I was asked this question by an interested friend last week and, having bought what has turned out to be a substantial piece this past week (sheerly by accident, and a post for two days from now), and knowing there is a problem that has been arising in the American Southwest for some years now, I thought I'd share a bit of what I know:
First and foremost, collect what you LIKE! If you don't care, then it doesn't matter. However, if you DO care what you're getting, then arm yourself with as much information as you can beforehand. The tourist areas of the American Southwest have been experiencing an onslaught of shops owned by people of Middle Eastern descent POSING as Native American, and selling jewelry that they advertise as being Native American when, in actuality, it's knockoff jewelry designs being produced overseas...and certainly NOT by Native Americans! And it's not just jewelry - rugs, pottery - none of it seems to be off limits to this deceptive practice.
To persons/tourists unfamiliar with our American Indians (and that's NOT an offensive word) by sight, this presents a serious problem. You're NOT getting what you THINK you're paying for, in these shops, and it's undercutting the livelihoods of one of the most historically oppressed peoples in the United States.
The pieces above (and below) have all been collected by me personally, since the early seventies. I used to wear them daily back then, and quit when everyone else zeroed in on the craze (thanks, Sundance Catalog). I've begun slowly pulling them back out.
It wasn't really a problem then, knowing you were getting AUTHENTIC pieces. Some of mine are old pawn pieces (if money was needed, Indians pawned their jewelry to trading posts on the reservations - when it went "dead", it was sold by the posts. This practice continues to this day). One bracelet was ordered and purchased DIRECT from the artisan - standing in his house, atop the mesa that houses the Hopi Reservation. ALL others were purchased from either TRIBAL OWNED Cultural Centers/Trading Posts, or from REPUTABLE dealers. If you walk into a shop where the guy behind the counter is wearing a nice, crisp white shirt, suit slacks, (OK, dressed like a Gold and Silver Jewelry dealer) and is on a cell phone, chances are you are not in the right place!
Look for hallmarks - most of the Native American pieces have an identifiable hallmark stamped somewhere on the back of the piece. The silver overlay Kokopelli bracelet contains the hallmark of Bernard Dawahoya (upper right), while the larger sandcast bracelet with the turquoise center is stamped FJ on the reverse. The three-stone bracelet was a high school graduation gift from my parents.
I started with the rings when I was young, travelling with a knowledgeable couple of parents. These were all reservation pawn shop purchases, and extremely affordable at the time.
Which brings me to how easily confused someone "new" to the game can become when looking to start collecting. The two OLD necklaces are on the left, laying next to a piece that I, MYSELF, am stringing - a work in progress. NEVER to be passed off as Native American - EVER! This is being made BY ME, FOR ME, and I will TELL people I made it. This, however, is NOT the same honesty you will find among shop owners posing as something they are not, and selling dishonestly. Caveat Emptor - buyer beware - when in doubt, ASK!
The unfinished, natural turquoise slab pieces were purchased at a bead store in Santa Fe three years ago, with no direction in mind at the time. The bronze piece that I have hung from the bottom is an actual bronze sculpture, by Robert Rogers, that has hung from a simple leather cord since I received it as a gift. It has always deserved better, and I decided it was time to combine the two elements, along with some beading wire. I would NEVER claim this to be anything but handmade BY ME. If we were all this honest, there wouldn't be a problem.
American Indian made? Both ARE, believe it or not. Rising silver prices have turned many of the Navajo silversmiths to copper and brass in recent years.
Again, HALLMARKS...the one on the left was made by Emerson Bill, a Navajo. Which leads me back to my statement of them both being American Indian made...the one on the right was made by a Navajo silversmith, employed by a red-headed designer from Texas, by the name of Rocki Gorman. She's got a breathtaking shop in Santa Fe, with a willingness to let you know EXACTLY who made the pieces for her, that she has designed. This is stamped with HER hallmark, but Indian made nonetheless, utilizing many of the old stamps and designs from years past - these are both purchases made within the past 6 or 7 years.
The copper and brass pieces are an affordable way to enjoy some beautiful Native American pieces, for a fraction of the cost. They patina beautifully over time, too!
Soooooooo...how DO you know you're getting the "real deal"? There are a few ways. First, BUY DIRECT. Many of the Southwest towns known for their Native American "draw" have Indian Markets and/or selling areas. Santa Fe has the Palace of the Governors Native American Vendors Program. Old Town Albuquerque has the same type of set-up, but is now allowing NON-Native Americans to hawk their wares, among the Indians. The bottom photo is my Dad, on a recent trip to Acoma Pueblo, where he purchased the beautiful bowl directly from the woman who made it. BUY DIRECT - it's usually the best way of knowing what you are getting, and from whom.
or Native American owned (these shops are both in Old Town Albuquerque, with faux Indian shops to either side).
This sort of signage has come about more and more in recent years, partly from desperation at the dishonest vendors moving in and pulling a "fast one" on unsuspecting tourists. One non-Indian shop that passes itself AS being so (in old town Albuquerque) has even gone so far as to hire a Caucasian woman to "front" a shop filled with both American Indian, but MORE imported items claiming to be Indian made. The honest shops in a town DO know who the outsiders are, and will always steer you to the right spots. Don't just assume that a shop advertising Native American jewelry is actually selling the REAL thing. When in doubt, ASK!
Seek out reputable dealers...ones that have been in business for YEARS prior to the deceitful practices the SW is experiencing. Ones that still deal DIRECTLY, and honestly. with the Indians themselves. Richardson's in Gallup (the tiny towns of Gallup and Zuni, NM both have a HUGE problem with this, now) has been in business since 1913. Garland's in Sedona, Jackies in Taos, Hubbell's historic site in Ganado, NM...ALL reputable. And they can tell you who else is! An interesting article from 2003 for some further reading, click here... TENSION OVER WHO PROSPERS IN AN INDIAN CAPITAL
The Rainbow Man (pictured above), Native Jackets, Shalako, Keishi, and Shiprock Gallery in Santa Fe will ALL point you in the right direction, if they don't have what you want themselves. Just arm yourself if it matters to you WHO made what you're after. Again, collect what you LIKE, but when in doubt, ASK! I'm not an expert, by any means...I've just learned - by asking and paying attention. In a few days, I'll be back to show you a special piece I acquired this week...have a wonderful weekend.