Keeping Indian Jewelry Authentic at the Briscoe

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
Ben Nighthorse Campbell speaks about creating Indian jewelry and art at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Courtesy photo.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell speaks about creating Indian jewelry and art at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Courtesy photo.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell has worn many hats and designed even more jewelry.

The former U.S. Senator from Colorado, jeweler, designer and owner of Nighthorse, Inc., inaugurated the Voices of the West Distinguished Lecture Series at the Briscoe Western Art Museum Thursday night with a presentation on Native American jewelry. The timing was ideal with this weekend’s highly anticipated, first-ever Yanaguana Indian Arts Market.

Thursday’s lecture marked the first talk in the museum’s Distinguished Lecture Series this fall. The next featured speaker will be S.C. Gwynne, author of “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History,” who will speak at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6.

Tickets are available online at www.BriscoeMuseum.org/voices. Lectures are held at the Jack Guenther Pavilion on the Briscoe Campus and are free for members and UTSA University Members. Lecture tickets are $10 each, All-Lecture Passes are $25.

John T. Monford, a San Antonio business consultant and former member of the Texas State Senate from District 28, introduced Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

John T. Montford, the former state senator from Lubbock and the former Chancellor of Texas Tech State University and now the San Antonio-based president and CEO of JTM Consulting. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Campbell was introduced by John T. Montford, the former state senator from Lubbock and the former Chancellor of Texas Tech State University and now the San Antonio-based president and CEO of JTM Consulting. Montford and his wife, Debbie, were driving forces behind the establishment of the Briscoe Museum and major benefactors as well.

As Campbell retraced his steps from his beginnings as a jewelry maker in 1945 at the age of 12 up through his instrumental role in the passage of the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, he revealed to the audience some finely embedded facets of the art form – among them, that it is just as important to establish laws protecting the artwork of Native American craftsmen as it is to create an original work of art.

Like other arts and crafts, Native American beads and settings have journeyed from the careful hands of individual artists to mass production on machines and molds, but the love and passion for jewelry making remains strong throughout the communities.

Though Campbell draws inspiration for his jewelry from his Northern Cheyenne heritage, he learned from friends in other tribes, such as the Navajo, who made jewelry out of coins.

“We used to make jewelry by putting the coins on the railroad tracks to flatten them,” he said to ready laughter. “We also melted coins in the crucible with a blowtorch. In those days, there was no money in it. We made it to stay alive.”

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement about what Indian jewelry should look like today, he said.

Many of the elements now associated with traditional Native American jewelry found at Indian markets – including gold, silver and turquoise – did not originate among Native Americans in North America, but the Inca, Maya and other South and Central American cultures, Campbell noted.

The jewelry design referred to as the “Squash Blossom,” a crescent-shaped pendant that people often think of as a traditional Indian design – actually was influenced by the Spanish Conquistadores, as was its name, he said.

Non-Native people usually bought sterling silver, and Conchos, formed after the familiar conch shell, originally were used by Indian tribes on the Northern Plains, Campbell added.

Magazines such as Arizona Highways, begun by the Arizona Highway Department in 1921, featured articles and expositions on topics including “New Indian Jewelry” in an effort to broaden definitions of the real thing.

The ‘70s also witnessed a cultural resurgence in interest in the jewelry, with President Richard Nixon announcing he would honor guests with uniquely American products, including American Indian arts and crafts.

Nonetheless, the definition of true Native American jewelry – and bringing the market into compliance with the law – remained difficult.

“I had judged many shows myself…I judged a Concho belt, but when I found out how it was made – that it can be made with a cutting machine and the Conchos were cut out by a milling machine that was a slave to a computer…if I’d known that then, I wouldn’t have judged it the same way,” Campbell said.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell speaks about creating Indian art and jewelry at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Courtesy photo.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell speaks about creating Indian art and jewelry at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Courtesy photo.

Congress first passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in 1935, which created a board to assist in promoting the development of Indian arts and crafts. The future act passed in 1990 prohibited misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the U.S. Under the act, an Indian was defined as a member of any federally or officially state-recognized Indian tribe or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian tribe.

Many Indians in the U.S. are not members of federally recognized tribes, however, Campbell noted. In addition, people can be considered culturally Indian without being genetically Indian, and vice versa.

In 1975, the Indian Arts and Crafts Association joined together to implement an educational approach to protect Indian craftsmen from fast-talking traders, offering seminars to native people about how to market their art by the time it was sold by market.

One important case of compliance involved the Hopi Tribe’s complaint against Time-Life Books, which alleged that Time-Life Books offered “an authentic Kachina doll, handmade by Hopi Indian Artisans” to the first 50 people responding to a promotional advertisement for their book series, “The American Indians.”

On behalf of the Hopi Tribe, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board notified Time-Life Books of the complaint that the Kachinas were not made by members of the Hopi tribe, leading to the establishment of the IACB’s trademark registration program and certification program to design and promote fine Indian and Alaska Native handicrafts and offer their crafts marketing enterprises the privilege of attaching to its registered trademark a certificate declaring the IACB recognizes their products as Authentic Native American handicrafts.

Aside from legalities regarding authenticity of work, jewelry makers now must cope with diminishing resources – including turquoise in turquoise mines – and the controversy involved in mine ownership by new families in the West.

Campbell recognized the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a fine example of a place supported by Pueblo Indians in Mexico and offering regularly scheduled festivals, dances and welcoming events.

Many of Campbell’s friends and acquaintances were on hand to talk with him and shake his hand after the lecture.

Jewelry created by Ben Nighthorse Campbell's wife, Linda, on display at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Jewelry created by Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s wife, Linda, on display at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Anthony Lovato, a jewelry craftsman and old friend of Campbell’s who creates tufa sandcasts with sterling silver, sources his materials from Albuquerque, which include turquoise and semi-precious stones.

He emphasizes the use of turquoise since it relates to water and sky, and looked forward to showcasing some of his jewelry at the Yanaguana Market, billed as “a new Texas tradition” this Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Briscoe.

Named in honor of the San Antonio River’s earliest known name, given by the Payaya people who inhabited the region, Yanaguana Market will feature more than 20 Native American artists from across the country, including jewelry makers, weavers, carvers, and potters from tribes including the Navajo, Santa Clara Pueblo and Zuni, to name a few.

The weekend schedule will include dancing, drumming, music, artist demonstrations and Native American-inspired cuisine. The American Indians in Texas of the Spanish Colonial Missions will provide fry bread varieties, prickly pear water, bison burgers and Cheyenne dogs.

*Featured/top image: Ben Nighthorse Campbell speaks about creating Indian jewelry and art at the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Courtesy photo.

Related Stories:

Briscoe Museum Launches Western Lecture Series

Yanaguana Indian Arts Market: A Texas Tradition Begins


Briscoe Museum, Opera Avoid City Funding Loss

Briscoe Western Art Museum Revives Historic Downtown Cultural Landmark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *