The exact meaning of the word heishi (hee shee) is “shell necklace.” It comes from the Keres language, spoken by the Native Americans living in Kewa, (Santa Domingo Pueblo). They are acknowledged to be the masters of this beautiful, creative form which developed out of their societal heritage. Currently there are a few artisans producing it at San Felipe and perhaps other Pueblos as well. It appears to be the only Indian jewelry that derives directly from Native American history and culture, since the metal smithing and lapidary skills used by the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi have their origins in the European influence of the early Spanish explorers.
When properly used, the name refers only to pieces of shell which have been drilled and ground into beads that are then strung to make either single or multi-strand necklaces. However, in common usage, the word heishi, also denotes necklaces whose very tiny beads are made of other natural materials by a similar process.
The origin of heishi is fascinating because it is directly linked to the ancient past of the Kewa Pueblo people (formerly Santo Domingo Pueblo), the people most skilled in its fabrication. Historically, however, the first people to make shell necklaces were those of the Hohokam culture who lived as long as ten thousand years ago in the area of modern-day Tucson, Arizona. They traded and mixed with the Anasazi, “cliff dwellers,” whose members are believed to be the ancestors of the present day Pueblo inhabitants.
The emergence of heishi as an art form was first recorded in 6000 B.C. Since it predates the introduction of metals, it is safe to say that this must be the oldest form of jewelry in New Mexico, and perhaps in North America as well.
How Can the Artisans Do This Painstakingly Tedious Work?
When a person examines a string of heishi, the first reaction often is, “How on earth can an artisan do that?” or, “To be so flawless, it must have been done by using machines!” The truth is that if it seems unbelievably perfect, it most likely was made by the hands of a highly skilled, extremely patient craftsperson. Knowing the steps involved in the creation of a good string of heishi may help a potential buyer distinguish and appreciate the difference between an excellent piece of authentic handmade jewelry and an imitation. We use the word “may,” because it must be admitted that some of the imported necklaces often are quite well made too.