Legends in Sand: The Evolution of the Modern Navajo Sandpainting

An article by Lee Anderson

This brief article examines the Navajo sandpainting as both a religious item and an art item. We’ll present a brief history and discuss the sandpaintings as art forms that are used and made today. Lastly, we’ll at how this art form has evolved. Note that this brief article only touches the surface; for more information, consult the references listed at the end.

Introduction

There are two forms of Navajo sandpaintings. The first is used in the traditional healing or blessing ceremony conducted by a Singer or Medicine Man, a hataalii. This is referred to by the Navajo as an iikaah, “a place where the gods come and go.” The sandpainting is the crucial element in this 2- to-9-day ceremony, which is designed to restore balance (hozho), thus restoring lost health or insuring “good things.” The Singer uses crushed stone, crushed flowers, gypsum, pollen, etc. The sandpainting is completed in one day and destroyed later that night. This type of sandpainting is rarely viewed in an actual healing ceremony by non-Navajos. However, several noted Singers have demonstrated their skills at state fairs and powwows, although they leave the paintings incomplete, unlike the pure and sacred ones used in actual ceremonies. The demonstration is designed only to “show how it’s done.”

The second form is sandpainting as an art, created on a piece of particle board or plywood. In this form, elements of the sacred ceremonies, some very nearly complete, are presented as a unique and permanent art form. Finely crushed stone — some natural, some permanently dyed — is applied to the glue base. The overall design is intended to be an art presentation that uses the sacred Navajo symbols in the manner that would not be considered disrespectful. Artists hope that the beauty of this work, coupled with the traditional Navajo beliefs, will please the public and will provide a meaningful income. James C. Joe learned sandpainting from his father (Eugene Baatsoslanii) and later became a noted Medicine Man; he is the first to have practiced both professions. The Navajo accept this art form as quite legitimate.

The Origin of Navajo Sandpainting

Navajo legends tell us of the people before man. The Holy People are First Man, Changing Woman, Spider Woman, Monster Slayer, Born of/for Water, the Snake People, the Corn People, etc. These Holy People maintained permanent paintings of sacred designs on spider webs, sheets of sky, clouds, and some fabrics, including buckskin. When the First People, the Dineh, created by Changing Woman, were guided by First Man into the present world, they were given the right to reproduce these sacred paintings to summon the assistance of the Holy People. But ownership of them could lead to evil because, as the Holy People told them, “Men are not as good as we; they might quarrel over the picture and tear it and that would bring misfortune; rain would not fall; corn would not grow.” Therefore, it was decreed that they must accomplish the paintings with sand and upon the earth. Furthermore, it must be destroyed at night.

Most ethnologists and other researchers believed that the Navajo learned the art of sacred painting from the Pueblo Indians. These people’s ancestors were the prehistoric Anasazi, Mogollon, and Mimbres. Studies of prehistoric paintings on cave and kiva walls show that many were painted or plastered over and then reused with different art. It is well known that early sandpainting used a variety of materials — colored sands, crushed rock, charcoal, crushed flowers, gypsum, ochre, pollen, and cornmeal. These sands or “dry” paintings were used in the Pueblo’s rituals in prehistoric times. Also, both the early Pueblo Indians and the Navajo used depictions of men impersonating the gods. Several common motifs and early identifiable deities appear in both. They include the Humpback or “Camel” God with his back full of seeds, the two children of Changing Woman (Monster Slayer and Born of Water), Red Cloud, Talking God, and others.

The Great Pueblo Revolt occurred in 1680, when the Spanish and all of their religious entourage were expelled from all the Southwestern pueblos. Several years later, the Spanish regrouped in El Paso (El Paso del Norte) and returned to the pueblos to reestablish their political and religious hegemony. Many Pueblo Indians feared reprisals and left to live as nomads with the Navajo. There was much intermarriage and likely an incorporation of the Pueblo’s dry painting into the Navajo rituals. We know the weaving techniques — so wonderfully perfected by the Navajos — had Pueblo origins. So, too, might some of the religious practices.

