Saturday, April 30, 2016

HOW DO I KNOW IT'S AUTHENTIC?...American Indian Jewelry and a New Form of Highway Robbery in the Southwest

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.
Old pawn necklaces from the Santo Domingo tribe (known for their heishi and turquoise necklaces), but also loved by, and usually attributed to, the Navajos.  These were usually strung on imitation Sinew (the real sinew was taken from buffalo gut - imitation is much more obtainable), or waxed cotton cords.  The newer pieces of jewelry utilize silver closures and more contemporary methods.  Doesn't mean they're not authentic, but know who you are buying from...when in doubt, ASK!
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.  
Know your turquoise, as well...and again, if you don't care, it doesn't matter.  Collect what YOU like.  Natural turquoise deposits in the United States have just about been completely depleted, as far as mining it goes.  Long ago, it was discovered how to make turquoise "go a little further", by grinding it into dust and mixing it with epoxy.  Stabilizing in turquoise is sometimes hard to spot, unless you really know.  Then there's the Dyed Howlite.  Again, find a reputable dealer and ASK!
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! 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.  
Buy from stores that announce themselves, RIGHT UP FRONT, as being Indian...
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.


Laurie said...

Oh Tanya, I love your jewelry. I have a bracelet similar to your three stone turquoise one. I'm sure mine is not Native American made. Cliff gifted it to me and he bought it from a jewelry store near the coast. Your post was very interesting. Unfortunately, there are imposters everywhere. But, if I'm ever in the SW looking for more turquoise jewelry, I have a better idea of how to make sure it's authentic. I can't wait to see your new piece.

Tammy@T's Daily Treasures said...

My husband is very good at looking at someone and knowing exactly where they come from; at least when it comes to folks on this side of the world, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. I think it is a shame that any town would allow fraudulent sellers in right there along with the real deal. Rather disrespectful to the authentic ways of old if you ask me. We were in New Mexico in the mid-70s and I bought a turquoise ring which I loved so much. Sadly, for some reason at school one day, I took my rings off and then forgot them on my desk when I left to the next class. When I went back, they were gone and no one ever returned any of the rings to me. :( I love any kind of turquoise jewelry. Just really makes a statement when you wear it.

Mary Ann Potter said...

Your jewelry is absolutely gorgeous, and your tips about genuineness are so timely. I am so tired of seeing "made in China" on products. There are still reputable dealers and skilled artisans out there. May we all be attentive to what we are really seeing and hearing. There's deception everywhere. I refuse to be caught in it! Enjoy your American Indian pieces. I have a few myself, and I love them. I remember the Sundance catalogues, too.

Jackie said...

Wow, great information! I am starting to buy some turquoise to wear in the summers here in Las Vegas, I will keep all this in mind when I finally get to go to Santa Fe, hopefully, You will be there to help me buy!

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Bravo Tanya! Great post!

Buying online can be iffy as well.

kathyinozarks said...

Excellent post! It is amazing to me how much fraud is in the world-I never would have thought this line of jewelry was now a target.
I am like you when ever something is popular with everyone then I don't want anything to do with it-lol
You have a gorgeous collection-love the copper-which I didn't know they were making now

Anonymous said...

What a great blog about this growing problem - you covered everything! The Robert Rogers piece looks great with your talented fingers. Love you more - DAD and Significant Other ;-)

Sea Witch said...

Brilliant post and this information cannot be share enough. Having lived in Flagstaff, Arizona I saw more and more of non Native pieces and other items being sold as authentic. This is the lowest of theft for gain as it not only steals from the artist but, most importantly, the culture of these tribes. I have been a lifelong beader and self taught peyote and brick beader as well as working with turquoise. I have replicated pieces for myself to wear along with original native pieces and I, as you, would NEVER, EVER say my pieces were genuine native pieces. It dishonors the spirit of authenticity in my book. Thank you for this blog post as an eduction piece but also a reminder of the beautiful pieces the American Indian tribes continue to offer us. Blessings to you and those you love, SeaWitch

Dorthe said...

Tanya, dear, your collection is stunning, so many necklaces, rings and bracelets.
All in gorgeous turquoises, which i love,- it is such a beautiful stone.
The Indian jewelry work is so wonderful,and I love the heavy feeling of it.
Such a shame, that all over the world there are always persons, trying to make money on false pretenses!!
Hug from Dorthe XXX