customs and their ways.
 We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our
  boat. Neither of us will make compulsory laws or interfere in the
  internal affairs of the other. Neither of us will try to steer  the
  other’s vessel. The agreement has been kept by the Iroquois to
  this date.

            Iroquois tradition further states about the duration of the Two Row Wampum agreement:

                        As long as the Sun shines upon this Earth, that is how long our
Agreement will stand. Second, as long as the Water still flows:
and Third, as long as the Grass Grows Green at a certain time of
the year. Now we have symbolized this Agreement and it shall be
binding forever as long as Mother Earth is still in motion.

            Wampum beads used for stringing, currency, or in the preparation of wampum belts were made only after the beginning of the seventeenth century when the Indians acquired steel for drills from the first settlers. A metal point was set in the end of a wooden shaft which rotated in various directions.  One old method was to roll the drill along the thigh with one hand while the other hand held the bead against the tip of the drill. Another style was to twirl the drill between the hands, but that required another person to hold the bead in place.

Wampum Beads
              Beadmaking was greatly facilitated by the introduction of the bow drill and the pump drill. The demand for this wampum radically escalated as it was not only used for belts, but had become a medium of exchange between the Indians and colonists. Eventually the whites sought to produce this wampum themselves and a thriving industry developed in New York and New Jersey. These beads were always known as counterfeit wampum or Dutch wampum and were much longer in length than the true Indian beads.
            There is little use of wampum recorded before 1627, when Isaac de Razier of the Dutch colony in New York used it to purchase coin.  In excavating three villages of the Mohawks in New York which date before 1600, there was only one partially-drilled shell and one small shell bead. In contrast there were thousands of objects made from clay, stone or bone. In another excavation of an Onondaga village of the same period, only one medium-sized shell bead and two longer council wampum beads were uncovered. The primitive wampum of the Iroquois consisted of strings of small fresh water, spiral-shaped shells called ote-ko-ah.

                                          The Longhouse, traditional dwelling of the Iroquois
            Earlier sites yield scarce supply of wampum beads. From this we can conclude that the systemic production of wampum was rare before the arrival of the Europeans, particularly the Dutch on our eastern shores. The Dutch were quick to see the advantages of its use in trade. The home government had refused to send the settlers silver coins for use as currency so the idea of using the cylindrical shell beads was adopted. This immediately produced a fierce economic battle between them and the English to control the wampum business. The Dutch rapidly annexed the eastern end of Long Island where the natives produced the largest amounts of these beads. They were terrified of the idea that the English would eventually monopolize the wampum trade. An Englishman of the period wrote home about the Dutch:

   “Whatever were the honey in the mouth of that beast of trade,
    there was a deadly sting in its tail. For it is said that the Dutch
    first brought our people to the knowledge of wampum, and the
    acquaintance therewith occasioned the Indians of those parts
    to learn the skill  to make it, by which, as by the exchange of
    money to purchase stores of artillery, both from the English,
    Dutch, and French which proved a fatal business to those that
    were concerned with it.”

It was with wampum that the Mohawks acquired guns and went quickly from being a weak and tributary people to powerful overlords who extracted tribute in wampum from the other tribes and spread the use of wampum much further inland.
             By 1657, the value of wampum in the fur trade had been established: one merchantable beaver brought two strings of wampum, a good bearskin was also worth  two strings of wampum. A deer hide brought exactly 120 wampum beads.  In 1660 it was common for soldiers stationed in America to draw their monthly pay in wampum beads and the sheriff of New York City accepted wampum for the purchase of goods from the commissary.  Albany eventually accumulated the most wampum because it became a great trading center, with both the French and English securing most of their Canadian supplies there. At one point, Peter Stuyvesant, the colonial governor of New York, sent Van Rensaelaer to Albany to negotiate a loan of 6000 guilders to be paid in wampum and shipped down the river to pay the salaries of New York City workers.

                                            Iroquois Maiden wearing strings of Wampum Beads

            By the mid-1600s wampum was abundant among the Mohawks through trade and conquest. In 1641, they presented belts of wampum to the French which meant that the French were welcome to come and dwell among the Mohawks. It was noted that when the Indian, Kiotsaeton, visited the French, he was literally covered with wampum. In council he addressed them with a spell-binding oratory and used seventeen belts to help deliver his message. The use of emblems on belts seems to have developed after the initial contact with the Europeans. When the French first went to Onondaga, there was little developed symbolism on the belts. This occurred when the belts came to be used as historical or legal documents. The emblematic belts probably originated with the Mohawks as it was first noted in 1657 that the Mohawk ambassador to the French used a belt with the symbols that he explained as representing the lakes, rivers, mountains, and valleys that it was necessary to pass, along with the portages and waterfalls.

