The Confusion of Ike & Austin Wilson

For two men who were not even remotely related these two talented silversmiths have been inextricably intertwined.  Several bits in their biographies may have added to the confusion. Both Navajos were born on the same part of the Reservation not far north of Zuni.  Exactly where they were from is unclear because censuses list the place the material was collected.  They both appear in the Southern Navajo Agency censuses.

         They were both born in the same year, 1900, and both went to Zuni around 1925.  They came from well-established silver-working families, and both men could, and did, make pretty much anything.  They were not brothers, they did not both use the bow and arrow stamp, but some of their pieces have a strong similarity to each other.  The bow and arrow belonged to Ike and his family, and they did not use all the examples shown in Barton Wright.  


Because Navajos were more willing to do boxes, platters, ashtrays, hollow ware and the like, Ike and Austin often set Zuni lapidary work on large silver objects but they created items of their own design as well.

         In a 1948 interview Teddy Weahkee said that in 1932 he had created a Knifewing in mosaic stonework.  Since he hadn’t yet learned to work silver he took it to Ike Wilson who set in on a bowguard.  It was a big hit.

         Ike’s wife Katherine was an excellent jeweler in her own right and worked separately from her husband.  She and at least one of her children went on using the bow and arrow stamp for many years.  One dealer explained this by saying Ike gave up silversmithing because he was going blind. He was only forty-two when his wife killed him, so it is unlikely, and this affliction is not mentioned anywhere else.

Katherine Wilson in 1955

In the C.G. Wallace catalogue Ike Wilson is identified with twenty-four pieces, Mrs. Ike three, Katherine two and Austin six.  That seems to be pretty good representation—except of the thirty-five items, only four are illustrated.  Since Wallace recognized them as two different smiths it is curious there has been so much confusion.  Considering that Wallace is the recognized authority on Zuni jewelry it is odd that this particular attribution is ignored while demonstrably wrong ones are gospel.

         In John Adair’s appendix he lists Austin and Katherine, who were not married, and there is no Ike or Isaac.  Ike is mentioned in the text, however, and when his brother-in-law Charlie Bitsui came to Zuni, Adair says Ike was already well known. His father, Son of White Haired Man, was the first Navajo to live in the village and Charles Kelsey built a hogan for him behind the trading post.

         As a point of historical inaccuracy, how and why Katherine killed her husband is something of a mystery.  Because Indian reservations are considered to be under Federal jurisdiction, the FBI is the only agency allowed to investigate major crimes. Sadly, the official policy is to rather ignore murder as long as it is between tribal members—and this is still largely the case.  The story of Katherine Wilson’s killing of her husband Ike is an old one. According to the tale, Ike was quite abusive and one day she took an axe and solved the problem permanently.


         The official inquiry concluded that Katherine killed him accidently with a loaded rifle she picked up in the house.  Later she became a close friend of Shirley Kelsey’s and that was the only version the trader’s wife ever heard.  A Gallup dealer told me he had heard the axe version of the story from Katherine herself.

         More than one high-end dealer has told me it doesn’t matter what the truth is, Ike and Austin are the same man for identification purposes. The same is true for Leekity/Leak and a few others.  Nice to know anyway.

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