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Navajo jewelry glitters in New York

The Yazzie family's life work in Navajo jewelry design elevates jewelry making to fine art

Lee Yazzie of Gallup, New Mexico, has made jewelry since the late 1960s.
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“I didn’t think in a million years that something like this was gonna happen in my life,” said Lee Yazzie, a famed Navajo jeweler, as he stood next to an exhibit of his and his family’s jewelry work at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York. Yazzie, who has worked as a silversmith since the late 1960’s said that, as he departed for New York, he told people back home that he would only believe what was happening when he would see it.

“Glittering World: the Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family” is a retrospective into the decades-long work of the Gallup, New Mexico, family in the intricate art of Navajo jewelry design. A collection of around 300 Yazzie pieces on display at the National Museum of the American Indian is complemented by the Museum’s own historical pieces of Navajo jewelry from the turn of the century up to the 1930s.

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.

"Coral is one of my favorite materials to work with. Some of the things that I really couldn’t afford in the earlier years was Lone Mountain (turquoise) and Lander, but I could always afford to work with coral,” Raymond Yazzie said of the 2012 bracelet on the left. The 2002 Blessings bracelet on the right took Raymond Yazzie a year to finish, and he called it one of his "premier pieces."
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But, around 1988, Yazzie made a life change. “I started recognizing the talent that I was blessed with,” he said.

The exhibit primarily features the work of Lee Yazzie and that of his younger brother Raymond Yazzie, and shows the development of their work all the way from the 1970s to current day.

Yet, the exhibit is also a story of the family as a whole. All 12 siblings have at one time or another been engaged in jewelry making, the Yazzies said. The oldest sister, Mary Marie, combines stones and beads in her designs.

“There’s a real cultural story embedded in this jewelry. As you examine this jewelry and begin to understand what it represents, it actually gives you some feel for the Navajo Culture itself,” said Kevin Gover.

“Jewelry is a really important part of Navajo culture and it’s really important to a lot of families,” said Kathleen Ash-Milby, associate curator of contemporary art the NMAI, “it’s core to Navajo identity.”

This 1980 multistone 'Blue corn bracelet' resembles a corn cob. Lee Yazzie said that his work is inspired by traditional Navajo culture, such as rug weaving.
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The Yazzies' work draws from Navajo culture, society, and environment and their silver and gold inlay jewelry features varieties of Southwestern turquoise, coral and other stones.

The name of the exhibit, Glittering World, refers to the Navajo creation story. “When the Navajos emerged from the the lower world to this Navajo earth world thats what they named it -  the glittering world -  and this is the present world that we live in,” said Lee Yazzie.

In recent years, Native American apparel and accessories have inspired mainstream fashion retailers. The borrowing of patterns, names, and designs has been widely criticized by Native American journalists, community members, and designers themselves.

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.

Ray Yazzie, who followed his brother's footsteps to develop his own vision in jewelry-making, explaining the stories behind some of his work on November 10, 2014, in New York.

Kevin Gover said that he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Native-inspired jewelry or fashion, but that NMAI aims to let people know that the art inspiring common materials is extraordinary. “We hope they will be interested in the very best of that kind of material in addition to what is more generally available,” he said.

Kathleen Ash-Milby, Navajo herself, differentiates jewelry from items like headdresses that are used in ceremonial context. “The thing about Navajo jewelry is that it was always made to be worn,” she said. “In the context of economic development of Native people, and the consumer really getting something that has a deep history - that’s when you run into the downside of the appropriation of Navajo jewelry specifically.”

Because most of their jewelry over the years has been sold, the Yazzies’ work is spread with collectors around the country and the world. “Finally, of all the pieces that I could ever say that “I wish you could see it,” -  to see them all in one place it's just amazing,” said Raymond Yazzie, “It's just a life time [dream] come true.”

Lee Yazzie said he himself does not wear jewelry. “Everybody but me wears jewelry. Each piece takes so long to create and I do this for a living. It’s costly to keep something I create,“ said Lee Yazzie.

Endless hours of work and careful thought go into each piece. Lee Yazzie said he hoped visitors will see that a piece of jewelry his family created is a piece of artwork. “It’s our interpretation of what we see, of what we love. This is what I create when I look at beauty “ he said.

The exhibition Glittering World opened in November and will remain on display until January, 2016 at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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