Navajo ketoh (pronounced gato) are works of Native American jewelers that really grab attention. The ketoh is a bowstring guard, originally worn on the wrist to protect it from the "snap" of the bowstring. Any archer knows they are necessary, even for the best archers, to protect from the occasional contact between the bowstring and the inside of the area that is holding the bow. Navajo ketoh can be made to cover the inner arm (partial arm guards) or the wrist (wrist guard). Today the Navajo Ketoh are used for ornamentation more than for practical archer's equipment.
When shooting a bow ,"string slap" depends on the bow, but more importantly on the anatomy, musculature, and skill of the one using the bow. Though Native Americans were skilled with their bows, they used the bows in a variety of positions, in all types of weather. Sometimes in hunting the person would become tired and this would make the need of the Navajo ketoh bow guard more desired. The Navajo ketoh was thus a standard part of the Navajo male gear. Today Navajo ketoh are worn by both men and women (usually a smaller version for the women). This reflects the move from its more practical use to ornamentation.
The early Navajo ketoh were simply made of the thickest hide leather straps possible. Navajo ketoh developed to consisting of a metal plate connected to the leather strap or arm piece. The plates were either wrought or cast. Wrought usually refers to molding or shaping the metal (with or without heat), with a hammer. The early cast pieces were from sand casts, but today they are usually volcanic tufa casts. In the early days of silversmithing, which the Navajo primarily learned from the Spanish, the silver for Navajo ketohs came form Mexican pesos or American coins.
Once silversmithing came on the scene, Navajo ketohs began to be decorated with silver and stones like turquoise. Navajo ketohs were made by the Navajo silversmiths using steel tools and punches to form artistic patterns. Early types of jewelry such as bracelets, pendants and the Navajo ketoh were made. By the 1890's turquoise was used. Navajo ketohs gradually were made with greater design variations. Semiprecious stones, shell and a variety of metals were used.
Navajo ketohs were highly prized in the Navajo barter system. A Navajo ketoh could be traded for several sheep! Navajo ketohs might have designs reflecting Navajo belief systems. The Navajo ketoh of today is principally worn in ceremonies and for things like pow wows, It has seen much development since the plain leather protection from bowstring snap. The stylish Navajo ketoh today has become a thing of beauty sought by collectors. However, it carries within it the history of the Navajo people who developed it!