Today I'd like to feature a very particular father and son who are jewelry designers. Fred and Michael Kabotie are Hopi silversmiths and artisans, and their story has some interesting things to say about jewelry in America. I discovered them because I recently became an auntie to a Native American niece and nephew. While I was researching their heritage – they are Hopi – I came across all this beautiful silver jewelry created by the Kaboties.
Jewelry in the Southwest
If you’ve ever visited the southwestern part of the United States, you know it’s a great place to buy silver jewelry, turquoise jewelry, and Native American jewelry. Basically, it’s a great place to drop lots of cash on jewelry! I have several beautiful bracelets in my own collection from past trips to the Grand Canyon and Arizona.
The story of silversmithing the Southwest is actually pretty recent. But we’ll start with Fred, the father, and tell his story.
Fred was born in 1900 in Arizona, a native Hopi. Unfortunately, he experienced first hand a very dark chapter of American history in his own life. When he was only six years old, his father and other parents were arrested because they refused to send their children to school. Not just any school, you see. A “special” school, where they would have to learn how to be “American,” not Hopi. Where they would learn English, become Christian, and live far away from their family.
Fred’s father and other parents spent a year in jail for trying to keep their children out of these special schools. They even moved away to a different part of Arizona. Unfortunately, they were only able to put off the inevitable. Fred was sent to the American school when he was 15 years old. Luckily, the school Fred went to was run by a man sympathetic to Native American concerns (this man was later fired by the US government for being “too nice”). Fred was encouraged by both the superintendent and his wife to develop his aptitude in art. After he graduated from high school, they helped him find work in the community.
Being uniquely Hopi
Fred worked as an artist wherever he could, painting murals, teaching art, illustrating books, and selling his own watercolor paintings.
In the 1930’s, there was lots of interest in Native American culture and crafts. Especially silversmithing. Fred and other artists were encouraged to come up with designs that were unique to the Hopi culture, rather than copying Navajo or Zuni designs. Fred and other Hopi artists looked to historical art (pottery, baskets, textiles, etc.) and tried to find ways those symbols and shapes could be incorporated into modern silver jewelry.
Unfortunately, a lot of this work was put on hold as the country entered World War II in 1941. Everyone who could was expected to contribute to the war effort.
Hopi vets learn to make jewelry
After the war ended, in 1946, Fred and his borother-in-law (Paul Saufkie) put together a small exhibition of Hopi art and silver jewelry. By chance, the Director of Education for the Bureau of Indian Affairs came. After he saw the incredible workmanship, he approached Fred about creating a training program through the recently passed G.I. Bill. The G.I. bill provided training and tuition assistance for returning veterans of the war.
So in 1947, Fred and Paul started their program. Fred taught design, and Paul taught silversmithing. The first program was 18 months long with 15 Hopi veterans. The classes were difficult, but over time, the Hopi created an entirely new silversmithing technique.
The overlay technique
The Hopi developed a new way to use silver scraps called the overlay technique. Overlay means that two pieces of silver are soldered together after a design is cut out of the top layer. This creates a negative design. It might be hard to visualize, but the end product is pretty cool.
All the vets involved had an incredible sense of pride in the technique they created. And it helped spur their creativity, too. They looked to symbols that were meaningful in their culture, and then they worked to incorporate them into their jewelry pieces.
After the first 15 vets graduated, a guild was created to make sure the training would continue. For all Hopi, the ability to create this art, that allows them to tap into their culture, and be able to earn a living, is so important.
Fred & Michael
While there was lots happening on the creative front in Fred’s life, there were also things happening on the personal front. Fred married fellow Hopi Alice Talayaonema in 1931 and they had three children together.
Fred was deeply affected by his childhood experience of having his Hopi culture taken from him. He really felt it was his life’s purpose to be Hopi, and show other Hopi the important traditions. He was known as a diligent husband and father.
Fred’s son Michael was born in 1942. He learned the overlay technique as teenager from his father. You can imagine that since he was surrounded by artists growing up, he naturally fell in love with art himself. He had the good fortune of being mentored by other famous Hopi artists like Charles Loloma and Joe Hererra. Although he initially studied engineering at the University of Arizona, he soon left to pursue his art.
Michael makes his mark
Like his father, he was a painter in addition to being a talented jewelry designer. Also, like his father, he felt a great responsibility to continue Hopi art and be a resource for the community. In 1973, he founded Artist Hopid with other Hopi artists. He spent his life making jewelry, writing poetry and essays, and lecturing around the country.
Michael signed all his work with his Hopi name, Lomawywesa, which means “walking in harmony.”
Sadly, Fred passed away in 1986, and Michael died in 2009. But today, Hopi overlay jewelry is still very popular. And highly collectible.
If you’re interested in seeing some of Fred’s murals, and you’re in the Grand Canyon area, go see the Desert View Watchtower. This a a National Park Service site dedicated to Native American artists. There are some other great murals at the Painted Desert Inn in the Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona.
Michael’s jewelry and art is in museums around the world. Here in the States, you can see his work at the the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Sequoyah Research Center in Little Rock, AK. Traveling abroad, you can see his art at the British Museum of Mankind in London, England, and the Gallery Calumet-Neuzzinger in Germany.
He also published a book of poetry, Migration Tears, which is available from Amazon.
Want to learn more about Hopi Silver? Amazon has a book for that!
This post has been updated and edited since it was originally published on June 14, 2018.