                                                                French Treaty Belt

             Belts were also made by the early immigrants and presented to the Indians. While the Indians preferred a more pictographic image, the English belts would often incorporate the use of letters. In 1624, Governor Burnett presented a belt to the Six Nations of the Iroquois that incorporated the letters GR on it for King George and another that had the letters GPW woven into it to indicate George, Prince of Wales. The third belt contained the letters PF for the royal family. In 1754, he delivered another that represented “The King, our common father; this line represents his arms extended, embracing all of us, the English, and all the Six Nations; these represent the colonies which are here present and those who desire to be thought present; those represent the Six Nations, and there is a space left to draw in the other Indians; and there in the middle is the line represented which draws us all under the King, our common father.”
            In February of 1756, Governor Burnett gave to the Six Nations the largest belt he had ever used. It was thirty rows wide with the figure of the sun in the middle and the Six Nations at one end. This belt was so highly prized by the Indians that it was sent to show the other nations farther to the west.  At his death in 1774, the Onondagas exhibited this belt of union and thereafter it lay at their great council fire.

Coming middle of December: Symbolism on Wampum Belts and mythic tales of their powers

Sunday, October 23, 2011

California Indian Shell Beads

                                    Beach in Southern California where Indians freely fished
                                       and gathered shells before the advent of the European

                                                        Pomo girl wearing her shell beads

            While hardly any area in North America lacks some quantity of prehistoric Indian shell beads, California is definitely the best source for these beads.  Some clamshell beads, notably the larger-sized discs, were used as money in central California.  No record survives of their fixed value.  The best known of this shell ‘money’ is a curving tubular shell known as dentalium. 

                               Dentalium shells, first 'found beads' strung by the earliest Indians

            It was found mostly in the Pacific Northwest and made its way through the trade routes southward, out onto the Great Plains. Because its tube is hollow, it became the first bead strung by aboriginal people. 
            Its use was purely ornamental in the areas it was traded into and eventually came to be used as true money in Northwestern California.  Beyond the size of two to three inches in length, these shells are rare.  It became customary to measure the value of these beads in length, the longer became the most valuable. 

Hupa woman wearing her pearl, clam shell and abalone beads

            The Yurok, Hupa, Kaxok and Wyot tribes engaged heavily in the exchange of these beads, often tattooing a set of marks on their wrists to measure dentalia.  The individual length and the length of the strings developed a very precise worth related to the trade or purchase of canoes, bows, slaves, woodpecker scalps, and deerskins.  This shell money was stored in purses made by digging out the interior of sections of deer and elk antlers.

Sierra Miwok necklace of shell, glass trade beads and found objects

             Most beads that were worked were made into discs or tubes, but the found object or imaginative natural shape always intrigued the creative mind and were often incorporated in their natural form with merely a hole drilled for stringing purposes.  California Indians were masters of ‘found bead art’ and everything from teeth, foot bones, hollow bird bones, ivory, fruit pits, fossils and pearls will turn up on necklaces and ritual objects.
            The most common of the Indian shell beads of the Pacific Coast was a shell called olivella.  In its natural state it has a lustrous, slightly iridescent dove-grey color.  The old beads excavated have lost this outer coating and have a chalky-white surface.  These beads are found in abundance in Indian graves of central California.

Pomo wampum beads

            The simplest way of preparing this shell for use was to grind off the tip. The shell could then be strung lengthwise as a bead. As this form evolved, the cup or tip was cut off and a hole drilled through, creating a more sophisticated bead. Further artistic development shaped this fragment into a rectangle with a drilled hole that created the appearance of a sequin. In addition to their use as in necklaces, they were also fastened to objects as ornamentation or, as seen in Pomo basketry, used to create a border or dangle freely with abalone pendants.

Pomo basket with feathers, clam shell, and dangling abalone ornaments

             The Canalino and Gabrielino Indians of Southern California used these shells extensively in their costuming.  Pelecypod (bi-valves), olive shell, clam and columella were also used. These ornaments do not have the cut-out or engraved decoration characteristic of Eastern shell ornament. The shapes are often irregular and suggest that they followed the natural form of the broken shell as it washes ashore. Highly imaginative shapes occur as these shells break on the rocks and are continually polished by the push and pull of the tide. This is the most common type of ornamental shell.

