The Significance of Turquoise in Native American Culture

Throughout the arid world, native and aboriginal peoples held turquoise in high regard for spiritual reasons. Ancient Egyptians entombed their Pharaohs with turquoise-studded jewelry, and the Persians associated the mineral with victory and holiness. Traditional Native Americans, including the Aztecs and Mayas to the South, associate it with communication with spirits, good fortune, and healing. More recently, New Age devotees look to this gem as a portal to promote positive energy … a symbol for happiness and self-confidence or protection from negative energy.

Smiling Acoma Dancer Wearing Turquoise Jewelry

The oral tradition of the American Indians, along with their continued fabrication of collectable turquoise merchandise has conserved a great deal of information about the significance of turquoise in the Native American culture. Southwestern Native Americans mastered the art of turquoise jewelry creation, and their style and quality has become known throughout the world. This transmission of the American Indian symbolism through their livelihood has played an important role in conserving and diffusing their belief system to a world that otherwise might know very little about them.

The Creation myth of the Acoma Pueblo reflects a widespread sentiment about turquoise in the Southwestern U.S. According to the Acoma, the Creator, Iatiku, taught them to make turquoise and shell beads that had great power, making their wearer attractive and beloved. The Pima, or Akimel O’odham, “River People” of southern Arizona, associated the mineral with strength and healing.

For some tribes, turquoise represented strength, skill, or even invincibility. The Apaches associated turquoise with rain at the end of the rainbow. They attached pieces to their bows to become precise and invincible hunters and warriors. The Hopi, meanwhile, considered turquoise to be the excrement of the lizard who travels between “the above” and “the below,” and Hopi miners carried turquoise to give them security and strength in their work.N26

Gobuguoy. Hopi. Walpi pueblo. Arizona. ca. 1900

The famous dream catcher of the Ojibwe, later adopted by many North American artists, often features a turquoise “spider.” The Ojibwe speak of Asibikaashi (Spider Woman) who returned the missing sun to the people, and the dream catcher protects the little ones from the darkness of their dreams.

The most well known turquoise jewelers, the Navajo and the Zuni, have distinct jeweling styles and ideas associated with the mineral. The original Native American silver smith, a Navajo, learned to work silver and iron, from Mexicans hired by a Trading Post owner in the late 19th Century. Modern jewelers still use many of these early methods.

The Navajo, Atsidi Sani, taught others of his tribe, and the Navajos, a people known for their adaptability, soon dominated the silver and turquoise jewelry craft. Important Navajo styles include the “Naja,” “Heishi” necklaces, Squash blossom necklaces, and turquoise inlay rings. In addition, as the outside world culture became more accessible, many Navajo artisans took to producing turquoise jewelry with styles borrowed from other cultures. Traditional Navajo turquoise jewelry usually contains more turquoise than silver, using large stones and focusing on the natural quality of the turquoise used to make it.

Navajo yurquoise squash blossom necklace with naja

Life, say the Navajo, began when the first man and woman used a stone disk, edged with turquoise, to create the sun. Navajo shepherds used turquoise beads to protect them from storms. A turquoise stone thrown into the water or air, according to the Navajo tradition, could help connect one, in prayer, to the Creator of rain or the Wind Spirits. The winds howled, say the Navajo, in search of the turquoise stone.

The Tribe revered Estsanatlehi, the mythical Changing Woman, or Turquoise Woman, and several points of her story touch the sacred element. She first appeared to the people as a drop of turquoise, according to some Creation story versions, and, in others, as a turquoise female figure. An important deity in the Navajo belief system, she symbolized creation, protection, prosperity, and change, as in the adolescent Navajo girls’ initiation ceremony and Beauty Way. Estsanatlehi represented the mother of all mothers, an especially important role in this matrilineal society.

The Navajos, like many other cultures, also associated the blue or blue-green color of turquoise with the sky, water, and earth. It was an important mechanism to attain closer contact with all of these elements, and a turquoise stick aided in the search for water, in the Navajo’s arid land.

The Zuni, likewise, associated turquoise with earthly elements. Their tribe associated green turquoise with the female figure and the earth, while blue turquoise represented the male and the sky. A turquoise inlayed cup filled with a mixture of turquoise and cornmeal served as a ritual for the Zuni.

Zuni turquoise inlay Sunface bracelet

Zuni turquoise art varies from that of the Navajos, in that they more often carved turquoise into amulets and used it to decorated idyllic limestone figures. They also carved the stones into shapes suitable to make jewelry adorned with mosaics.

Turquoise has played an important role in many arid-land cultures since only a few thousand years after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago. The Native Americans, relative newcomers to turquoise crafting, brought to life the beauty of many turquoise pieces in the southwest. Their especially stunning turquoise caught the eye of traders and merchants who took it to distant localities throughout the southwest, Central America, and even to South America. The adaptability of tribes, like the Navajos, who quickly learned from the Mexicans the art of the silver smith, brought the Native Americans to become the most productive, skilled turquoise artisans of the jewelry world. Their products serve as symbolic messengers of the Native American ideals and ways.N27