Navajo silversmithing stamps

Peter Oakley, MA student in Material Culture, UCL
Stamps such as the ones illustrated are used by Navajo smiths to impress images or repeat patterns onto jewellery or silverwork. The earliest Navajo stamps from the 1880s carried similar designs which copied those found on contemporary Mexican ironwork and leather. Stamped Navajo silverwork became an important tourist art during the early 20th century, and traders encouraged the use of additional stamped motifs relating to stereotypical Western perceptions of the American Indian: arrows, stone arrowheads, the thunderbird, and the swastika (the traders subsequently discouraged the use of the swastika after it acquired Nazi associations). The Navajo have always been dependant on Western industrial technology for their silversmithing tools and materials, either buying industrially made tools, or recycling industrially produced steel to make their own. The contemporary tools illustrated are recycled piston rods, used because their toughened steel can withstand repeated hammering.
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Today the creation of silver jewellery is considered an important Navajo cultural expression, as well as an important economic resource; recognising this the U.S. government has enacted protectionist legislation whilst federal and state run heritage sites exclusively sell ‘Indian-made’ silverwork in attempts to support its production. But such a definition does not acknowledge the multicultural aspects of this body of artwork. How far should such pieces be defined as specifically ‘Indian’ when much of the decoration has been derived from Hispanic designs, whilst its production is heavily dependant on Western industrial tools and materials?

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2 Responses to Navajo silversmithing stamps

  1. Solen, UBC January 22, 2007 at 2:33 pm #

    The multicultural aspects of Navajo silver jewellery and the intercultural history of its trade is a very interesting topic. However, when asking if this body of artwork can be defined as specifically ‘Indian’, you seem to imply that the exogenous influences on the technology and designs somehow thwarts the ‘Indianness’ of the jewellery. In this sense, would only be ‘genuinely’ Indian the material culture that is the product of endogenous relationships, that is to say none of the material culture being produced today (or for the last centuries, for that matter), a position that you probably don’t endorse. In trying to determine if Navajo jewellery ought to be considered specifically ‘Indian’ (and regulated as such by the U.S. government), you will inevitably bump into the (dead-end) issue of cultural authenticity. However, it would be very interesting to investigate the relationship between the fact that silver jewellery came to be such an important economic resource for the Navajo and the fact that it is considered a symbol of Navajo identity. In that regard, the protectionist legislation might very well play an important role, but probably not in the absence of agency on the Navajo artists’ part.

  2. Peter Oakley, BU/UCL January 28, 2007 at 4:16 pm #

    The comments made in the posting do indeeed reflect my personal opinion that exogenous influences do not negate the definition of such jewellery as ‘Indian’. What I became aware of during my fieldwork was that such influences, whilst endemic from the first adoption of the craft, were ignored or disguised by promoters whose descriptions emphasised a non-industrial way of working, driven entirely by internal cultural influences which played to a touristic imaginary of the American Southwest. I am currently researching a series of postcards of Navajo Silversmiths from the early 20th century where there is evidence of staging and doctoring the images in order to support this same touristic imaginary.
    I am also ambivalent regarding cultural authenticity as a dead-end issue. Whilst anthropological theory can now see the issue as moribund, in socio-economic situations, such as the legal disputes over the Palace Portal market or admission to sell at the Santa Fe Indian Fair, cultural authenticity remains at the centre of the subjects’ perceptions.
    My interest lies not in defining cultural authenticity, but recognising that earlier (often ultimately unsuccessful) and more recent attempts at its definition by instruments of governmentality have affected the perceptions of both consumers and producers.
    The relative importance of agency on the part of Navajo Artists depends upon individual circumstances; in the case of ‘classic’ collections of Navajo jewellery, agency now appears to be almost entirely vested in the collectors and curators, who, in the majority of cases I have encountered, are not Navajo.

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