An article by Lee Anderson
When Indian jewelry is mentioned, the symbol that often comes to mind is the squash blossom necklace — the cornerstone of most Indian jewelry collections. However, most people who own one or more pieces have no idea of its origin or meaning.
This particular art object is truly an Indian creation. However, it developed slowly and has roots deep in non-Indian culture and history. The principle part of the necklace is the crescent-shaped pendant, which the Southwestern Indians first saw as iron ornaments on the horse bridles of the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Captured or traded, these ornaments soon graced the necks of the local Indian populace. Their acquisition was a matter of pride and the ornament, reproduced in the various metals, was proudly displayed during ceremonials. These pendants, originally brought from Spain, reflected the influence of earlier Moorish conquests and the occupation of Spain. As generations came and went, the pendant, referred to as a najahe or naja, became symbolic with various ceremonials. Since most ceremonials were related to the agricultural cycle, the naja was associated with crop fertility.
Once silver beads came into fashion around 1880, what more logical place was there to display the naja? However, the earlier acquired najas were undoubtedly hung around the owner’s neck by a simple thong. The first beads were large, non-ornamental and round. From these, more complicated beads — fluted and oval — developed. Often, dimes and quarters were fastened to a silver shank and strung between the beads. Occasionally, these coins were domed, filled, and made into beads.
The necklace we now call the squash blossom probably didn’t originate much before 1880. It was not mentioned by Washington Mathews in his Navajo Silversmiths Second Annual Report, 1880–1881. Arthur Woodard, in 1938, pointed out that the Navajo and Zuni beads were originally Spanish-Mexican trouser and jacket ornaments, fashioned to resemble the pomegranate, a common Spanish decorator motif, often carved or painted on missions in Mexico and worn on clothing. Early Navajo “squash blossom” beads show a striking similarity to the Mexican ornament and the pomegranate. Still, despite the similarities, there is quite a bit of doubt that the Navajo attempted to depict this blossom in his bead.
The “Bead That Spreads Out”
The Navajo word for the “squash blossom” bead is yo ne maze disya gi, which means simply “bead that spreads out.” Nothing in the word denoted squash or pomegranate blossom. Perhaps the word was coined by a white man who, asking a Navajo what the bead represented (the white man is obsessed with what something means — he is rarely satisfied that something is simply attractive), was told that it looked like a squash blossom (the Navajo understands the white man’s obsession and often attempts to satisfy it as painlessly as possible). It is doubtful that the Navajo intended that the bead represent a squash blossom.
All have tended to portray the necklace in a crop-fertility light. The Indian ceremonials dealt largely with the agricultural cycle, and the first jewelry was worn during these occasions. In addition, the beads and chain looked like pomegranates or squash blossoms.
The squash blossom necklace serves as a reminder of the close interaction between the Pueblo and Navajo Indians since the mid 1800s. The necklace itself is Navajo, adopted by the Zuni. Yet the incorporation of turquoise on each of the blossoms is an advent of the Zuni, later adopted by the Navajo. Unfortunately, there is little historical documentation on this subject.
References / Recommended Readings
John Adair, The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths, University of Oklahoma Press, 1944.
Margery Bedinger, Indian Silver, Navajo and Pueblo Jewelers, University of New Mexico Press, 1973.
M.G. Brown, Blue Gold, The Turquoise Story, Main Street Press, Anaheim, CA, 1975.
Larry Frank, Indian Silver Jewelry of the Southwest, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Westchester, Pennsylvania, 1990.
The International Turquoise Annuals, vol. I and II, 1975 and 1976 (only two published) Impart Pub, Reno, NV. Note in vol. I the article on pages 31–55 by D. Allen Penick, “Turquoise, the Mineral that’s an Accident.”
Carl Rosnek and Joseph Stacy, Skystone and Silver, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976.
Joseph E. Poque, Ph.D, The Turquoise, A report to the National Academy of Science, vol. XII, Second and Third Memoir, 1915. Reprinted in 1974 by Rio Grande Press, Inc., Glorieta, NM. (This reprint includes a foreword and details on Southwestern turquoise mines by Rex Arrowsmith and an excellent reference list. )
Stuart A. Northrop, Turquoise and Spanish Mines in New Mexico, University of New Mexico, Press, 1975.
Stuart A. Northrop, David L. Newman, David H. Snow, Turquoise, reprinted by General Printing and Paper Co., Topeka, KS. A reprint from El Palacio, vol. 79, No. 1, 1973, Museum of New Mexico.