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.