Regardless of the sandpainting’s origin, one fact is clear: It is transitory, a specific rendering of a religious art form that is destroyed upon completion. Therefore, there is no pictorial evidence of what sandpaintings looked like one hundred years ago and earlier. Our only clues lie within the records of kiva walls, cave walls, and mural fragments from several hundred years ago. We also have the words of earlier scholars and researchers who wrote about what they learned from talking to medicine men of their time. Fortunately, a few drawings and reproductions do exist of the religious work in the late 1800s and very early 1900s. The legendary Medicine Man and weaver Hosteen Klah (1867–1937) was, among many other things, instrumental in capturing, for history, a significant period of this legendary art. He and his family wove the designs into Navajo rugs. These rugs and his drawings are centerpieces of the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They are our best links to the early religious designs that later became such an inspired art form.

The Role of the Sandpainting

Navajo religion holds that everything consists of powerful forces, which are capable of good or evil. The balance between them is quite fine; if upset, even accidentally, some misfortune or even disaster will occur. Nature is balanced. It is in harmony, and only man can upset the balance. Of the many, many Navajo deities, only one, Changing Woman is constantly striving to enhance the good forces for the people. It was she who gave birth to the twins, Monster Slayer and Born of Water. These two heroes or war gods left evidence of their exploits that exist even today. The great lava flow near Grants, New Mexico, is the dried blood of a slain monster. Likewise, the formation southwest of Shiprock is the remains of a giant man-eating eagle. They and their mother succeeded in ridding Dinetah, the Navajo world, of all evil except old age, poverty, sickness, and death.

There is no supreme being in the Navajo religion. Among the most powerful are Changing Woman, the Twin War Gods (heroes), Sun (the husband of Changing Woman), Holy Man, Holy Woman, Holy Boy, Holy Girl. Also powerful, and appearing in sandpaintings, are the Earth, Moon, Thunder, Wind, and others. Yeis (generally lesser deities), both male and female respectively, along with animals, plants, and various forces in nature, are very important in the Navajo religion. They appear in many sandpaintings.

All of these deities are constantly in flux, causing good and evil. The goal is for these forces to be in balance, or hozho, a perfect state. This term can represent an amalgam or the concepts of blessed, holy, beautiful, balanced, without pain, etc.

Hozho is the desired balance but it is difficult to maintain because everything (person, plant, animal, stone, star, cloud, strike of lightning) has its Holy People. Anyone who angers any of these forces — an easy thing to do — creates disharmony and risks any one of several physical or mortal ills. In addition, many witches seek to harm individuals through their own ceremonies, which also use sandpaintings.

The everyday existence of the Navajo is filled with pitfalls that could easily anger a Holy Person and result in a loss of hozho. For example, killing a bear can cause arthritis, laughing at one can cause it to “get after you,” mountain sheep can cause ear and eye problems, killing a sand spider can cause baldness, watching a dog “go to the bathroom” can cause you to go crazy, killing snakes or lizards can cause your heart to dry up and your back to get crooked, yelling at a pregnant woman can cause the baby to be deaf, and so on; there are thousands of taboos and cures.

To cure the attendant illness caused by the imbaance, you first need a diagnosis by a hand trembler, a ndilniihii. Through prayer, concentration, and the use of sacred pollen, the practitioner’s hand will tremble and an analysis of these movements will pinpoint the cause of illness. This also identifies the “sing,” “chant,” or “way” needed to effect a cure. There are many ways to combat ills; Navajo religious beliefs provide for about 500 different sandpaintings derived from some 50 different Chants or Ways. There are, for example, nearly 100 sandpaintings within the Shooting Way or Shooting Chant alone.

Each chant or way is associated with one or more elements of the creation story. And each ill or imbalance is likewise associated with one of these chants. For example, the Bead Chant cures skin disease caused by thunder, lightning, or snakes, and the Night Chant cures nervous disorders among other ills.

These ceremonies are presided over and orchestrated by a full Medicine Man. A ceremony can last 2 days or be as long as 9 days. Involved are chants, songs, prayers, long lectures, dances, the use of sweat baths, herbs, emetics, prayer sticks, assorted fetishes, and, of course, sandpaintings. These ceremonies are expensive. The Medicine Man must be paid well, and the host must provide food and accommodations for friends and family who attend. Those who attend share in the blessing that accompanies the ceremony and assist in the chant, dances, and construction of the sandpainting. A 9-day Night Chant has been known to bankrupt a family.

