“Be still and the earth will speak to you.”
This enduring Navajo proverb describes their relationship with the earth and nature. They highly value letting nature take its course and watching it unfold around them. This is why they find their sacred stones in nature: abalone, jet, white shell, and turquoise; they trust nature to bring them what they need.
The Navajo tribes of the North American southwest most of all prize turquoise stones. To them, turquoise has been an important cultural symbol for thousands of years as the stones represent luck, happiness, and health, and most importantly, a connection to nature because of the array of shades it can be found in: white, black, blue and green. Though turquoise doesn’t actually change colors, however, it can appear to as it is affected by the environment, light, dust, and such. This shifting appearance may have made turquoise appear magical or even sentient to the Navajo, who came to treasure it, using the color in divining practices and for prophecies. Changing colors are thought to indicate the health and well-being of the wearer.
To the Navajos, turquoise is a sort of good-luck charm; they hang it in their homes to ward off evil spirits, as well as wear it on their bodies. It is also deeply sacred to the Navajo people. According to Native American legends, turquoise was formed when people’s tears fell into the earth when it finally rained after a long dry spell (The History of Navajo Turquoise Jewelry). In fact, turquoise is also central to religious rituals and traditions. For example, when praying for rain, people would throw turquoise into a body of water and pray to their god of rain, Neinilli.
Besides the cultural and religious importance of the stones, turquoise jewelry has traditionally been prized by the Navajo people as a status symbol. The wealth and social standing of an individual during that time period were indicated by the size of an individual’s jewelry pieces, the number of stones worked into them, and the amount of jewelry the individual wears. Turquoise was universal and not only for the rich, but it was also “a talisman to kings, a boon to warriors, and a shaman’s tool” according to The History of Navajo Turquoise Jewelry. Warriors would incorporate and wear turquoise into battle to give themselves courage, hunters would take the jewelry with them to ensure a successful hunt, and tribespeople would give it as gifts and symbols of friendship.
Turquoise Squash Blossom Necklace
In the 20th century, Navajo craftsmen began using silver to make turquoise jewelry, which led to the creation of many new types of ornaments such as the iconic “squash blossom” necklace. The Navajo were the first to use and craft this design, and then later adopted by neighbouring Native American tribes. The name of the necklace, “squash blossom,” comes from a type of bead used in the necklace that was created by the Navajo. The beads in this necklace appear to be “blooming” and its name in the Navajo language means “bead which spreads out” (Graff). Although the name of the whole necklace comes from this one bead, the typical squash blossom necklace consists of three parts: the plain round beads, the beads that are “blooming”, and the horseshoe-shaped pendant at the bottom, which is called the Naja (Graff).
Navajo jewelry, in particular, is now known for having large turquoise stones and big silver pieces. In some cases, even if Navajo artists may use inlay or cluster style stones, they tend to use heavier silver than other Southwestern tribes like the Hopi or Zuni. They also tend to keep the natural shape of the turquoise, rather than cutting it. In comparison, the Southwestern tribes’ jewelry signature is large stones, thick silver, and a general chunky and heavy appearance.
Currently, the Navajo artisans face challenges in the crafting industry. Turquoise is a nonrenewable resource, and its prices are surging as fewer mines produce it, and all the while demand is higher than it has ever been before. Moreover, only 3-4% of natural turquoise is hard enough to be used in jewelry-making, forcing many craftsmen to turn to private collections and estates to source their material (Jung). Many cheaper pieces will often have more silver to offset the price of turquoise or use stabilized turquoise instead of its natural form. Stabilized turquoise has been treated with epoxy to harden it and make it workable, but it is of a lesser quality, and thus not as desirable.
The demand for turquoise jewelry continues to rise across the world, but it remains an important, personal element of Navajo identity. For some Native artisans, it is a vital source of income, but yet turquoise remains their foremost sacred stone. Understandably, it is vital to consider the ethics of buying and wearing Native jewelry. Native artisans don’t necessarily mind non-Natives wearing their designs or using elements of their aesthetic; the problem lies with their compensation and recognition for their cultural contribution. Adrienne Keene, a member of the Cherokee Nation and a Native American fashion expert, says that “one of the main harms of cultural appropriation is how it reduces distinct identities to a single stereotype” (Ustundag).
At Terra Adorn, we celebrate and preserve tradition, and invite our community to buy directly from Native artisans.
Author: Elena Parapounsky, Terra Adorn Ethnographic Writer