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#ThrowbackThursday: Finding Direction

Today, we go back a full dozen years in search of this week’s throwback. It was one of Wings’s big works of the time, one of three separate concha belts he created that year.

This one was also, perhaps, the most elaborate of the three, It was certainly the most controversial, although he did not intend it to be; this work illustrated perfectly the disconnect between the white-American- and Eurocentric motifs of the modern and still thoroughly colonial dominant culture and the much older symbologies of indigenous nations and peoples.

It was a work, in Wings’s hands and creative vision, for the twinned purposes of finding direction and honoring the cosmological powers and spirits that our indigenous world comprises. Its name was stunningly simple and apt — Four Directions — and yet the whole embodied so much more than the cardinal points of our world.

The concha shown above is indicative of the whole, several with similar stampwork, some entirely unique, all strung in seemingly random order along a hand-cut, hand-beveled, hand-stamped strip of heavy black leather. All of the conchas, including the one that served as the buckle, featured celestial imagery and symbolism that evoked the Four Sacred Directions, albeit in variable ways. Before addressing the specific pattern above, it’s perhaps useful to explain how they were created as a whole.

Wings has created numerous concha belts over the years of his career as a silversmith, in a great variety of forms and shapes. The most typical pattern for such belts features oval conchas and buckle, but Wings has never been satisfied with doing something only one way simply because it’s the way everyone else does it. He’s fashioned small oval concha belts the old way, out of rolled coins; larger ovals; rectangles; and, for a time more than a decade ago, in what became one of his signature styles, the scalloped concha shown here.

In this instance, each concha began with a rectangular of sterling silver. The size would have been in the general range of 2.5 inches long by 1.25 inches to 3 inches long by 2 inches high. If memory serves, this particular belt tended roughly toward the latter, larger size. Wings blocked out, freehand, the dimensions of what were usually a dozen conchas, then cut them out freehand using a small jeweler’s saw. He uses a medium-gauge silver for such pieces: not as thick as that used for a heavy cuff, but weightier and more solid than that used for necklaces and earrings. The conchas must be flexible enough to be susceptible to doming with a jeweler’s hammer, yet sturdy enough not to bend by hand or via continued wear.

Once each rectangle was cut out of the larger sheet, Wings turned his attention to the edges. He scalloped each side edge, again, with the freehand use of a jeweler’s saw. When first cut, the edges are sharp, particularly the points at top and bottom. he rounded off the corner points ever so slightly, then filed all the edges smooth.

Then he turned his attention to the stampwork.

As you will see from each of the photos, which collectively show almost the whole of the belt, he settled on a sunburst design as the main background motif. You will also notice how uniform each sunburst is, how like each one is to the next.

They were all stamped entirely freehand.

Wings uses no automated technology save his soldering iron and his grinding and buffing wheel. Even his rolling mill is powered by hand. There is no laser cutting or etching, no mass reproduction of any design. And so just the threshold process of creating the background for each of a dozen belt conchas plus the buckle? It was a labor-intensive, painstaking, time-consuming endeavor. Each sunburst consisted of some eighteen or nineteen “rays,” with the two at either side of center conjoined rather than bisected by a delineating line. Other than those pairs, every other “ray” was formed by long straight lines formed by the repeated striking of a plain chisel-edged stamp. Each ended in an arcing sunburst stamp, connected at each flanking base point by a tiny hoop. He fanned these out carefully from the center, forming an oval pattern all the way around the scalloped rectangle, taking pains to ensure that the distance between the lines that formed the “rays,” and the angle at which they opened outward, remained generally proportional. He also made sure that the end “rays” of each pair of conjoined ones at either side curved along the arc of the scalloped edges.

