Thunderbird Jewelry Exhibit Tells the Story of Its People is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

An example of a thunderbird necklace and matching earrings, made of plastic, turquoise and gypsum beads.
An example of a thunderbird necklace and matching earrings, made of plastic, turquoise and gypsum beads.

The thunderbird, a mythological bird of supernatural power whose wings were thought to cause thunder when they beat against the air, has been a figure in the Native American culture for centuries.

A new exhibit at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum of Colonial Williamsburg takes a look at a unique style of jewelry inspired by the mythical creature.

“Thunderbirds: Jewelry of the Santo Domingo Pueblo,” which opened June 27, features more than 100 authentic thunderbird pieces of jewelry on loan to the museum from collectors Roddy and Sally Moore, with contributions from several other collectors.

The Santo Domingo people have been living on the piece of land they currently inhabit in New Mexico since at least the 1500s.

“Each pueblo [village] had its own distinct thing that they did,” said to Jan Gilliam, the manager of exhibit planning for the museum, adding the Santo Domingo’s specialty was jewelry making – a craft they stuck with throughout the centuries.

Santo Domingo jewelry made prior to the 1920s was typically composed of bone, shells, metal and turquoise. These early pieces were traded with other tribes and worn by the Santo Domingo people in everyday life as well as religious rituals.

Their craft changed drastically around the time of the Great Depression, which is when thunderbird necklaces started appearing on the scene. Though at first glance the thunderbird necklaces look quite similar to the better-known Navajo jewelry crafted out of silver and gemstones, they are actually made out of plastics the Santo Domingo people pulled out of the trash.

The impetus for the shift was twofold. During the 1920s and 1930s the American Southwest was becoming an increasingly popular vacation destination, particularly for people living on the East Coast, Gilliam said. The Santo Domingo people hoped to capitalize by making jewelry that would appeal to tourists. Due to the Depression, they also had to look for less expensive raw materials.

Objects as ordinary as combs, measuring cups and discarded car battery cases were fair game for repurposing as jewelry.

“I think the exhibit is ultimately a story of a people of great ingenuity, who were traditional but willing to work in the present,” Gilliam said.

Once the thunderbird trend took off, the whole family quickly became involved in this lucrative craft, with children collecting the stray pieces of plastic, women making the jewelry and men traveling along the railroad to sell their wares.

The thunderbird itself has no apparent significance to the Santo Domingo people. It appears to have been selected because it is a symbol tourists from other parts of the country associated with the American Southwest.

These are examples of more traditional Santo Domingo jewelry made prior to the 1920s.
These are examples of more traditional Santo Domingo jewelry made prior to the 1920s.

It was extremely uncommon for the people of the Santo Domingo pueblo to actually wear thunderbird jewelry, Gilliam said, further emphasizing it was a purely commercial enterprise for the tribe.

Selling the jewelry to tourists, along with trading it to other tribes, allowed the Santo Domingo to remain financially stable during a turbulent economic time, she said.

Though the materials are commonplace, the exceptional craftsmanship of the Santo Domingo jewelry makers is evident in the intricate designs of the thunderbird pendants. The vast majority of thunderbirds are made up of many tiny pieces of colored plastic superimposed on a black plastic background, fit together by hand.

A more precious material commonly seen on thunderbird jewelry is turquoise. Vast turquoise deposits existed within walking distance of the Santo Domingo pueblo, but by the 1930s they were almost entirely mined out, Gilliam said. Nonetheless, enough small fragments remained from which to make the tiny chips necessary to decorate the thunderbird pendants.

The Santo Domingo people continued to produce these distinctive pieces for several decades, but by the 1950s the market for tourist jewelry was winding down. At this time there was a renewed interest among members of the tribe in revisiting the more traditional styles of jewelry their tribe was known for, and the thunderbird fell out of favor.

In recent years a small number of collectors have taken in an interest in finding out the backstory behind these distinctive pieces of jewelry. Roddy Moore, who previously worked for the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, and his wife Sally were among the first to take an interest in this kind of research when they began collecting in 2007.

Though the jewelry obviously appealed to them aesthetically, the Moore’s became increasingly interested in the people who created it and why. This interest led them to make visits several times a year to the Santo Domingo pueblo to learn the history of the thunderbird jewelry.

Many direct descendants of the original thunderbird jewelry makers are still living and can identify pieces that came from their families. Collectors bringing the pieces back to the tribe to find out their stories has actually inspired a resurgence of interest in the thunderbird style jewelry among younger members of the tribe who are now taking it upon themselves to revisit the motif.

Once Roddy realized how interesting and relatively obscure the history behind his collection was, he approached the museum about putting together an exhibit.

“The thunderbird collection definitely fits in with folk art because it’s all handmade and reflects a craft that is very specific to one region and tells the story of one people. It’s also been a great addition because it is from an area of the country we don’t have much from in our museum,” Gilliam explained.

The exhibit will remain on display through September of next year. Admission is $12.99 for ages 13 and older, $6.49 from ages 6 to 12, and free for children under 6.