Honoring Heishi Hands

Heishi (hee-shee), also spelled Heishe, specifically refers to small disc or tube shaped pieces of organic shell or stone which have been ground into beads and strung into necklaces. The word means shell bead in the Keras language spoken by the Santo Domingo Native Americans.

The origin of heishi is linked to the history of the Santo Domingo Pueblo Indians  of New Mexico. Heishi beads are believed to be the oldest form of jewelry in North America, pre-dating the introduction of metals. Handmade necklaces incorporating heishi, as well as short loops of the same style earrings called jaclas, were extremely valuable and used as trading material by Native Americans.

The Santo Domingo Pueblo is situated approximately midway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, on the banks of the Rio Grande.  Centuries ago, the shells used by the Pueblo Indians for jewelry were obtained in trade from the Gulf of California. A long and perilous journey was made on foot to sites where other tribes had shells and goods to exchange.   Originally raw materials such as dark olive or olivella shells were used for their hardness and solidity. Today other organic materials such as mother of pearl, pen shell and spiny oyster are used for this delicate work.

Santo Domingo Pueblo Indians have honored the jewelry making tradition longer than any of their Pueblo relatives and continue to use traditional techniques passed down from their ancestors. Since most modern Native American metal and lapidary skills have been influenced by the early Spanish explorers, it appears this natural process is the only Native American jewelry making style that is rooted in history and culture.

The production of heishi requires skill and patience. First, the raw materials are chosen and with vulnerable fingers on either side of a whirring blade, the raw material is sliced into strips. Next, small squares are made by nipping off pieces of the slice with a hand tool. To minimize loss, each tiny square must then be nipped into a rough circle before being ground. Using tweezers and a tool shaped like a dentist burr, a small hole is made in the center of each piece. The artist strings the pieces and shapes the strand of rough beads by moving it again and again against a turning stone wheel, controlling the fineness and diameter of the beads with his hands. The heishi is further shaped and smoothed with ever-finer grades of sandpaper. The strand is then washed and dried in the sun. Finally the strand of heishi is given a high polish on a turning leather belt. The smooth, polished beads are now ready to be made into jewelry.

It will take from two days to a week to prepare a single strand of heishi. The end result can be as fine as a strand of hair. The quality of fine heishi comes directly from the ingenuity and integrity of the individual artisan. If it seems exquisitely perfect, it was most likely made by the hands of a highly-skilled, extremely patient craftsperson.