Documentation of Native American ornament dates back several thousands of years. Although styles and designs for jewelry differed among different peoples, all Native Americans held in common the belief that ornament had spiritual meaning. Native American jewelry reflects the religious and social customs of each unique group. Traditional styles of tribal jewelry were considered a type of medicine, or contact with helpful spirits. Styles common to many tribes include necklaces, armlets, earrings, nose rings, and other ornamentation.
When making jewelry, Native Americans selected materials for their spiritual or magical qualities. Animal claws, crystals, shells, sticks, cornhusks, beads made of grass seed, dried rose hips, silver-berries from silverberry shrubs, and later metal and glass beads, among other things, were used to create necklaces, bracelets, armlets, and earrings, as well as many other unique adornments worn by both men and women. Hunters of northeastern and other tribes would adorn themselves with animal parts, wearing antlers, hooves, fur, and bones to gain strength and protection from the animal's spirit. Among the Plains Indians, for example, a necklace made of grizzly bear claws was worn by a man to honor his killing of the great bear. Bear claw necklaces, sometimes strung alternately with human finger bones, were also prized among the tribes of the Great Basin, a desert region in the western United States that comprises parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.
While the materials were selected carefully, the design or type of the jewelry also had special significance. Along the coast of the modern state of Alaska, Eskimo men wore labrets, or pierced ornaments, at the corners of their mouths that looked like small walrus tusks to signify the importance of the animal to their survival. Pierced ears among the tribes of the Great Basin were believed to enable people to live long lives and allow them to enter the spirit world after death. Nose ornaments of bone or metal were similarly important for men in the Southeast. Arapaho warriors created necklaces for themselves patterned after dreams or visions they had had. The Iroquois nation of the Northeast placed great importance on wampum, a belt beaded with purple and white shells in designs of particular meaning. The designs on wampum recorded important events, and the length and width of the belt indicated the importance of the event. Wampum was used as money for trading, as treaties to solve disputes between tribes, and as a courting item between young women and eligible men. Among the tribes of the Southwest, including the Navajo and Pueblo Indians, turquoise, a blue and green mineral, has had special meaning since as early as 300 C.E. Native Americans of the Southwest adorned themselves with turquoise earrings, necklaces, and other jewelry. The mineral was also central to religious ceremonies, especially Navajo prayers for rain.
Although most jewelry had spiritual meaning, some indicated social status or was worn simply for decoration. For example, pearls could only be worn by the children of noblemen in the Natchez
The living members of many tribes throughout the modern-day North American continent continue these jewelry traditions. For some, such as the Navajo of the Southwest, the sale of their jewelry provides a significant amount of their income.
Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1994.