Wearing striking bone breastplates, and with their fringed shawls draped over their arms, jewelry makers and elders Germaine Tremmel and Bird Mountain enter the powwow circle. It’s opening night—the grand entry of the Fort Randall Casino’s summer gathering, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation—and young women and men dance around the arena, demonstrating their athleticism and dexterity. But for Tremmel, Mountain and the group of older women they’re dancing among, it’s all about subtlety and reserve. The elders process slowly around the arena, which gives everyone a chance for a good look at their noble regalia, with its ornate embroidery and embellishments of silver, shell, turquoise and other precious materials.
Earlier, at their white farmhouse outside Lake Andes, South Dakota, Tremmel and Mountain showed me their jewelry-making workshop, Sacred Hoop Within. Buffalo bone is among the many Native American materials that are not just beautiful, according to Tremmel, who is Hunkpapa Lakota: “These materials also demonstrate the ancient economic, social and spiritual relationships of peoples all over Turtle Island, who traded bone, horn, turquoise, metals, stones, shells, and other items that they used in personal adornment, among other things. Through regalia, the exchange of wealth became a way to show high status and influence and to demonstrate agreements that nowadays we could call treaties.”
Tremmel, also an international lawyer who’s been involved in modern treaty and human-rights issues, shows me a jar of dentalia (tubular mollusk shells) from the Northwest. This longtime trade good was so prized it was considered a form of currency. “My niece gave me these, so you might say she made me wealthy in this way. I’m using them to make her a choker, ” she says.
In addition to having historical meaning, many of the traditional materials express personal characteristics, Tremmel says: “For example, a woman who carries an obsidian or flint knife shows she’s industrious and self-sufficient. Other materials represent achievements or stages of life.”
Two materials they’ll never use, says Mountain, Dakota/Anishinabe, are gold and diamonds: “Too many of our people and others have died because of the mining of them.”
Tremmel’s and Mountain’s study of traditional iconography has uncovered some surprises, including a medicine wheel that doesn’t have the usual four equally sized quadrants, but rather narrower top and bottom segments that represent the celestial path of the Milky Way as well as a north-south terrestrial orientation, offering a multi-dimensional representation of the universe.
Best of all, people like wearing their jewelry. “Some tell us pieces we’ve made are their ‘power jewelry,’” says Tremmel. “That keeps us going. Everyone has something beautiful in them, and we’re happy when our work brings that out.”
Contact Sacred Hoop Within at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prices are approximately $45 for earrings and $200 for a necklace-and-earrings set.