                                      Abalone pieces washed ashore at Bolinas, California. 
                         Such shell fragments were favored by the California Indians for pendants

            The most easily definable of the man-carved ornaments is one resembling a banjo with its keys exaggerated. There has been much theorizing among anthropologists as to what this rather involved form symbolically represents, but there remains still no absolutely supportable thesis in this area. Another shape of shell ornament is that of the bowl of a spoon, having a short neck culminating at the base with incurving, crescent-like horns or stylized patterns of cut-out work. Spoon-shaped shell ornaments almost always have a hole drilled in what would appear to be the tip of the spoon. This puzzled the non-Indian anthropologists who kept relating to the shape as a spoon which would place the tip down, but for Indians this obviously was not the case, because of their position on the bodies as excavated. The pendant was worn ‘spoon’ tip up. The most common position of these ornaments was in pairs, one on either side of the head where ears would have been. They appear to have been fastened to a leather headband or possibly a hat that could have decomposed while the shells remained. Many pieces of large size lay on the chest, indicating their use in necklace and as gorgets. They were also found on the back of the head and are speculated to have been used in the company of ear-flaps.

Pomo ear sticks of wood, abalone and glass trade beads

Pomo feather basket with abalone embellishments

            Shell ornaments in California extend in size from the tiny bits of shell favored by the Canalino Indians of the Santa Barbara coast to a full-sized abalone shell (with only the crescent-like rim removed and just slightly reduced by ornamentation) predominant in the Pacific Northwest where the normal size of these shells runs from seven to eight and a half inches in length and six and a half inches in width. All parts of the shell were used, even the thick rim was developed into a curving sword-like pendant. The very simple forms of abalone were occasionally ornamented with engraved designs, the most basic being a ‘pie crust’ motif cut into the edges of a disc, oval, square or rectangle shape. Sets of dots created by drilling all or part of the way into the edge were also used to create a varied outline on shells.  
                                                      Chumash Indian shell beads

            One of the most unique Pomo forms of beadwork that evolved after contact with the Spanish Jesuits was the chastity necklace. A length of dark wood trade cloth was made into a choker necklace about an inch and a half wide. It tied in the back with silk ribbons and the necklace was often decorated with buttons. From the center a long line of shell beads, from which dangled a hand-cut abalone cross, hung to the maiden’s crotch which established her virginity.  Only two or three of this rare and esoteric item are known to still exist in private collections.

                                                          A beach in Southern California

Next post: Wampum Beads and Belts in the Eastern United States...about Dec. 1

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Navajo Silver Beads and Squashblossom Necklaces

                                           Monument Valley on the Navajo Indian Reservation

                                  Young woman from Laguna Pueblo, circa 1885. wearing her
                                  Navajo-made silver beads with naja pendant.

            Silver beads were among the first items made by Navajo silversmiths.  Before the Navajo learned to make their own silver beads, they greatly coveted the shell and turquoise beads made by their neighbors, the Pueblo Indians.  Even after they developed their own style of silver beads, they were often worn in combination with shell and turquoise beads acquired from the pueblos through trade.

Navajo Silversmith of the 1800s displaying his art

            It is surmised that the Navajo learned bead-making during 1870s.  Originally they beat out a Mexican dollar, drew on it the shape of disc large enough to make half a bead of the desired size, and cut the disc with scissors to use for a pattern.  The silversmith then cut out the rest of the coins while his assistant shaped them into hollow hemispheres with his matrix and dye.  He would work them in several larger cavities to bring them to the proper form.  Then the hemispheres were leveled at the edges and perforated by holding them on a piece of wood, convex surface down, and hammering through them with the shank of a file.  In this way, a neck was left projecting from a hole that was not filed off until the soldering was completed. The hemispheres were then strung on strong wire in pairs, forming globes.  The wire was bent at the ends and secured with a washer after the globes were pressed tightly together. 

                           Samples of contemporary hand-made Navajo sterling silver beads.
                           Currently, these are almost impossible  to obtain because the price
                            of silver has become so prohibitive that two-thirds of Navajo silver-
                            smiths have quit and sought other employment.  This has caused a
                            major crisis in the Southwest because Native American-made silver
                            jewelry is at the heart of our economy.

            A mixture of borax, saliva and silver, pasted onto the seams before putting them into a fire, soldered the beads together in one operation.  Afterwards, they were finished by filing, polishing and blanching.  By the end of the century these beads, though difficult to make, were so popular that hardly a man or woman of any real stature in the tribe did not possess a string of these homemade silver beads.

                                            Samples of Navajo-made squashblossom beads

The development of the ‘squash blossom’ bead as a Southwestern motif was undoubtedly influenced by Spanish or Mexican trouser and jacket ornaments worn by the early explorers who had contact with the Navajos.  They had silver pomegranate charms that dangled from short silver chains on their garments.
            The pomegranate had been a favorite design element with the Spanish for centuries.  It can be found on the coat-of-arms of the city of Granada, which literally meant ‘pomegranate.’  The form was used extensively in liturgical art.  Carved and gilded pomegranates can be seen in many of the Spanish missions in Mexico.  The Navajos readily adapted this motif as a bead component, together with plain silver beads and a ‘naja’ pendant to form their legendary squashblossom necklaces. 

