Model Levi Natonabah, wearing Dineh Jewelry items (photo by Rasmus Jensen)

SANTA FE — For Samantha Platero, founder of Dineh Jewelry, a career working with silver might have seemed inevitable. Her name literally means “silversmith,” her grandparents were silversmiths, and so were her great-grandparents (her great-grandfather first took the name because of his chosen trade). She grew up in her family’s workshops on the Navajo Reservation, which straddles the New Mexico-Arizona border, absorbing the art form whether she liked it or not. 

As the story often goes, Platero was initially resistant to her destined craft, but a circuitous journey far from home, to Europe, granted her the perspective she needed to feel like she could accept it on her own terms, and with a true sense of purpose. Now, after making inroads with Dineh (which is an alternate spelling of the term “Diné” and translates as “people of the land” from Navajo), she’s established her first, albeit temporary, brick-and-mortar presence in Santa Fe, which will continue through mid-January of 2022. 

As a child, Platero took an active role in her grandparents’ practice, helping “buff the stones, or go to the jewelry supply stores with them,” she recalled to Hyperallergic. She was also steeped in the traditional weaving techniques of her community (her grandmother and mother were both practitioners), and cites the patterned textiles that filled her childhood home as a primary influence on her design process. The Chinle rug pattern, which first emerged in the late 19th century out of the small, eponymous Navajo settlement, has loomed particularly large in her work. 

Bracelet with Chinle rug design, Dineh Jewelry (photo by Shayla Blatchford)

Navajo myths and creation stories have been fertile ground for inspiration as well, in particular the lore surrounding the Shiprock eagle. “The Diné flew in on this bird,” she said, “and we dispersed in that region [near what’s now known as the Four Corners], and then the bird folded its wings and now it’s a massive monolith known as Shiprock.” Platero has based other work on traditional Navajo dances — “we have a butterfly dance every spring, and so I often use a butterfly motif that represents these dances which signify rebirth.” Combining these elements with an overall form inspired by mid-century Danish design lends the pieces their everyday “wearability.”

Platero’s background is in writing — she studied journalism in London. But while in school, she took a job working for a jeweler, just because she felt so at home in that environment. It was there that she realized she “could actually have a successful business internationally through jewelry” and started to take the prospect of a design career more seriously. But shrugging off some of the baggage of deeply ingrained prejudice she’d faced closer to home was even more key in forging her path forward. “Growing up in America, I would be made fun of for the color of my skin, for being Native American, and so when I lived in Europe, I saw this totally new appreciation for who I was,” she said. 

(photo by Samantha Platero)

When Platero returned to New Mexico for visits, she realized how adulterated and inauthentic the vast majority of jewelry presented as “Navajo” was, and also how rarely her community truly profited from this economy. Compounding this issue for her was the fact that most Americans didn’t seem to possess a very nuanced appreciation of the diversity within their country’s indigenous population, conflating everyone into a Dances With Wolves stereotype. 

Platero feels strongly about not “tak[ing] from other tribes or other indigenous people, their designs, their creation stories,” and observes that others, who may have recently discovered some trace of indigenous and not necessarily Navajo background (and of course non-indigenous people as well), are exploiting that ignorance around authenticity and diversity for profit. Particularly galling to her was this co-opting of Navajo designs and crafts to propagate the misconception that all Native Americans work with turquoise, despite it being very specific to tribal legacy of the Southwest (i.e. Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni). Out of this mixture of pride and frustration, a practice and business were born, with all jewelry made by Navajo artisans.

For the storefront of her pop-up re in Santa Fe, Platero commissioned a mural by the artist Jaque Fragua, who grew up on the nearby Jemez Pueblo. The mural depicts a feathered headdress-wearing chief archetype, and is almost directly cribbed from a problematic gas station sign on the road to Jemez. Fragua had once related to Platero the confusion he experienced as a child, passing that sign almost every day, because no one from his community (or from any other tribe in this part of the country) ever dressed like that, though he also understood that it was meant to represent them. The only difference between his mural and the original sign is a single teardrop on the man’s cheek, added by Fragua because the man has found himself so far from his home on the Plains — he’s “lost,” as Fragua explained it to Platero. 

Jaque Fragua painting his mural at Dineh Jewelry’s pop-up space in Santa Fe (photo by Samantha Platero)

The two felt that this image, especially in the context of Platero’s work, would be a succinct encapsulation of the society-wide misapprehension around indigenous identities. She says the mural has organically inspired challenging, rewarding conversations with visitors to her shop, who might be troubled or confused by the incongruity of such a regionally inappropriate, clichéd image — conversations that only fuel her practice. For once, what’s good for her community is also good for business.

The Dineh Jewelry Santa Fe pop-up will continue at 1200 Hickox Street through Sunday, January 16.

Shaw Bowman is a writer and Emmy-winning producer. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his partner David and their border collies Wizard and Magic.