Why is turquoise so special to Native American cultures?
Updated: Apr 30, 2021
Think of Native American jewellery and I’m willing to bet you’ll imagine chunks of turquoise set in silver. But have you ever stopped to wonder why Native American jewellery seems so feature quite so much of this striking gemstone? I hadn’t either—until my US research trips, when my travels round the south-west states taught me all about the fascinating beliefs and traditions that make turquoise so sacred to the Native American tribes of this area.
The turquoise you see in high street shops is sometimes not turquoise at all, but dyed howlite, ceramic or plastic. Though the imitation turquoise used in fashion jewellery tends to be fairly uniform in colour and pattern—a light blue/green with widely spaced ‘webbing’—real turquoise is far more varied in appearance. Local conditions all affect the colour and patterns of turquoise—so much so, that experienced collectors of turquoise can identify the mine it came from by sight alone.
Even once mined and set in jewellery, its appearance can continue to change depending on the light, dust or chemicals and the skin acidity of its wearer. All this makes turquoise a deeply local and personal stone, so no wonder it has always had such appeal to native peoples, who have an intense spiritual connection to the land on which they live.
Turquoise is so important to the Navajo people that there is barely a tale in their creation myths that doesn’t mention it. First Man makes the sun from a chunk of turquoise, the sun carrier rides a horse of turquoise and the great goddess of renewal Estsanatlehi appears as a drop of turquoise. The turquoise, with its blue/green colour, is linked with both sky and water.
A pair of rings made by the Zuni
All Navajo babies receive a string of turquoise beads at birth and the stone is used at other significant life milestones, such as puberty, marriage and death, since turquoise is associated with healing and protection. It is said of cracked turquoise that ‘the stone took it’, meaning that the turquoise fielded a blow that would otherwise have harmed its wearer.
Though turquoise is particularly special to the Navajo culture, other tribes also have a deep spiritual connection with the stone. The Zuni, whose word for turquoise translates as ‘sky stone’, believe that turquoise is a manifestation of the sun’s life-giving power. In certain Zuni ceremonies, the face, body and masks are painted turquoise to represent the stone’s significance. In this culture, blue turquoise is male and of the sky, whereas green turquoise is female and of the earth.
The Hopi have a legend that turquoise is created from the excrement of lizards that travel between the upper and lower worlds, whereas the Pueblo tell the story of a great chief who came up to the upper world to escape his enemies. Each time he rested, drops of his sweat fell to the ground and formed turquoise. The Apache believe turquoise is the rain found at the end of a rainbow and used to tie turquoise to their bows to being them strength and protection in battle.
Of course there are far too many Native American myths, legends and beliefs about turquoise to list here. Nevertheless, I hope that after reading this blog post you’ll think of turquoise as much more than a mere fashion statement!