                                    Introduced by the Spaniards, the pomegranate motif has figured
                                    significantly in Southwestern design.

            The shorter and rounder pomegranate evolved into the more elongated squashblossom motif that reflected more of the ingeniousness plant life of the Southwest.  Squash has always been an abundant food in the Southwest and a staple of the Indian diet.  The long delicate blossoms are admired for the beauty and are also eaten as a rare delicacy. A favorite Pueblo recipe was to deep fry them in a flour batter.
            Many squashblossom beads, however, are almost identical to the tiny flowers in the central part of a sunflower.  Sunflower blossoms have three elements, trumpet, bulb, and stem, in similar proportions to those found on the earliest beads.  Some experts, notably John Wetherill of Kayenta, one of the earliest traders among the Navajo, claims that this form came directly from the sunflower.

                                 Contemporary squashblossom  necklace made by Navajo artist,
                                 David Lister.  Note how he honors tradition, yet tweaks it with
                                 his positioning of the four Bisbee turquoise components close to
                                 the naja.  Usually the turquoise would be spaced evenly between
                                 the squashblossom beads.  Lister is a Marine veteran who won a
                                 Purple Heart for heroism in Viet Nam.  He was named an Arizona
                                 Indian Living Treasure in 2007, an honor bestowed on Arizona  
                                 Indians who have a significant achievements in the arts or cultural
                                 preservation and a lifetime of service to their tribal communities.

            The Yalalog Indians of Mexico strung beads of coral and trade glass interspersed with silver pomegranates during the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries.  The pomegranates are actual beads themselves, with a cast hole and vestigial sepals.  David Neumann, in his article published in El Palacio, May 1948, expresses the opinion that the Navajos may have got the squashblossom idea for their stringing directly from the Yalalog who spread these ornaments over a wide area of Mexico where the Navajo had a chance to observe them and perhaps trade for these beads that came to be so closely identified with their culture.

                                     Navajo Woman in the 1800s wearing her squash blossom necklace

            The naja is a heavy cast piece of a single or double crescent, the tips of which usually end in small round buttons or tiny hands.  The naja, like the cross, swastika or ankh, is one of those ancient symbols that are lodged in the collective unconscious of man.  It is futile to argue about who originated it.  These symbols crop up independent of time or culture, in separate and remote parts of the globe, and simultaneously in different cultures, unaware of each other.  The naja as a symbol can be observed in such divergent cultures as ancient Crete, Rome, Africa, Middle Serbia and Moorish Spain. 
            Among the American Indians who used it before the Navajo are the Shawnee and Delaware people.  The Comanche adopted it as a symbol with the double cross on top, terminating in a naja at the base.  In the old world it was used as an amulet, fastened to the bridle of a horse to ward off the evil eye.  The Romans and Moors had crescent-shaped amulets made from two boar tusks joined together with brass, iron silver, gold or bronze.  It’s certain that many of the conquistadors carried this traditional ornament on their bridles.

                                          Silver saddle trappings such as these influenced the Navajo

            German silver najas dangled from the horse trappings of the Kiowa-Comanche in the early part of the 18th century.  Early in the 19th century, the Delaware brought the art of silversmithing to Oklahoma.  The eastern tribes had learned it from the English and French.  The Delaware in turn taught the Kiowa.  Arthur Woodard, historian, archaeologist, and Curator of History at the Los Angeles Museum, theorizes that the Navajo acquired this motif firsthand from the Plains Indians who were the first to wear concho belts.

                                                  Window Rock on the Navajo Reservation

            Woodard states that “the average Spanish or Mexican used his silver horse gear only for special occasions such as weddings, fiestas etc. and seldom on a campaign.  The opportunity for capture of such items from the Spanish would be rare compared to the chances of taking them in battle with the Ute or Kiowa.  Hence we may conclude that the naja came to the Navajo in its various forms from the bridles used by the Ute and the Kiowa, and those same najas were identical in form with those first used centuries ago in Europe to ward off the evil eye from horses.”
            Some cultural anthropologists feel this theory is stretching the point, as the Spanish influence was so dominant all over the Southwest and Mexico at the time that is seems inevitable that they contributed it to both the Plains and Navajo culture.

                                                     A view of the Navajo Reservation

            What remains, however, is the fact that the Navajo took this motif to great creative heights and continue to play with it, inventing variations that give new meaning to this powerful symbol.  At this point in design history, it is so overwhelmingly identified with the Navajo people that few realize its ancient origins.
Next blog: approximately November 1 on the history of California Indian shell beads.