A number of Native America Peoples, with distinctly different cultures and languages, live in the American Southwest. They might be grouped in three families—the Navajo-Apache, the most recent arrivals, the Puebloan Peoples, who are descendants of the Chaco-Mesa Verde cultures, and the somewhat localized desert people, who inhabit Southern Arizona/ Mojave Region. All of them learned to survive and thrive in a region of little water, hot summer temperatures, and fierce spring winds. Perhaps some respite wandered into their worlds from the beauty of the canyon cliffs, rock formations, and occasional soaring mountains. Not only is this area an often harsh and foreboding landscape, the red, orange, and yellow rocks establish it as the most sumptuously gorgeous location on the planet.
Elevation matters greatly in the Southwest. The Taos Pueblo, at 7000 ft, elevation, enjoys mild summers and cold winters, whereas the Gila River Reservation at just over 1000 ft elevation endures 120 degree F summer temperatures but exceptionally mild winters. A rule of thumb is, the greater the elevation, the more populous the People and the more diversified the culture. More springs or water reserves naturally occur in the higher elevations, also supporting this general rule.
This is an area with generous amounts of surface mineral resources, such as gold, silver, and turquoise. Additionally, due to the relatively easy walking, long trail systems developed, which lead to trade routes that brought in far away treasures such as exotic bird feathers and colorful sea shells. The ancestral people began to develop ornamental works for their clothing and for themselves, items that might be thought of as reflecting the surrounding beauty of the environment. The works that have been found in ancient burial sites demonstrate a level of skill that requires the maker of these pieces to be called skilled craftsmen or, in today’s world, jewelers.
The Spanish were the first Westerners into this region and by the early 1600’s they had made their first settlements, attempting to conquer the Pueblo populations. The Spanish remain a dogged presence in the area until 1848 when the United States acquired this region during the War with Mexico. The influence of the Spanish, however, remains to this day and is found in the regions’ architecture, cuisine, language, spirituality, and artwork.
Spanish artisans and the tools they used influenced the various Peoples, whose styles and techniques sometimes still incorporate those mediums and motifs. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the ‘Indian Agents’ or Trading Post Agents further influenced the artwork of the local area by encouraging a particular style. (An example of this is the ‘Two Grey Hills’ Navajo rugs that were and still are produced in the area of Western New Mexico, just 40 miles north of Gallup, N.M.) It is fair to say that the Peoples of the Southwest have produced more artwork and, especially, jewelry, for the Western World than any other Native American or First Nations region, works that are now known, admired, and collected everywhere in the world.