The rich cultural history of the Zuni and Navajo Nation

Posted by tedmark on January 19th, 2015

Native American tribes have inhabited the prosperous American lands for thousands of years. Some of them managed to survive to this day, as we can see from the thriving communities of Zuni Pueblo or the Navajo Nation. Although the arrival of the settlers changed their way of life and brought modern concepts in their civilization, the cultural and religious essence was kept and forwarded from generation to generation. Now, the cultural products of these tribes, like their serene music, pottery or jewelry, are part of the world’s cultural heritage.

Native American communities had, of course, different traditions, different customs, different legends, but they also had one thing in common: their belief in the Creator and in the connection between all natural things. This is why, if you look today at traditional Zuni Pueblo or Navajo Nation jewelry, you’ll find all sorts of figures of animals or natural objects carved into these jewels. The Zuni Pueblo artists, in particular, are well-known for their use of animal inspired figures in jewelry making. These animal figures are not introduced in jewelry for nothing: each single figure has a certain meaning. For the Zuni Pueblo inhabitants, just as for other tribes like the Navajo Nation, names and visual representations have very high significance: they give the ones they own them the power of that certain element or representation. Eagles’ silhouette will obviously represent the sky, transcendence, higher meanings and agility, so the ones wearing jewelry carved with such symbols are said to have similar traits. Also, according to these tribes’ beliefs, fetishes have protective powers, so that’s another reason why they’re a must-have element in jewelries.

Another trait that the Zuni Pueblo people and the Navajo Nation share is the preference for natural materials, which, as mentioned earlier, is a practice deeply rooted in the Indians’ religious and philosophical beliefs. For the jewelry makers pertaining to these tribes, two are the essential elements without which no jewelry would have value: the use of pure gemstones and organic materials, and manual crafting. Turquoise is the preferred stone for jewelry makers because it has a beautiful color that represents the bright sky, serenity and peace. However, other materials are also highly prized by Indian artists: coral jewelry is equally valuable, as well as pieces made with serpentine or mother-of-pearl, jasper, and even marble. Often, these stones are cast in silver, in different shapes and designs, because silver really brings out the full beauty of the gemstones. Silver was only introduced in Indian jewelry in the last couple of decades, but the new addition has gained incredible popularity in just a few short decades, bringing Native American handcrafts into the whole world’s focus.

The beauty of Native American culture and, implicitly, its art and cultural artifacts, is the fact that it is very adaptable, always taking new forms but never losing its essence. Indian jewelry is like that as well: modern artists always create new jewelry designs but out of the same materials that they ancestors used, thus keeping alive a beautiful and rich tradition.

The Navajo Nation and the Zuni Pueblo people are skilled jewelry makers who create museum-worthy masterpieces.

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