Next, Wings chose a variety of stamps to create the individual patterns on each concha. For several of them, he chose a stamp in the shape of a fan, each arrayed outward to either side of the center, pointing toward the scalloped edges. For at least two of them, he selected a different form of sunrise stamp — one significantly bolder and larger, with high-arching rays and a steep overall arc. In each instance, he struck this stamp a few millimeters from the open end of each “fan” stamp, between it and the smaller sunrise symbols at the edge. For at least two others, in lieu of the sun rise, he stamped a concave crescent moon in the same position. At least two others featured single stamps in differing “Four Sacred Directions” designs: one formed of two matched thunderhead symbols conjoined on their sides at their open bases; the other of a similarly conjoined symbol whose angled inner edge formed, when placed end to end, an Eye of Spirit in the center in raised relief. Finally, at least one — the concha shown singly at the top — featured an Eye of Spirit formed from a triangle with a concave arcing base, conjoined at those open bases to form the iris of the “Eye,” its outer edge pointing toward a concave crescent moon, symbolism spiritual guidance in the dark hours.

And then there was the buckle (and the alleged controversy).

If you look closely at the buckle here, you’ll see that size and shape and scalloped edges are the same, as is the basic sunburst background pattern. The stone is a different shape, true; we’ll get to that in a moment. But the primary difference lies in the stamps to either side of the stone.

Yes. They are that four-spoked life-cycle symbol that the dominant culture calls the swastika.

Now, first and foremost: This is not the Nazi symbol. Even apart from the fact that the Nazis stole it from non-European indigenous cultures worldwide and misused it by turning their version of it into a signifier of terror and genocide, the actual Nazi swastika turns only one, and is also set at an angle — the arms are not flat, parallel to the cardinal directions, but turned forty-five degrees so that they are parallel to the ordinal points of the compass.

Second, though, is the need to debunk another set of dominant-culture misconceptions. There are folks outside our cultures who recognize that this is an indigenous symbol, but they invariably try to attribute it in one of a couple of primary ways: to “the other Indians,” as in the people of India; or to “the Navajo,” or the Diné, in which instance they invariably refer to it as the “whirling logs” symbol. The story I have heard from Dinetah about the “whirling logs” differs from that told by white sources, but more to the point, it’s not strictly a Diné symbol, any more than it is strictly a Hindu motif on the world stage. In point of fact, versions of the swastika are found all over the world in indigenous cultures, some turning one way, others the opposite, still others either direction; some include other patterns as part of the overall symbol; others add “feet” or curving arcs to the ends of the spokes. It’s been found in various forms among the symbologies of multiple indigenous cultures on this land mass we collectively call Turtle Island.

And Wings’s use of it is an inherently spiritual act: one that honors the spirits and the elemental powers and the sacred directions, the wisdom, guidance, and protection they offer, and the gift of the life cycle they confer not merely on us, but on our whole world. That was its significance in this piece, and while the identity of the purchaser is now lost to memory and time, that person was informed as to its meaning and walked away knowing the purpose of the symbol’s presence on the work.

At this point, of course, the belt was not complete. One Wings had finished the stampwork, he turned each concha over, including the buckle, and domed them all very slightly, repoussé-fashion. Then he soldered the loops onto the back of each concha,, long slender bands of silver held at top and bottom, snugly fitted to hold the belt securely, and soldered the prong and loop onto the back of the buckle. He then turned them back right side up, and began work on the bezels. Each regular concha was given a plain, low-profile square bezel set exactly in the center and trimmed with twisted silver; for the buckle, he crafted a round serrated bezel, also trimmed in twisted silver. Each element was soldered solidly into place; then he oxidized all the joins and stampwork, and buffed each piece to a high polish.

Then it was time to set the stones. He had chosen a dozen or so square Kingman cabochons for the belt itself, each highly domed with beveled corners, each a perfect robin’s-egg blue. For the buckle, he selected a very slightly larger round cabochon, this one of intensely brilliant sky-blue Sleeping Beauty turquoise, near-luminescent in the light. Once the stones were set, he strung them all on the belt: a slender strand of hand-cut thick black leather, hand-stamped along its considerable length and hand-beveled on the edges, with a pair of thinner, lace-like hand-beveled strands strung through a hand-punched hole next to the buckle, looped around the belt, and tied to hang, tassel-fashion, in the traditional manner.

Taken together, it was a powerful piece composed of manny powerful constituent pieces. It’s the sort of work designed to summon spiritual guidance — always a gift when it comes to finding direction.

~ Aji








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