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by John Adair

Lanyade, Zuni Silversmith“Lanyade, Zuni Silversmith,” Unidentified (Photographer)

The introduction of silver and silversmithing among the Indians in the Southwest dates from the middle of the 1800s. Mexican traders first introduced the Navajo to silver. Like pottery, migrations and trade among peoples over hundreds of years spread jewelry-making designs and materials. Before the introduction of silver, the Zunis pounded out jewelry from copper and brass wire. They also melted down yellow metal from old pots and pans furnished by early traders. The first Zuni to learn silversmithing was a man named Lanyade. Lanyade was about ninety-five years old when he told his story to John Adair in the 1930s.

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When I was a young man about thirty years old [1872], a Navajo came to Zuni who knew how to make silver. This man’s Navajo name was Atsidi Chon. I had traveled through the Navajo country a good many times, on my way to the Hopi villages, and I knew how to speak their language. We became good friends, this man and I, and he came over to my house and lived.

At that time no one in Zuni knew how to make silver, and we had never seen anyone make it. We had seen the Mexicans and the Navajo wearing it, and we had bought some pieces of it from them. But those silver buttons and bracelets were very expensive, and only a few people in the village had any. Atsidi Chon came to the village just a few years after the Navajo returned from the East [c. 1872], where they had been held as captives by the government.

Zuni Necklace“Zuni Necklace,” Unidentified Zuni (Artist)

We became good friends and so he let me watch him make silver. I was the only one that ever saw him at work, because he used to shut himself up in my house when he worked. He didn’t want any of the Zuni men to see him make silver, because if they watched him they would learn how, and then he wouldn’t be able to sell them the silver that he made. I told him that I would give him a good horse if he would teach me how to work with the silver. So he taught me how, and I was the only Zuni to learn from him.

Atsidi Chon made objects of silver that we never had before he came here. He made bridles and concha belts. The conchas were the kind that had a hole in the center, through which the leather was laced. He sold a belt like that for a team of good horses. He made the first silver mounting for a bow-guard. Before that our bow-guards were decorated with pieces of tin or copper. Atsidi also made crosses for us. He had never made these before and he copied them from our copper crosses.

Silver and Turquoise Bracelet“Silver and Turquoise Bracelet,” Athabascan/Navajo (Artist)

This Navajo brought the first dies to Zuni. None of us had seen dies before. Those men in the village that made jewelry of copper and brass filed on the designs. We had never seen designs stamped on to a piece of metal. He taught me how to make dies like this, but while he was here in the village I used his tools. It was after he left that I made my own bellows and dies. Atsidi Chon lived here at Zuni for a year. When he came down to the village from the Navajo reservation, he brought only the horse he rode on, but when he went back to the reservation, he drove ahead of him many horses and sheep. All of these he had bought with his silver.

After Atsidi left the village, I made myself a pair of bellows like his. I made these out of buffalo skin which my father’s youngest brother gave to me. He had traded a Santo Domingo some grain for this hide. The Santo Domingo had bought it from a Comanche. I made the hoops for the bellows out of oak. At this time [1873] I also made a few dies and some other tools, and I set up a shop where I made silver for the Zuni.

I used to get some of my silver pesos over at Albuquerque. There was a trader there that we called "Red Headed." I traded him mantas, which I got from the Hopi, and buckskins, for American pesos. One buckskin would buy from five to ten pesos. I also got pesos here in the village. In the early days American dollars were used by all the silversmiths. But about fifty years ago, after Graham had been here for some years, we began to use Mexican pesos. The government told us that we were not to melt up any more American pesos, and from that time on [c. 1890], silversmiths here in the village used Mexican pesos, which Graham got for us. The Mexican pesos were softer and more easily worked than the American pesos.

Navajo Silver Buttons“Navajo Silver Buttons,” Unidentified Navajo Artist (Artist)

I made many different things out of the pesos. I made conchas with holes in the middle, like those that Atsidi Chon had made. I made plain hollow beads, and bow-guards, and buttons. I sold a great many bracelets that were triangular in shape. The earrings which I made were large hoops of silver with a hollow bead at the bottom. I also made some which were flat and shaped like a crescent moon. Zuni women in those days didn’t have any of the fancy earrings with sets of turquoise. All of the silver I made was without turquoise; I had never seen it set in silver. Atsidi Chon had never made any silver with sets while he was here. I didn’t see any until many years after.

I traded my silver to the Navajo as well as to the Zuni. At that time there were no Navajo smiths south of Gallup. I would sell a Navajo a silver bridle for a horse, or for a good calf. Later on I made a trip up to the Hopi reservation where I stayed and made silver. I sold my silver to the Hopi for mantas, sashes, and kilts. At about that same time [c. 1900] I went over to Laguna and Isleta, where I made up silver. I made some for Pablo Abeita. While I was at Isleta I sold the Hopi mantas for cattle.

Navajo Silver and Turquoise Bracelet“Navajo Silver and Turquoise Bracelet,” Unidentified Navajo Artist (Artist)

During those first years, just after I had learned to make silver from Atsidi Chon, I wouldn’t let anyone watch me at work. I was just like that Navajo. I didn’t want anyone else to learn because then I wouldn’t be able to see as much of my silver. At that time my shop was up on the road just this side [north] of the bridge.

Finally I did teach one man to make silver. That man was a friend of mine by the name of Balawade. Until then the only jewelry he could make was of copper or brass. It was from him that some of the other Zuni learned how to make silver jewelry. Balawade, and the men that learned to make silver from him, were all older than myself. They had made copper and brass jewelry before I taught them to work with silver. I had never known how to work those metals.