Photos courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections, Roland Bonaparte, Brian Frejo, and Annabell Bowen
From left: Kwakwaka’wakw girl, circe 1914; Standing Bear (Omaha), 1883; Brian Frejo (Skiri Pawnee, Seminole); and Annabell Bowen (Diné, Seneca)

Labor of Love: The Value of Earrings to Native Americans

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Natives throughout Indian country are keenly aware of the culture and value of beautifully made Native earrings. The wearable pieces of art garner instant compliments and initiate a whole range of conversations, often from non-Natives, about our identity and culture. Yet, there is so much more to the exquisite pieces of art than what meets the eye.

Today, indigenous people are tasked with achieving the delicate balance of walking in what is often referred to as “two worlds.” While we strive to honor our ancestors and the strength of our past, we must also endeavor to carve out healthy paths today for our young ones. Recreating and wearing the value-rich designs of our ancestors is one way that we accomplish this, brilliantly. 

Each design, symbol, aesthetic, process, and material carries with it whole set of valuable teachings. From contemporary materials of sparkling gem stones and neon beads, to traditional porcupine quills and dentalium, earrings are rooted in the teachings of our ancestors and stand as unique symbols of cultural adaptation and resilience.Earring collection of artist and earring collector, Camille Sine.

Both Native men and women alike craft, gift, and wear the unique tribal accessory, just as our ancestors have. And each nation, band, and society carry their own unique teachings.

Brian Frejo, (Skiri Pawnee, Seminole) DJ and founder of Culture Shock Camp, said of Pawnee men wearing earrings “We wore earrings in both ears traditionally, not just one piercing, but many in both ears for war and decorations. Each chief and warrior had his own unique style and flair. There has always been a balance in all things, so earrings in both sides!”

Often for the Native sisters today, when we see another wearing a pair of traditional shells or contemporary sparkling stunners, we are eager to know where the earrings came from and the artists who made them. They become a conversation piece. When Native men wear them, heads definitely turn as we recognize their apparent love and reverence for their identity and their people. 

As brilliant representations of cultural transmission, pride, and identity, many have refined the art of earring artistry today. Here are just a handful of the skilled Native artists who design and create some of the most exquisite earrings, as they share some of their teachings, techniques, processes, and stories that inspire them to create.

Samatha Moses, Onondaga Nation/Haudenosaunee – Syracuse, New York

Earrings made by artist, Samatha Moses. Photos courtesy of Samatha Moses.

“I started making earrings for myself first just for fun and as something to do on my spare time. People love earrings, and the creative possibilities are endless. Materials I use range from velvet, felt, leather, beads, gems, stones, buttons, quills, bone, shells, coins – anything really.

I mostly make floral earrings, which is usually what my woodland tribes use, or earrings with my tribe’s designs on them. I get a lot of questions on the designs or patterns I use, so this is an opportunity to educate about who we are and the story behind the designs. It’s nice to share and educate people, and let them know we're still here creating things the way our ancestors did. It is also nice to know the feeling people get when opening up a pair of my earrings. It is good to know I can make someone feel happy and excited.”

Christal & Kimberly Ratt, Anishnabe, Mitchikinabik Inik – Quebec, Canada

Sweetgrass, rawhide, and beaded earrings and necklace set, made by Christal & Kimberly Ratt.  Photos courtesy of Christal Ratt

“As Kimmaye & Kwisto Miiksagwasin, my sister Kimberly and I have used beads, raw hide (parfleche), sweetgrass, shells, porcupine quills, birch, hide, velvet and other contemporary items such as crystals to create our pieces. Like our Kokoms before us, we use floral designs in a majority of our work.

Sitting down to create unique art in the form of a pair of earrings is an opportunity to think, to reflect on the day, to pray, to give thanks, to let our creativity flow, and to do what we love while we can still do it. Even the simplest pair of earrings reflects our culture and our resilience as a People to overcome the challenges throughout the years. It's a healing and a celebration of culture when we create earrings and other projects.

My Mom, Beatrice, is our source of inspiration. We are forever thankful for all that she taught us especially with beading. We owe our thanks also to other crafters in the community, that build canoes, tikinagin (cradle boards), nesidjiipzin (birch bark cradles), gloves, agim (snowshoes) – all forms of art and inspiration to maintain the teachings of our traditional crafts.

It's nice knowing that somewhere out there a beautiful Anishnabe Kwe decided to complete her look of confidence with one of our earrings as part of her outfit.”

