Recent Acquisitions at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
On May 27, 2007 the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico, opened Tradition and Tourism, 1870–1970, an exhibition of recent acquisitions in celebration of the museum’s seventieth anniversary. The Wheelwright houses extraordinary art, artifacts and archives pertaining to Navajo, Rio Grande Pueblo and other native peoples of New Mexico. Over the past decade, the museum has developed a unique exhibition, publication and acquisitions program that emphasizes living Native American artists and genres of historic Native American art that are neglected by other institutions. Tradition and Tourism, 1870–1970 examines one of the Wheelwright’s primary interests: artforms developed by native peoples for use by non-native consumers—items commonly thought of as “tourist” art. The exhibition includes textiles, folk art, baskets, and pottery, as well as recent acquisitions pertaining to Navajo and Pueblo jewelry and related traditions.
In 1995 the Wheelwright acquired one of the most significant archives pertaining to the development of southwestern Native American silversmithing: the papers of anthropologist John Adair. In the late 1930s Adair, a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, began research for his groundbreaking book, The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths. In print since it first appeared in 1944, it remains the best available resource for anyone interested in the origins of the craft. When Adair began his fieldwork in the late 1930s, Navajo silversmithing was less than seventy years old, and many of the elders that he interviewed belonged to the first generation of smiths. Adair’s field notes illuminate the cross-cultural nature of silversmithing in the Southwest: Navajos learned to work silver from Mexican blacksmiths who also made simple silver ornaments, and quickly taught the skill to Pueblo Indians with whom they traded. Among the first consumers of Navajo and Pueblo silver were Anglo-Americans. Adair’s notes also attest to the fact that, even in its earliest stages, Navajo silver was made to be traded and sold.
Navajos learned to make silver in about 1870, after their release from Bosque Redondo in southern New Mexico, where between 1864 and 1868 they were prisoners of war. In an effort to subdue them, the United States government had waged a war of terror, destroying homes, crops and the herds of sheep that were the Navajos’ livelihood. After negotiating their freedom, Navajos returned to a drastically reduced territory, where their survival depended upon government-issue annuity goods and their willingness to adjust to an increasingly cash-based economy. Most of Adair’s informants told him that they were motivated to learn silversmithing because they believed that they could earn cash with it, or that they could trade silver for livestock. In his field notebooks Adair recorded a conversation in which Grey Moustache told him that “bridles would sell for sixty to one hundred dollars (in terms of money), but if a Navajo was buying, he would sell them . . . for a good horse, with saddle blankets, & saddle”—indicating not only that the work was highly valued, but that the buyer may or may not be Navajo (Adair 1938, 2:45). The source of silver was American or Mexican coin, which smiths melted into ingots or pounded into shape using rudimentary tools. Navajos who did wage labor for the railroad or at military installations asked to be paid in Mexican coin; and some traders supplied coin as well (Bailey 1986: 54).
Most early Navajo silver was traded to other Native Americans, but by 1880 Navajo smiths who lived and worked along the route of the Atlantic and Pacific railroad, at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, and at the Navajo Agency at Fort Defiance, Arizona, sold their wares to Anglo military personnel, traders, railroad workers, and visitors. Tradition and Tourism features about fifty examples of spoons and other tableware made for this market. Early spoons in the Wheelwright’s collection display motifs that came to typify Native American souvenir silver. Two small spoons and a sugar shell, dating from 1880 to about 1891, have engraved profiles of Indians wearing feathered headdresses. These were among the most popular designs on Navajo spoons and on other souvenir silver, and although Native Americans in the southwest rarely wore such headgear, smiths made hundreds of them. Owls were popular as well, and while Anglos thought of them as symbols of wisdom, to nineteenth-century Navajos they had quite a different connotation. According to the Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language, published by the Franciscan Fathers of St. Michaels, Arizona, “a foolish child or person is often called . . . big owl, as this bird is good figure of stupidity” (The Franciscan Fathers 1910: 495). In 1890, when a fad for collecting souvenir spoons from exotic places swept the nation, Navajo smiths responded enthusiastically, creating an array of whimsical designs that included botanical themes, animals and birds, swastikas, and other popular symbols.
