Mark Chee (1914-1981) was one of the Navajo Nation's most famous silversmiths. His silverware work was precise and clean. He used top-quality turquoise. Toward the end of his career, he always had a line of customers waiting for his work.
Chee was born in one of the prettiest areas of the Navajo Nation at Lukachukai. Even today, it is an isolated area north and east of Canyon de Chelly. Piñon forests and looming red rock formations cover the hills. Lukachukai is north of Winfield Lake and at the base of one of the most dramatic roads in the Chuska Mountains, Buffalo Pass.
Back when Chee was born, the pass was just a horse trail. Today it is a winding paved road that looks like it followed the original horse trail! From the top of the pass, you can see the vastness of Navajo Land, from Shiprock to the Bisti Badlands to the outline of Canyon de Chelly.
Chee was educated in the BIA school system and somehow ended up in Santa Fe in 1934, where he worked as a silversmith for Julias Gans, the owner of Southwest Arts and Crafts.
Six years later, he enlisted in the Armed Forces and served during World War II, as so many Navajo and other Native Americans did.
Following the war, he returned to Santa Fe and married a woman from San Juan Pueblo, where he made his home. He worked for famous trader Al Packard and became known for his hand-crafted silver flatware. He also created beautiful traditional jewelry.
By the 1960s, Chee was working independently. In addition to the quality of silver work, he was known for making his own stamps and rolling his own silver from ingots. He was also known for his quality stones. Gene Waddell, whose family owned the Lone Mountain Turquoise Mine, told me that one of his first jobs in the Indian jewelry business was to drive turquoise from his family operation in Arizona to Santa Fe, leave it with Chee and pick it up when the jewelry was finished.
Chee worked late into the 1970s. He signed his work with a stamped bird and the name "ChEE" stamped on the bird's body. Some describe the stamp as a "Thunderbird," but I can't find any record of his saying that. It is a bird with a beak resembling an Eagle, and, perhaps because he was married to a Pueblo woman, the body seems to me to have the characteristics of a bird you would find on the side of Pueblo pottery. That's just a personal opinion, but what is a certainty is that this man was one of the best traditional Navajo silversmiths.
The buckle we are featuring today is the first buckle I have actually seen. Chee was well known for his bracelets, rings, and flatware, but there were few buckles. This is a rare piece made with hand-rolled silver using his hand-made stamps.
We received the piece purely by accident. A friend of ours deals in memorabilia and bought a collection of Harley Davidson emblem belt buckles and jewelry. He purchased the collection from a woman in Denver, only viewing a photograph. When the collection arrived, a silver Navajo buckle was in the box. He looked up the hallmark and called to see if we were interested in the piece!
The bracelet came from a collector who bought it in the 1970s.
You never know where these treasures will show up!
These are great examples of Mark Chee's work, worth collecting and enjoying!