For hundreds of years craftspeople at Santo Domingo Pueblo (now known by its traditional name, Kewa) were known for exquisite shell, turquoise, and jet jewelry that they made and traded throughout the Southwest. But by the 1920s these traditional materials were scarce. Motivated by circumstance, jewelers at Santo Domingo discovered an exciting new medium: abandoned automobile battery casings.
Manufactured from hard rubber, discarded car batteries made an admirable substitute for traditional jet, and with Route 66 bringing throngs of motorists into the West, they were abundant. Batteries were soon augmented with broken phonograph records and bright colored celluloid from combs and other household goods. By the 1930s Santo Domingo had developed a unique style of folk-art jewelry, made entirely of repurposed and found materials: sun-bleached animal bone, local gypsum, tiny chips of turquoise, and modern plastics.
Gathered in rangelands, trash dumps, salvage yards, and dime stores, these unlikely items formed the basis of a new economic enterprise for the pueblo. Whole families took part in the manufacture of whimsical, colorful necklaces whose signature motif was a Thunderbird with outstretched wings. Santa Fe’s art community dismissed these creations as “tourist junk,” but tourists couldn’t get enough. At roadside stands, on railroad platforms, and in curio shops, Thunderbird necklaces sold by the thousands.
Curated by folklorist J. Roderick Moore of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, Ferrum, Virginia and by Wheelwright Museum curator Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle, Thunderbird Jewelry of Santo Domingo Pueblo featured approximately 300 necklaces, earrings, pins, and other items, highlighting the charm, wit, and ingenuity of a mid-century folk tradition. Interpretive text, enriched by interviews with Santo Domingo residents whose families made Thunderbird necklaces, told a story of innovation, creativity, and resourcefulness in a community known for its artistic integrity.