Ever since I was a little kid, my dad made sure my sister and I understood the meaning of cultural heritage by experiencing all kinds of ethnic groups. At the university he taught American History and started all kinds of events to recognize Black History Month and programs for International Week where he invited guest speakers to involve students beyond southern Utah. My most memorable pastime is attending Native American pow-wows with colorful beads and feathers spinning around as people danced and chanted with a drum beat. Now that I’m older and Thanksgiving week is here, you would think that all that would be on my mind is a break from classes and finding time to squeeze in and see my family. Thinking of a table full of turkey, stuffing, roasted vegetables, rolls, and pecan pie, however, makes my mind delve even deeper into this holiday and I think of where it all began. It seems Native American tribes are miniscule and all but lost, however, with a little help from my World Beads book and an imagination, I’ve created a few jewelry pieces to bring us back to where America began.
Although most people think of seed beads as being indicative of Native American jewelry, these beads didn’t show up until Europeans arrived and traded gold and silver for glass beads that became adornments for moccasins, clothing, and headdresses. Natural materials Native Americans used before this time included shells which were used for decoration and for wampum, a form of exchange and currency. Everything from Mother-of-pearl, olivella, dentalium shells, and abalone were used from the sea and the Mississippi River for adornment. My specific choice of shell? The abalone, which has been carved into small birds and paired with grey and pink stones to create a stylish and elegant set of earrings. Abalone has many characteristics, it turns out, and being selective about which pendants to pick with similar characteristics, pays off.
In the south, Native Americans are most known for the blue and green stone, turquoise in their crafts and everyday adornments. Most of the time you’ll see turquoise as a pendant on its own or paired with thin Heishi beads made of shell. Inspired by turquoise, for this specific necklace, I chose square turquoise polished beads with brown and green-colored beads. Woven in a knotted braid, I maintained the essence of Native American turquoise within my admiration and practice of knotted jewelry. In the center I’ve chosen a wooden carved pendant to give the necklace a modern twist.
Turquoise requires a great deal of work to produce, as its rough edges are polished with sand and water, which takes about 1 1/2 hours to complete per bead. Another half hour on top of that to drill the hole and a final polish with deer hide finishes the turquoise. Convinced I needed to showcase turquoise once more and finding a collection of turquoise and other stone beads, I strung together a double strand necklace with a turquoise turtle pendant. Knotted with maedeup for strength and a turtle to symbolize Mother Earth, this necklace is a reminder of how we are all connected to hold our world together.
My dad, it seems, is still striving to make connections even though he no longer works as a professor encouraging the growth of student thinking. His last e-mail containing a video comprised of photos of our history, from dinosaurs to World War II to Obama shows me he is still finding ways to influence those around him. Maybe he wants to satisfy his restless state of retirement or he doesn’t want the world to forget where we came from and our past. Don’t worry Dad, there’s still one person who hasn’t forgotten how important cultural heritage is: Me.
Curious to learn more about jewelry and beads from around the world? Check out World Beads by Janet Coles and Robert Budwig to learn more about beads and how they represent the cultures they are designed by.