Silversmithing came to Zuni Pueblo in about 1872, when the Navajo smith Atsidi Chon set up shop there and began making bridles, concha belts and other ornaments to trade for sheep and horses. In exchange for a pony, Atsidi Chon taught silversmithing to a young farmer named Lanyade who, in 1938 at the age of about ninety-five, became Adair’s most important Zuni consultant. By the 1870s a number of men at Zuni already understood metalsmithing. For about forty years they had supplied local Mexicans with brass and copper bracelets and crosses, which the Mexicans believed warded off rheumatism. Lanyade taught silver to his friend Palowahtiwa, the governor of the Pueblo, who recognized its economic potential and taught it to five other men.1 When anthropologists Frank Hamilton Cushing and James and Matilda Coxe Stevenson arrived at Zuni in 1879, silversmithing was on its way to becoming the Pueblo’s most important craft.2 Cushing and the Stevenson encouraged its development by purchasing jewelry, supplying Zuni smiths with tools and perhaps even introducing techniques. According to Lanyade, Palowahtiwa “learned to make beads of silver from Cushing” (Adair 1938, 1:85).
In 2006 the Wheelwright acquired a pair of earrings made by Kuwishti, a Zuni blacksmith who was also one of the first men at the Pueblo to work silver. Adair sketched the earrings in his notebook, and his photograph of them appears in The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths (1944, plate 20). Although we do not know precisely when Kuwishti took up silversmithing, or from whom he learned (he was not one of the five taught by Palowahtiwa), we know that he had a long career. When Adair saw Kuwishti’s earrings, they belonged to an elderly Zuni woman, the mother-in-law of one of his informants. He understood them to be “much older” than the bracelets she wore, which were made in about 1890. A picture of Kuwishti, from a photograph taken in about 1898, appears in Matilda Coxe Stevenson’s 1904 report to the Bureau of American Ethnology. C. G. Wallace, who began trading at Zuni in 1919 and was influential in the commercialization of Zuni jewelry, told Adair that when he arrived at the Pueblo, Kuwishti was one of the few Zuni smiths who “could make much of anything.” He was “what you might call the community silversmith; then when he heard that the traders were interested in it he began to make it up for them” (Adair 1938, 1:34–35).
By the early 1870s Navajo craftsmen had carried silversmithing to the Rio Grande Pueblos as well. Among the characteristic items made by Pueblo smiths were manta pins, which Pueblo women used to fasten the sides of their wrap-around blanket dresses. However in Acoma, Laguna and Isleta Pueblos, jewelry reflected the influence of goldsmiths and silversmiths who lived in nearby Mexican communities. Adair remarked, “often it is difficult to tell whether a piece was made by a Mexican smith who sold it to a Pueblo Indian, or by a Pueblo smith in imitation of the Mexican jewelry” (1944: 182–183). Particularly at Isleta, Mexican-style filigree jewelry was popular well into the twentieth century, and at least one Isleta jeweler made gold filigree. In 1938 Adair tried without success to visit “Pat Olguin, who does the filigree gold and silver work.” His interpreter told him that Olguin learned to make filigree in about 1930, and Adair assumed that he “must have learned in Albuquerque from a Mexican.” He noticed several women at Isleta wearing Olguin’s gold earrings (1938, 5:122). The Wheelwright has acquired a significant collection of New Mexican filigree jewelry, much of which was acquired at Isleta Pueblo. Several pieces are attributed to an Isleta goldsmith.
Filigree became fashionable in New Mexico after 1876, when the Santa Fe firm of Fisher and Lucas advertised it in the Daily New Mexican. Almost immediately jewelry shops in Albuquerque, Socorro and Las Vegas, New Mexico, began promoting it as well (Weber 1982: 83, 41). In September 1879 Ernest Ingersoll, writing for Harper’s Bazaar, described the process of making filigree and proclaimed that Santa Fe, Chihuahua and Mexico City were its centers of production. “American skill,” he said, “has invented patterns which display much beauty and when worked into form in gold or silver are attractive, tasteful and handsome ornaments.” Filigree shops flourished, employing dozens of Hispanic craftsmen who, as an additional promotional strategy, often worked in full view of the public.
Filigree’s sudden popularity in the mid-1870s may be linked to New Mexico’s celebration of the United States Centennial. In its bid for statehood, New Mexico Territory found that its greatest obstacle was racism—of the Mexican lands annexed by the United States in 1848, most were sparsely populated. Only New Mexico had a large number of Hispanic residents. In centennial celebrations, local boosters likened the American Revolution to Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain, and emphasized the European heritage of New Mexico’s citizenry (Wilson 1997: 72–73). Beautiful filigree, promoted as authentic “Mexican” jewelry, made from locally mined silver and gold, signified New Mexico’s cultural sophistication and natural resources.
