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Native American Artists Choose Traditional Jewelry-Making as Way of Life  

To the early inhabitants of North and South America, often called Native Americans or American Indians, jewelry is more than just an accessory. It symbolizes a way of life, tells cultural stories and expresses spiritual beliefs. Now, modern Native American artists are expanding on their history with new methods of jewelry-making.

Native Americans have made ornate bowls, totem poles, and jewelry for centuries, but they didn't always call it "art." In fact, the word "art" did not exist in many tribes, because each piece had a purpose, usually as a utensil or something to put on as a way of identifying one's tribe. These "wares" as they were called, often used animal symbols, such as a bear or a beaver, to represent certain clans. High status tribesmen, such as medicine men, often wore lots of heavy silver jewelry to show their importance.

Sculptor and artist Jim Hart, a hereditary chief of the Haida Nation in what is now British Columbia, says modern Indian jewelry makers are deeply aware of the traditions that jewelry represents.

"Jewelry is fabulous stuff to wear. People think of it as adornment and we like it because of that, it's nice," he said. "But there is also great history behind it all and where it comes from. This old, old history, and how we are connected to that old history. So when people wear this jewelry they are wearing their connection to their history, their family's history, their clan's history, their tribe's history."

Different tribes specialize in certain methods of jewelry making. Hopi Indians use raised stones and carvings, while Zuni techniques often feature inlaid mosaics.

A famous Hopi Indian artist from the southwestern United States, Preston Monongya, was one of the first Native American artists of the modern generation to break with tradition by advocating the creation of art as an expression of feelings, rather than as a purpose-driven trade.

His son, Jesse Monongya is now an award-winning master jewelry-maker. He was raised by his grandmother, a Navajo Indian who taught him the spiritual importance of turquoise, a popular stone in Native American jewelry.

"They knew when they saw really good turquoise," he said. "They'd sell half their flocks in order to get some really good turquoise."

"Being raised around my grandmother, I never knew that this was what I was going to be doing," said Jesse Monongya. "But I was raised in a way that was very traditional. Very traditional. Everything was traditional. Everything seems to be common sense based. So everything that we did was in a circle."

Mr. Monongya takes the Hopi traditions of his father's side combined with the Najavo beliefs of his mother's side and makes striking inlay jewelry, using stones from around the world. His detailed necklaces and bracelets contain brightly colored lapis from Afghanistan, opal from Australia, and coral from the South Pacific and the Mediterranean. His art reflects his fascination with the sky, with jewels that represent stars and planets and finely assembled shards of coral that the mimic the golden tones of a sunset. A single piece, he says, can take more than a month to complete.

Other Native American artists have followed Mr. Monongya's path, trying new themes and borrowing techniques from different tribes. But even though the practice of Native American art has risen to new heights, many artists are still struggling to make enough money to live. Lois Sherr Dubin is an author and expert on Native American traditions. She says that when companies mass-produce copy-cat versions of Native American jewelry for low prices, it deals a heavy blow to Indian reservations in North America, some of which rely heavily on income derived from jewelry sales.

"The artists are there, the wish to do it is there, but if an artist is going to spend $300 on materials and can't even sell the piece for $300 because it is being knocked off in Hong Kong for $50, those artists aren't going to keep doing it. If you get to know the artists and you get to know the people, there is such a joy in owning a little piece of something that reminds you of them, that was made by their hands."

Ms. Dubin says she urges people to support Native American culture by buying jewelry, pottery and rugs directly from the artists themselves.