Glittering World challenges visitors to appreciate Native American jewelry design as a form of Native American expression and a form of fine art, said Kevin Gover, director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. “These Native American jewelers are among the finest jewelers in the entire world,” Gover said about the Yazzies.
Lee Yazzie began as a silversmith in 1968. He had to drop out of college in order to undergo surgery and began learning jewelry making from his mother to make ends meet. Originally, he had wanted to become an accountant, and said he became depressed not achieving those aspirations. “For many years I was really embarrassed to be just a silversmith because I wanted to be a professional of some sort,” Yazzie said.
In 2012, the American retailer Urban Outfitters was sued by The Navajo Nation for its use of the name ‘Navajo’ in a line that featured knockoffs of Native prints in everything from shirts and dresses to jewelry, flasks, and the infamous “Navajo Hipster Panty.” In its lawsuit, the Navajo Nation appealed to the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which is a truth-in-advertizing law banning companies from misleading consumers to think something was produced by Native American artists when it actually was not.
More recently, the use of ceremonial headdresses by models on catwalks and regular festival-goers has made the headlines, with bloggers like Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations calling out the use of such items as disrespectful.
Kevin Gover, the director of the museum, has been outspoken about appropriation and how it harms the public’s understanding of Native American existence. Based in Washington D.C., he has made statements about the city’s NFL team’s use of the ‘R-word’ in its team name.
“You know the mascots and that word in particular are made up things, they’re imaginary. When you hear them talking about honoring Indians, they’re honoring this Indian that they made up and that is imaginary in every respect,” Gover said.
“By showing the very best that Native America has to offer, we want to make Indians real and contemporary for people so they stop paying attention to this imaginary Indian that they’ve created,” Gover said, “imaginary Indians are less troublesome than real people so we’re just forcing them to deal with reality.”
The exhibit aims to highlight artists’ distinct visions over time - showing that Native design is evolving and contemporary. “I think a lot of people have an idea of what Navajo jewelry is, but they don’t really think of the individuality of the expression,” Kathleen Ash-Milby said.
For consumers looking for contemporary work and hoping to bypass jewelry knockoffs sold at mainstream fashion stores, there are also online shops such as beyondbuckskin.com, which features up-and-coming Native designers. The online store, founded by Turtle Mountain Chippewa Jessica Metcalfe, offers everything from laptop sleeves to jewelry by designers from different tribes in North America. The money from the online store goes to the artists. “Our artists know how to create items that draw from their Native American backgrounds, yet do not include any sacred aspects that should never be sold,” the store’s website describes.