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Betty Yellowhorse

Betty Yellowhorse, Navajo, does not live in a hogan on the reservation. She lives in a city and the views from her house don't include the sandstone cliffs or red rock canyons of Navajoland. Yet her jewelry harkens back to a time when the Navajo were Lords of the Land, warriors on horses, silver conchas on saddles, heavy hand-hewn jewelry pounded from coins into necklaces.

Before sheet silver and bezel wire, were coins, the original source of silver for Navajo silversmiths. They hammered coins flat or into half-spheres to be soldered with another half-sphere into a bead. The most traditional of all jewelry-making, coin jewelry is rarely practiced anymore. The renaissance of this tradition has fortunately found a place in the skilled hands and heartfelt love of Betty Yellowhorse.

"The old style reminds me of the past. A time of horses and buckboards. A time past, just as the coins have been passed from person to person. The coins have been in and out of pockets. I don't know whose. Working with them reminds me of all the time that has passed."

The last child born to a family of nine, Betty never met two of her grandparents. And the other two died when she was still young. When they were young, the memories were still fresh for the Navajo of war and defeat. Her grandparent's generation were born after the Navajo had been conquered and sent back to their homes a broken nation. But their bedrock of convictions and the strength in their hearts kept them alive and, miraculously, the Navajo rose from defeat to become the country's largest Indian nation. Betty was too young to hear the stories from her grandparent's, but her own heart reached to the past and she has rekindled the quintessential Navajo jewelry styles--the epitome of intrinsic power of coin jewelry.

"What I like the most is taking the coin and building around it, putting the coin to use. I like to save the integrity of the coin by building the bezel around it."

Betty learned silversmithing on her own and at the side of her late husband, Louis McCabe, a well-known Navajo silversmith. When Louis passed on, Betty wanted to carry on the work. "There are not many Navajo working with old coins," she says softly. "Each time I sit down, I love doing it."

She is working on a gold coin necklace as we talk, something her forebears would never have had the opportunity to touch. As she handles the warm gold coins, fashioning them into beads, she embues each piece with tradition. She is passing along the tradition to her nephew, who does beautiful stampwork. And she is bringing to life in her jewelry the pride, strength and beauty of the past.