The Never-Ending Storytelling of Native American Jewelry and Its Makers

Denise Wallace, “Origins, Roots, and Sources: Past, Present, and Future” (2021), five piece belt, sterling silver, 14K gold, fossilized walrus tusk, lapis, petrified dinosaur bone, red coral, gold feldspar, and black moonstone, 3 ½ x 12 ½ inches (not including leather belt) (photo by Kiyoshi Togashi, courtesy the artist)

SANTA FE, NM — Each summer, on the weekend following the third Thursday in August, the population of the small city of Santa Fe, New Mexico more than doubles as over 150,000 visitors from around the world converge on the largest juried Native American art event in the world: Santa Fe Indian Market. Now organized by the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), Indian Market was first held in 1922, and as the event prepares to celebrate its centennial anniversary, it has grown to include over 1,200 Indigenous artists from across the United States and Canada. Indian Market, and the many concurrent satellite events which include performances, exhibitions, lectures, screenings, and more, features artists working across an extraordinary variety of media.

Although this year’s participating artists are yet to be announced, one thread is continuous: Storytelling is central in much of Native American art, and the work being produced by Indigenous jewelers is no exception. Native jewelry, whether based in historical practice, contemporary innovation, or somewhere in between, carries the identities and histories of the artists and craftspeople who created it; jewelry allows us to carry those stories with us and on us. The work of Alaskan Native Denise Wallace (Chugach Sugpiaq/Alutiiq), a longtime staple of Indian Market, exemplifies these facts. Winner of the Best of Show award for Jewelry at the 2021 Market, stories and histories are at the heart of Wallace’s work.

Denise Wallace, “Bird Man Transformation” (2020), pin/pendant, sterling silver, 14K gold, 18k gold, fossil ivory, pietersite, 3 x 3 inches (photo by Kiyoshi Togashi, courtesy the artist)

But her winning piece from 2021 Indian Market, Origins, Roots, and Sources, is an impeccable example of her work. The belt, like many of her best-known pieces, utilizes precious metals, custom stonework, scrimshaw, intricate mechanisms, and hidden transformative elements to create works that speak with her unique voice. Featuring masks and figures that, according to Wallace, “are based in the history of our country,” she incorporates traditional stories with references to history, environmental fears, and current politics.

The work also contains specific allusions to missing and murdered indigenous women, to two-spirit people, and civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the figure representing Ginsburg references the following quote from the late Supreme Court Justice, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”) Wallace’s work here honors the labor and sacrifices of those who came before us, while recognizing that a great deal of work still lies ahead.

Denise Wallace, “Origins, Roots, and Sources: Past, Present, and Future” detail (2021), five piece belt, sterling silver, 14K Gold, fossilized walrus tusk, lapis, petrified dinosaur bone, red coral, gold feldspar, and black moonstone, 3 ½ x 12 ½ inches (not including leather belt) (photo by Kiyoshi Togashi, courtesy the artist)

“I don’t really think of myself as a jeweler,” Wallace says. “I see myself as a storyteller. I’m not just making adornment. There’s history, personal energy, there’s my story.” Speaking of art more broadly she says, “It’s all about storytelling. We’re continuing our histories and stories. We build on the craft of the people who come before us, and the people who come after will build on top of what we make.”

Indigenous adornment practices aren’t limited to jewelry made in precious metal and stones. Indigenous artworks that adore the body include textiles, beadwork, quillwork, found objects, and more. Hollis Chitto (Choctaw, Laguna and Isleta Pueblos) is an artist who practices traditional beadwork, but the body and its ability to serve as a vessel for histories and identity are central ideas that inform this work. Hailing from Santa Fe, Hollis grew up in an environment surrounded by art. He had his first experience showing work at Indian Market at five years old with his father (esteemed Mississippi Choctaw sculptor and ceramics artist Randy Chitto) and began learning beading at the age of ten.

Hollis Chitto, “In Honor of My Pukni” (2014), antique and contemporary seed beads, size 13-12, brain tan buckskin, silk habotai lining, silk ribbon appliqué, antique brass sequins, Swarovski crystal, 14 x 8 inches (photo courtesy the artist)

Chitto’s bag “In Honor of Pukni” references his personal connection to beadwork through his family. “I made this bag in honor of my grandmother. My father’s mother helped provide for her family in Chicago by selling her beadwork,” he explains. The bag features Southeast style abstract floral designs, as well as appliqué in silk ribbon that mimics the diamond pattern found on the backs of rattlesnakes. “Although I never had the privilege of learning the art form from her, I believe everything I make is an extension of her love for her family,” he continues. “When I asked my dad if pukni would be proud of my work, he said, ‘She would be blown away, but ask why are you using such small beads?’ ”

Chitto, who identifies as two-spirit, says of adornment, “What we put on our bodies is a statement. It signals identity, culture, gender, socio-economic status and more. What a person wears tells the story of who that person is. It shows who you are to the world and as Indigenous people, our identities are wrapped up in storytelling.” His bag “Bloodwork No. 2” exemplifies the connection between Indigenous bodies and the stories they carry. This bag features a colorful example of floral beadwork interrupted by a cascade of red evocative of flowing blood, a weighty symbol for Native and LGBTQ2+ people alike.

Hollis Chitto, “Bloodwork Number 2” (2017), antique and contemporary seed beads, Swarovski crystal, Chinese crystal, lapis, Czech glass, silk dupioni, silk habotai, 16 x 7 inches (photo courtesy the artist)

“The blood in our veins is what gives us life. Its importance is celebrated in various tribes as a fact. Unfortunately, it is this same substance that is at risk for a sickness that is taking a portion of our people,” Chitto says of this work.

“The taboos of speaking openly about unsafe sex and high-risk behaviors such as intravenous drug use have only served to add to new infection rates due to ignorance. My goal for this piece is to act as a starting point of discussion about this topic. The blood down the center is the elephant in the room; we all have it, so few of us give it a second thought unless we need to.”

Speaking on the topic of non-natives wearing Indigenous adornment, Chitto says, “A lot of bead workers get the question from non-native — ‘Is it okay to wear this?’ The question is coming from a good place … So long as the work is purchased from a Native artist, and so long as you are engaging with the culture respectfully, then you’re good. That interaction and engagement becomes a part of your story.” Denise Wallace echoes this sentiment, “It’s pretty obvious when people are appropriating culture in a disrespectful way, but when a person buys and wears a piece of jewelry, they are supporting that artist’s community and promoting the culture.”

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