New exhibit reveals symbolism of Native American jewelry

(Photo: Mitchell Museum of the American Indian)

'Stunning Stories in Native American Jewelry' exhibit opens September 28 at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois

News Release

Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

Native American jewelry is beloved for its beauty and craftsmanship by Native Americans and non-Natives alike. September 28, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston will open a new exhibit “Stunning Stories in Native American Jewelry.” The exhibit reveals the deep symbolism and multi-faceted cultural stories each piece tells about the preservation of culture, histories, and spirituality in the face of cross-cultural assimilation.

“In developing the exhibit, we reached out to the artists and tribal communities to share their intimate stories of what their prized jewelry means to them- the materials, symbols, and experience making, wearing, and even losing their treasured pieces” says Kathleen McDonald, the exhibit curator and museum’s Executive Director since 2009. The nearly 100 pieces of jewelry on display in the exhibit are from the museum’s collections as well as private collectors and represents tribes and prominent artists from throughout the US and Canada, but focuses predominantly on jewelry from the Southwest.

Stunning Stories in Native American Jewelry exhibit opens September 28, 2019 at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois.
Stunning Stories in Native American Jewelry exhibit opens September 28, 2019 at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois.(Photo: Mitchell Museum of the American Indian)

The exhibit opens with the different materials and techniques used in jewelry making including traditional bone, shell, copper, and seeds but also, the influences of Europeans and other cultures who introduced refinements in mining turquoise, silversmith techniques and new materials such as glass beads and other semi-precious stones. Many traditional materials continue to be used today, even in more modern designs by artists like Charles Loloma or Ray Tracey, to define the piece as Native American.

Some jewelry is explicit in creating a picture of Native American lifeways and people. These “storyteller” pieces show the southwest landscape, portraits of indigenous people, and scenes of lifeways from herding sheep to revealing everything a goat ate. Concha belts often depict scenes of Navajo life from activities around the hogan (a traditional Navajo building), to weaving and traditional cooking. The exhibit also highlights a spectacular Aleutian storyteller belt by Denise and Sam Wallace.

The exhibit then explores the less explicit symbols of legends and spiritual and ceremonial figures prominent in southwest cultures. Familiar Kokopelli and Yei figures are shown as well as a series of dance figures and kachinas. While sacred in their true form, jewelry makers have created these pieces to sell and share their culture in exquisitely executed jewelry. Highlights include a Deer Kachina bolo tie by Leo Pablano, Zuni, Eagle Dancer bolo tie by Helen Long, Navajo, Shalako Kachina bolo tie by Ronnie Calavaza, Zuni, and many more.

Animals are also prominent symbols in Native American cultures and artists often show animal symbols in their jewelry from clan animals like turtle and bear with deep tribal meanings to more whimsical animals popular with tourists.

Native American jewelry makers also demonstrate the changes in Native American cultures from religious conversion to Christianity or Judaism, acknowledging the US flag and new citizenship, and innovative material use during hard times of WWII and the Great Depression where plastic combs and LP records were crafted into beautiful thunderbird necklaces and pins.

For more information about the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, visit www.mitchellmuseum.org, call 847-475-1030 or see our verified Facebook page. The museum is located in Evanston, Illinois at 3001 Central Street. It is open Tuesday-Wednesday 10am to 5pm, Thursday, 10am to 8pm, Friday- Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday noon to 4pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, students, and children, and free for Mitchell Museum members and Tribal members. 

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(Image: Mitchell Museum of the American Indian)
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