Pamela Hughes
These two beautiful "Wings Down" ca. 1930-1950 Necklaces were actually made using Battery casings, Turquoise, Gypsum, Plastic and String

Ugly Junk into Beautiful Jewelry? Depression Era Santo Domingo Pueblo Exhibit at Williamsburg

Pamela Hughes

Santo Domingo Pueblo jewelry artisans are well-known for their Thunderbird motif necklaces, bolo ties, earrings and hair clips inlaid and cut so finely that one necklace can contain thousands of beads of turquoise or other types of stone.

Due to the hardships involved in gathering jewelry-making materials during the Depression era, these same style jewelry pieces were created with materials that were much more readily available to Santo Domingo Pueblo artisans.

These beautiful pieces, which contain such materials as battery casings, old records, red and white plastic kitchen colanders, forks, hair combs, gypsum beads and turquoise chips, are now on exhibit at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg until September 5, 2016.

The exhibit; entitled Thunderbirds: Jewelry of the Santo Domingo Pueblo contains over 100 pieces and is the first of its kind for the American folk-art museum, which also displays quilts, pottery, furniture, toys and paintings of the early European colonists.

The inlaid mosaic jewelry of the exhibit is so finely executed that at first glance it appears to be made with same gemstone and shell used for the fine silver and turquoise jewelry of the Santo Domingo Pueblo.

For example, plastic fork tines form tail feathers and the teeth of combs form the wing feathers of the Thunderbird designs adopted for sole use in these pieces, which feature wings up, down, spread or folded.

This Butterfly bolo overlaid on inside of shell contains turquoise, leather, plastic and silver.  The 'Wings Up' design contains diamond shapes from plastic colanders.  Photos; Pamela Hughes

Cynthia Aguilar, Tribal Librarian for the Pueblo, stated that the necklaces were a lifeline for the people. "They connected the tribe with the outside world for sustainability. People on the outside think of the Thunderbird as folk-art because of the materials that were used. In this case, these materials may have been in a trash pile.”

Deborah Jojola (Isleta/Jemez Pueblo) is the curator of exhibits for the Indian Pueblo Center and told ICTMN that though the jewelry was a struggle to make, it paid bills. “They were part of the survival of the people and culture at this time which brought out the principles of love, understanding, respect, spirituality and families working together.”

"We interviewed the artists whose lineage came from their parents who created these pieces. They emphasized the need to survive as a nation and culture in distress. It became almost prayerful in making these...It was a time in Albuquerque when things were made to survive."

The Williamsburg exhibit recounts Dorothy Chavez's recollection of her father Mariano Rosetta (1889-1979), who made these necklaces, bringing home stacks of red and white colanders.

The Pueblo had no electricity until the 1960s and this jewelry was produced using traditional and simple tools, becoming a tradition in its own right that was passed down through the 1950s. The first artisan to use plastic for tourist jewelry and the exact time its use began cannot be pinpointed, however, but one Santo Domingo member stated for the exhibit that ideas came from observing the fashion of tourists in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Another family member said "We got plastic anywhere we could find it, even trash dumps."

Located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe near an ancient trade route that is now Interstate 25, the Santo Domingo Pueblo people are known as great traders. They were very active in the tourist trade in the Depression Era, compared to other Pueblos, taking advantage of the period's economics and scarce resources by creating jewelry much less expensive than their traditional fine jewelry. Santo Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo jewelry traditions date back thousands of years. Chaco Canyon and similar ancestral sites have yielded many jewelry artifacts predating 1150 A.D.

For more information on the exhibit please visit their website:


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