Michele Sumner, Ojibwe – Red Lake, Minnesota

Beaded hoop earrings, and peyote stitch earrings, made by artists, Michele Sumner.  Photos courtesy of Michele Sumner

“I saw my mother creating hoops and loved them. It was rare for me to see peyote hoops, so it was something that I definitely wanted to try. The design and colors are usually pre-planned, and I have a sketchbook full of colored in designs. I've always needed to create, so this has been a great therapeutic outlet for me. It's a plus that people have taken a liking to my hoops smile emoticon. Being able to meet and speak with people from all over the world, people from different countries, reservations and cities is especially rewarding. Connecting with all of the people that I have has been a big inspiration and blessing.”

Mindi Kee, Shoshone-Paiute – Duck Valley, Idaho/Nevada,

Earring and necklace sets made by artist, Mindi Kee, modeled by her daughter, Shoshana Kee. Photos courtesy of Mindi Kee.

“For materials, I like to use anything and everything. When my daughter and I are shopping my eye will sometimes catch something blingy and different, then I think of ways I can take that piece of jewelry apart and “indigenize” it! I keep graph paper with me and when my mind gets going I sketch designs. Some of them never make it to the earrings but others I am able to work and make a piece of jewelry.

When my daughter was a powwow princess we would sell and raffle earring and necklace sets to raise money for her dance special and giveaway. We were very fortunate to have enough people buy our jewelry that it financed most of her special.

When I see people wearing my jewelry with pride and I remember how that piece was made for them, it is definitely spiritually uplifting. I was once told that we are all provided gifts from the Creator and we use these gifts to help others. The ability to create beautiful things through beadwork is a gift and I never forget that aspect and the responsibility that comes with it.

There is a lot of talk today about stealing colors, designs, and ideas. My thought is that we are all inspired by the world around us, and we all build on these ideas individually. I cannot copy you and you cannot copy me because we all interpret our stories differently. All of the teachings and discipline with the art of beadwork are what I try to share with my daughter. If all of these teachings are incorporated, then the reward is that you continue to be blessed with meaningful creativity and the ability to create beautiful beadwork and earrings.”

Holly Young, Wiciyena Pabaksa Dakota & Tizaptanna Dakota – Standing Rock Dakota & Lakota Nation, Fort Yates, North Dakota.

Beaded hoop earrings, and dentalium earrings made by artist, Holly Young. Photos courtesy of Holly Young

“I am heavily inspired by my female Dakota ancestors who spent their lives beautifying their surroundings, from their dwellings, community, and family, to the everyday items they used and wore. I honor my ancestors by using the same mediums that they used and valued, such as porcupine quills, sinew, dentalium, rawhide, glass beads, leather, and shells. 

Historically, personal adornment meant status for Dakota families, but today in our constantly changing culture, I strive to make beautiful pieces available to everyone everywhere that are affordable, all while maintaining a connection to my roots, and instilling pride while providing a positive example for my 8-year-old daughter. I look at it as an assertion of being a Dakota woman, using my hands and mind to provide for my little family.

Teton Sioux Woman, Photograph by Alexander Gardner/Bettmann/Corbis, (Photo courtesy National Geographic); Mrs. Thunder Bear, 1891. (Photo courtesy Denver Public Library), Both women are wearing dentalium earrings.

As a single mother, I am able to provide a home, food, and positive example for her. She can see me work, knowing these things are what make us unique in the world as Native people, and while we keep our traditions alive, they also provide a living for us. One day hopefully she will be inspired to carry these traditions on to her family as well. 

When I first started beading items, they were just pretty beaded things. I later realized that when they go to the owner they become much more; they become alive. The new owner appreciates their beauty, and I appreciate their support of my work and business. It's one wonderful circle where love and appreciation is reciprocated and shared. My earrings and designs are being worn and shown by many women in different states and all over the world. It's like getting to travel through my customers.”

McCartney Begay, Diné – Lupton, Arizona

Inlay earrings, made by artist, McCartney Begay. Photos courtesy of McCartney Begay]

“I started making jewelry when I was in my teens. My dad was a silversmith, and I learned just by watching him. I am a Native American Church member so a lot of colors and designs that come to me are influenced by my beliefs and spirituality. I also get inspiration from other great artists out there. Shout out to my beader friends! Having a good eye for color is also a plus.

I make my jewelry affordable to every walk of life. Making jewelry gives me balance. I enjoy creating; creating is harmony.”

Bead and quill earrings, modeled by Camille Sine. Photo courtesy of Camille Sine.

Like many traditional art forms, the design and creation of earrings are true testaments of love- for nations, community, culture, and tradition. And in wearing Native-made earrings, we honor not only the arts and teachings of our ancestors, but the hands and hearts that infuse love into them today.

Our knack for cultural ingenuity and adaptation continue to stand as prime reasons for our survival. Even with the brilliance of our art and designs, we continue to survive, and do so, beautifully.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.

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