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Colonialism, Capitalism, and Climate Concerns: A Conversation with Metalwork Master Bruce Caesar

Across much of Indian Country, Bruce Caesar (Pawnee/Sac and Fox) is well known for his exquisite metalwork and jewelry. With the meticulous attention to fine details that each piece reflects, Caesar’s metal creations are highly sought after, whether they are crowns adorning the newly named princesses of Tribal Nations, roach spreaders worn by male dancers, or the lucky customer who has managed to purchase his jewelry reflecting Native American church motifs like the waterbird. Caesar’s metalsmithing talents have also earned him the honor of being named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998. On nearly any given weekend, Caesar and his family can be found across the Oklahoma powwow circuit at booths selling this fine jewelry ranging from pins and earrings to bracelets, hatbands, and rings.

Caesar is an important link in the tradition of metalsmithing that has run in his family for generations. The tradition was handed down from his father, renowned Pawnee metalsmith Julius Caesar, and his Meskwaki maternal grandfather, Bill Leaf, and now continues through the work of his son, Adam. The primary medium used by the Caesar family has been German silver, a non-ferrous alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc. Also called nickel silver, this metal alloy has been the foundation upon which the tradition of southern plains Native American metal work has grown and thrived, drawing on an amalgamation of certain transition metals now highly sought after in the transition to electric vehicles. Containing no silver, German silver has long been utilized among Native artisans for its characteristics of being more lightweight, less easily tarnished, and more affordable compared with sterling silver.

With approximately six decades of experience in metalsmithing, Caesar reflects back on his time as a little boy watching his father work at night as one of the formative experiences in training him in this unique craft. Most of those techniques and the tools he uses, including many in his collection that were handmade by his father, have remained exactly the same. He starts by using a pencil to draw the design onto the metal, then uses a jeweler’s saw, metal shears, or cold chisel to cut out the design and carefully fill the metal before using his trusty wooden dapping block to shape it. Stamps, anvils, and ball peen hammers can be used for the meticulous art of engraving the piece before it is finally polished, attached to any chains or hooks, and ready for wear.

imgThe assortment of tools Bruce uses in working with German silver. Most of these tools were made by or handed down from his father, Julius Caesar. 

Reflections in German Silver

German silver’s documented origins are traced to the 1820s, first being produced in the town of Hildburghausen, Germany. Yet Caesar believes that the true beginnings of this alloy actually go back much further to the time of the European Dark Ages, when alchemists constantly experimented with all manner of materials in order to create the metals that were most coveted—silver and gold. Caesar asserts that German silver “was meant to be deceptive as it was meant to replace the silver that everyone was trading at the time; it was cost-effective, a total financial gain to have a metal mixed of nickel, copper and zinc be passed off as sterling silver,” he explains.

While German silver is malleable and polishes well, it is harder than sterling silver owing to the density and hardness of the nickel, its primary component. Caesar points out that this alloy is good for making large pieces and adornment items that will not necessarily be worn directly against the skin due to the likelihood of allergies people can have to nickel, copper, and zinc. “I warn people about German silver,” he says. “I tell them that this metal was not made for anything but profit; it wasn’t meant to be great for jewelry making. People say that this metal is traditional and, well, traditional only goes so far.”

This re-thinking of ‘traditional’ in relation to southern plains Native American German silver pieces goes back to some of the first encounters and trade between European settlers in the Americas and Native Peoples. While tension and conflict characterized many of these early encounters, the historical narrative has often touted the exchange of trade goods between Native and non-Native Peoples as unequivocally positive. Many of these new trade items, ranging from glass beads to tools such as axes and hammers, would radically transform countless aspects of Native daily life, material culture, and artistic expression. Caesar has another perspective on this narrative. He points out that while many of these items introduced through European trade were of benefit to Native Peoples, several of the materials acquired through trade had potentially harmful and unknown consequences for Tribes. For example, arsenic, then used as a black dye for clothing, was also introduced during this era.

imgSome of Bruce's German silver creations include the two pins at top, which depict a fancy dancer and Apache fire dancer. At left are a pair of horse earrings and at right are waterbird earrings. 

Linking German silver’s invention and spread primarily to economic motivations of profit-making and consumption, Caesar draws direct lines not only between German silver and the colonial experience of Native American people, but also fundamentally to the capitalist and consumer-based economic system in which we live today: “People trying to make money is a driving, dominant force in a capitalistic society that unfortunately has played a large role in driving the existence of America and how it’s been utilized, trampled on, and consumed,” he says. “The reason America is one of the strongest, wealthiest nations on earth is that everything was free. All [colonists] had to do was kill us, and they did. In that process, all the gold, silver, precious metals, timber, water, land...all of this became what is called wealth. America is a rich country that is being depleted.”

A painful irony is that many Native Nations, while living on lands now called the United States, within the world’s most economically developed country, are themselves often struggling economically. This state of being “beggars in our own country,” as Caesar describes the predicament, has been the resulting outcome of marginalization, dispossession, and the forceful imposition of a capitalistic economy that demands endless growth and profit-making.

But of course, humans are not the only ones impacted in this broader picture. Caesar says, “There are elements in this world that are available for creating more of what consumers want—computers, microchips, batteries—but we are wearing out the portion of this world that we as humans can exist in. Destroying our oxygen generators and our water sources, we’re right on the edge of it.” The idea that the elemental gifts of this world are not limitless and do not follow a capitalistic economic logic of growth and consumption is paramount to Caesar’s worldview. Additionally, he supports finding ways to avoid fossil fuels, recognizing that we must deal with the consequences of what we have taken from the ground, such as oil, gas, and coal, and now put into our air and waters.

At a larger level, Caesar articulates his belief in the agency of the earth as a powerful living system. “We as humans are just players, we’re not the main thing. Earth is just part of a larger system. We didn’t make the Earth, but we can sure mess it up. And that’s what we’re doing— destroying our [human] capacity to exist. Once this world is done with us, it still has a long time to go.” Caesar’s reflections on the consequences of modern human actions are sobering, but his attitude remains upbeat and positive, qualities he is known for just as much as his meticulously detailed metalwork. As his attention returns to his work on the German silver slab, he says, “I believe that creating things is something that the Creator put in us.” Caesar’s thoughts and work navigate this delicate balance between man as destroyer and creator in relationship to our living world. Ultimately, Caesar remains committed to inspiring and uplifting people through this creative tradition that was handed down to him.

Bobbie Chew Bigby (Cherokee) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, where she researches the intersections between Indigenous-led tourism and resurgence.

Photos by Bobbie Chew Bigby

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