Among the most influential figures in the development of tourist-oriented Native American silver was Herman Schweizer of the Fred Harvey Company. In 1887, as the sixteen-year-old manager of the Harvey Company’s lunchroom at Coolidge, New Mexico, Schweizer began collecting silver jewelry and other crafts from Navajos in the area and selling it to his clientele (Howard and Pardue 1996: 10). By 1899 he had moved to company headquarters in Kansas City where, he told Adair in a 1938 interview, “[w]e used to sell a little pawn . . . But a lot of the pawn was too heavy for the tourists’ taste, so at that time I started having silver made up to order. It was in 1899 that the turquoise from the north (Nevada and Colorado) began to come in here.” Schweizer persuaded the owner of a Nevada mine “to cut the stones for Indian use—cutting flat square oblong stones.” Schweizer gave stones and silver to a trader in Thoreau, New Mexico, who in turn farmed them out to local smiths, who fashioned them into lightweight versions of Navajo jewelry. “From there,” he said, “we branched out to Sheep Springs and the surrounding regions” (Adair 1938, 6:1).
Schweizer’s idea for made-to-order jewelry revolutionized the market. During the first years of the twentieth century traders on the Navajo reservation supplied silver to large mercantile companies in Gallup and Albuquerque, which in turn fed a burgeoning mail-order curio trade that involved large-scale entrepreneurs such as J. S. Candelario in Santa Fe.
By the 1920s Native American jewelry had become an extremely popular souvenir product, and demand far exceeded what Navajo smiths could produce. Rather than depending upon supplies from reservation traders, merchants in Albuquerque and Santa Fe devised a way to control production by having “Indian style” jewelry made on the premises by Native American employees. Navajo and Pueblo people found work in Anglo-owned shops like Maisel’s in Albuquerque and Southwest Arts and Crafts in Santa Fe, where they were hired to operate machinery that punched out blanks for common items like bracelets and rings. Many of these employees learned basic silversmithing techniques by performing rudimentary finishing tasks on these products. While some shops employed native workers to operate the machinery, and could therefore call their product “Indian” made, other firms used no native labor at all and simply used Indian-looking motifs on their jewelry in the hopes that the average consumer could not tell the difference (Jonathan Batkin, personal communication, 2006).
Among the items made by native smiths for Anglo consumption were silver shoehorns. In 2006 the Wheelwright acquired a collection of two hundred shoehorns, of which forty-six are featured in the exhibition. Although most of the smiths represented in this collection remain anonymous, a few pieces bear the hallmarks of craftsmen who today are considered masters of mid-twentieth-century design. Some of these smiths, including Allen Kee, who worked for the White Hogan in Scottsdale, Joe Yazzie and Austin Wilson, who was one of a number of Navajo smiths who worked for trader C. G. Wallace at Zuni, became known for making ashtrays, barware and other decorative utensils. One piece by Awa Tsireh of San Ildefonso Pueblo, who is better known as a painter, is a small masterpiece. Awa Tsireh made silver for the Garden of the Gods Trading Post in Colorado Springs.
In about 1920 traders at Zuni began to encourage the smiths there to make distinctive jewelry and other items for the tourist market. The styles that developed drew upon Zuni’s long tradition of lapidary, and emphasized the use of turquoise, coral and other materials over silver. In addition to wearable jewelry, Zuni lapidaries made small, freestanding sculptures, often made from stones found near the Pueblo, and based on ceremonial fetishes that are important components in Zuni traditional practice. Carvers such as Leekya Deyuse became known for fetishes, and also for animal carvings that were set into jewelry. By the 1950s Zunis produced most of the lapidary work for Native American jewelry, while Navajo smiths created the silver into which the stones were set (Neumann  1971).
Tradition and Tourism features nearly two hundred fifty examples of Navajo and Pueblo jewelry, tableware, fetishes, and decorative objects, ranging from early forms intended for native use, to modernist expressions designed for a collectors’ market. These objects are a testament to the skill, ingenuity and artistry of generations of native Southwestern jewelers. The exhibition runs through October 21, 2007.
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