VAIL — Most of us have never heard of Nagaland — a tribal region of India located on the eastern edge of Assam, bordering Myanmar. Once comprised of about 20 ancient tribes rich in culture and art, the term “naga” translates as “naked,” due to the scant dress of most tribes. These days, Nagaland has been transformed by British and Indian leadership and incoming missionaries, and little of its primitive culture is still intact. However, when East Coast medical school dropout Harry Neufeld was traveling through India in the 1970s, he met and married Naga tribeswoman Tiala Marsosang, and the couple began collecting and preserving artifacts. Their collection includes costume pieces, intricate masks and elaborate jewelry comprised of beads and shells, each piece a novel representation of social status and merit within disparate tribes of the Naga culture.
“We have more than we need,” Neufeld said of his Naga collection, of which he and his wife exhibit a portion all year in Sante Fe, along with a presentation each July at the Sante Fe Folk Art Festival, which draws attention to newly made handicrafts from dying cultures. Although Nagaland was closed for public access for many years, it is now open but growing further away from its ancient roots. The couple returns regularly to travel to remote areas and convene with the few remaining tribe’s elders who have over the years still maintained their association with traditional, antique and original vintage pieces of jewelry.
“When I was first there it was no longer primitive,” Neufeld said. “But it is simple. The roads are torturous, through curving hills and full of holes, ruts and mudslides. There are schools in most villages and people are very aware of the Western world. It is still mostly agrarian, but the kids don’t want to remain in the villages tending the rice paddies and farming areas. The people do respect their heritage greatly and dress up for festivals, producing all new materials a lot of the old styles of artifacts to wear at those festivals. However, throughout the year, they’re wearing Western clothes, not beaded jewelry.”
Neufeld will display and divest a selection of the rare Naga jewelry at Karats today through Sunday. Among the artifacts is a beaded necklace made from carnelian, cobalt glass and brass, highlighted by a smooth chank shell from the South Indian Ocean. The necklace was once worn by southwestern tribes — the Angami or Rengma. Only those meeting the status of traditional merit were allowed to wear it.
Another couple of necklaces in the collection were worn expressly by upper class Naga women. One piece features large, bright orange glass beads adorned symmetrically by narrow brass flutes and topped with a cut shell from South India. The other piece features spiky white triangular shells woven with cotton macrame, stitched with carnelian beads.
When these pieces were originally made, they were not designed by artists, but by the people, for the people. Each jewelry item was made to represent something about the man or woman wearing it.
“Women were responsible for weaving body cloths for warmth and to show levels of status for themselves and warriors, feast givers and members of the chief’s family as well as making the jewelry that served the same purpose. Men did all the cane weaving. They made hats, baskets and many styles of cane and cowry shell cuffs. Women did most of the bead stringing, but everyone in the village participated in craft work,” Neufeld said. “Jewelry is still made by some women, but it’s not something they wear every day to show their status. Everything is done only for festivals. What we are showing at Karats was done a long time ago. There isn’t much available.”