By Randy Parks
For Dean (Jemez Pueblo and Northern Paiute) and Elise (Northern Ute Tribe) Adams, their business Creative Natives is not only a new venture, it’s also a tribute to their Native American culture, heritage and ancestry.
“We have to revive our culture and be a role model to our people,” Adams said. To do that, the Adams have undertaken the task of creating handmade silver jewelry, juniper baskets, moccasins, dreamcatchers and beadwork.
Adams said they started their business in October 2006, but his training as a silversmith started long before that. His father, Delmar Adams, was an award-winning silversmith who taught the trade to his son. Delmar was featured in the Arizona Highways magazine in 1979 and traveled throughout the Western United States attending shows. For several years, Delmar’s traveling companion was former U.S. Senator from Colorado, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a renowned jewelry maker in his own right. “When I was growing up, my father and Campbell went all over the Western states attending shows,” Adams said. “They even did a private showing for the queen of England.”
Delmar started a silversmith school for Native Americans in 1976 on the Burns Paiute Reservation, but by 1980 the grants for the school stopped and the school ceased operation.
After growing up in Burns and graduating from Burns Union High School in 1980, Adams moved away and went into construction. “I worked in construction for 25 years, but then I hurt my back and couldn’t do it anymore,” Adams said. “We came back here, and I was in politics for 10 years as a tribal leader, but I needed to do something for my family and keep my dad’s legacy alive.”
Adams uses the same tools his father used when making jewelry and also has his father’s notes. “I’m inspired by my father and what he did,” Adams said. “Sometimes I hit a roadblock, and I take out a box of his awards and look at them. That helps me to get going again.”
Adams said the Southwest has a number of silversmiths, but he’s the only one in Oregon that he is aware of. He said he needed something to separate himself from the Southwest artists, so he uses a thicker, heavier grade of silver, which allows him to polish the silver, giving it a more brilliant shine.
For stones, Adams said his father left him a good supply of turquoise. “We used to go to the mines and fill up five-gallon buckets of turquoise, load up the truck and head back home,” Adams said. His collection of turquoise even includes a rare green turquoise. He also uses opals, mother-of-pearl, red coral, spiny oyster shell, sugalite and blue lapis. Adams added that every stone he uses has to be a hard stone, so he can cut it and have it keep its shape throughout the years.
Because of the quality of silver and stones used in his jewelry, Adams guarantees every item he makes. He also autographs each piece and usually dates them.
When asked if he had a “signature” design of his work, Adams answered, “Probably the leaves. Their design is patented, and I use them in a lot of my jewelry.”
Adams has a lapidary shop attached to his home, where he does all of his work year-round. He begins by polishing the stone and lets the shape of the stone determine the design. Every piece is cut, filed and polished for a precise fit. “There should be no gaps in the inlays and that’s what I pride myself in,” he said.
Because every stone is different, every piece of jewelry will be unique. Adams said he has had people buy a piece of his jewelry, and then come back and want one just like it for their daughter or relative. “I can try to make one similar, but it won’t be an exact match,” he smiled.
Along with following in his father’s footsteps of being a silversmith, Adams and his wife, Elise, are keeping other Native American traditions alive with their business.
They’ve learned the painstaking art of making juniper baskets from Adams’ grandmother Rena Beers. “Each basket is made from one piece of bark” Adams said. “You have to peel the bark off by hand, which takes about four to five hours.” The bark can only be harvested at the wettest time of the year and then shaved thin and formed into a basket.
Elise’s talents are obvious in the handmade moccasins, beadwork and dreamcatchers as well. In addition to working as a professional photographer, providing portrait photos at powwows, she also maintains the photos on the couple’s Web site.
Elise is often adorned with Adams’ jewelry and laughed, “I’m a walking billboard. People notice the jewelry I’m wearing and have to know where I got it.”
With their business fairly well established now, the Adams are looking toward what may lie ahead. “We’ve gone through the initial stages of getting started and are ready for the next step. Now our goal is to have a place downtown,” Adams said.
Elise said that their Web site, www.oregoncreativenatives.com has been key for the success of the business. “We’ve sold just about everything we had shown on the site,” she said.
She added that they had recently received an order for a bolo tie from a man in West Virginia. “He sent us the turquoise he wanted used in the tie, and Dean is now making it, communicating with him through the process,” she said.
The Adams have a 15-year-old son, Zach, who is a champion powwow dancer and may be the next in line silversmith. “It’s basketball season now, so he doesn’t have much time to work in the shop, but he is learning how to do it,” Adams said.
Adams said returning to Harney County wasn’t something they had planned, but it’s worked out well. “We’ve gotten a warm reception from the community,” he said. “There are people who bought jewelry from my dad that now want some of my work, and my old friends and classmates are the same way. Plus we are trying to the promote positive aspects and teach our youth about our culture and traditions.”