A symbol of wealth

Although most jewelry had spiritual meaning, some indicated social status or was worn simply for decoration. For example, pearls could only be worn by the children of noblemen in the Natchez

A Navajo woman displays her turquoise jewelry. Native Americans of the Southwest adorned themselves with turquoise earrings, necklaces, and other jewelry. Reproduced by permission of© Nevada Wier/CORBIS.

Dentalium Jewellery

tribe of the Southeast. While women of the Iroquois nation typically wore many beaded necklaces, for ceremonies they showed off their collections, wearing as much as ten pounds of beaded jewelry at once. Men of the Plateau region wore multiple strands of shell and glass bead loop necklaces with chokers made of dentalium, long thin white tubular shells from the Pacific coast. After 1850 some Plains Indians began to wear breastplates, once worn as armor, simply for decoration. Breastplates, or chest coverings made of horizontally strung long shells called hair pipes, became so popular that people from other tribes began to wear them as well, and European Americans on the East Coast began to manufacture glass and metal beads to make decorative breastplates. Trade with Europeans and white settlers, as well as the changes to Native American culture due to the movement of white settlers into their homelands, introduced new materials, designs, and uses for jewelry among various tribes.

The living members of many tribes throughout the modern-day North American continent continue these jewelry traditions. For some, such as the Navajo of the Southwest, the sale of their jewelry provides a significant amount of their income.


Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

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