When all the preliminary activities such as lectures, purifications, chants, etc., have been accomplished, the Medicine Man begins the sandpainting ritual, usually in the family hogan. All the pigments of color have been carefully gathered and prepared. The principal colors — white, blue, yellow, and black — are linked to the four sacred mountains as well as the directions. Red, often considered a sacred color, represents sunlight. As a note of interest, the four sacred mountains are Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks (west), Navajo Mountain in Utah (north), Mt. Blanco in Colorado (east) and Mt. Taylor in New Mexico (south).

The Navajo name for sandpainting, iikaah, translates to “place where gods come and go.” This name is appropriate because, if all activities are performed correctly and the patient believes in the cure, the sandpainting prepares the way for the forces or Holy People to intercede and restore hozho. The sandpainting is the final act to summon those forces. The patient sits in its center and faces the open door of the hogan, which always faces east. The Holy People being summoned will arrive and infuse the painting with their healing power, dispelling evil and restoring balance. The ceremony also shields against further threats of a similar nature that may be directed toward the patient, such as witchcraft.

The sandpainting can be quite small or as large as 20 feet, which means that several men and women would be needed to finish it in the allotted day. Most sandpaintings are between 6 and 8 feet. The Medicine Man or Singer is the director responsible for accuracy of color and design. For practical reasons, work begins in the center and works outward in a “sun-wise” pattern for religious reasons (east to south to west to north and back to east). Most sandpaintings have a protective garland around three sides to prevent evil from infusing the work from the north, west, or south. This is often a rainbow. The painting must face east for the Holy People’s entrance. In order to prevent evil from entering before the work is complete, spiritual guardians may be positioned to the east. There are many such guardians, including the beaver and otter, which gave their hides to Monster Slayer and Born of Water to prevent them from freezing on one of their journeys.

With the patient seated in the center of the sandpainting, the Singer takes items from his medicine bag and touches them to body parts of the Holy People in the sandpainting. He then touches corresponding parts of his body and then the patient’s body. Thus, the powers of the Holy People, properly orchestrated through the intermediary, are transmitted to the patient, restoring the hozho needed for the cure.

When the ritual is completed, the patient leaves the sandpainting and all the sands are swept away in a reverse order. The sand is then either buried outside or scattered to the four directions. Failure to destroy a sandpainting or attempting to reverse any part may bring blindness or death to the transgressor.

Not all sandpaintings are used to cure the ill. In fact, the heart of the Navajo Religion is the Blessing Way, which hozho to many things — a newborn child or a new home, planting, job, marriage, etc. Usually the sandpainting is small, and the ceremony covers a single day. These ceremonies do not always require the floor of a hogan; they be done on buckskin or cloth.

Sandpainting as Art

Hosteen Klah is credited with being the first Navajo to present a sandpainting picture in a permanent art form. He wove a “Whirling Logs” design from the Night Way Chant into a textile (rug). He and his two nieces wove approximately 70 pieces over an 18-year span. From this came many sketches, drawings, paintings, and later, books. Another Medicine Man, Miguelito (1865–1936), contributed greatly to books. Rest assured, these weavings and the drawings by famous and respected medicine men were altered to some degree to preclude any disrespect to the Holy People. (One blanket purchased in 1929 had 34 identifiable errors according to a noted anthropologist.)

The most often-seen sandpainting today is a reproduction on a piece of plywood or particle board. This evolved from the 1930s and was first seen in Gallup, New Mexico. Today the board is smoothed and covered with a thin but precise layer of glue. Colored sand or crushed rock is then placed on this layer. More glue is painted on and more sand is deposited. If the glue is too thick, the line or area will be lumpy; if too fine or thin, not enough sand will adhere and the painting will appear weak. To keep the glue from drying too fast, the artist works on only small areas at a time.

Although most artists use common household glue (thinned) as the base, many add one or more secret ingredients to satisfy their own requirements. Also, some artists use different rocks or pigments to achieve various colors. Some use commercially colored sands. Part of the skill involved in creating a high-quality sandpainting is the technique of dispensing the sand onto the glue base. Most artists take a small amount of sand in the palm of their hand, below the second finger. They trickle the sand off the index finger, guiding and regulating it using the thumb. The flow must be uniform or the line on the sandpainting will be uneven. Some sandpainters sketch first, and then work in pencil; others work only by eye.

As demand for an item increases beyond production capability, new production techniques are developed. Some sandpainters now use a series of copper templates to speed their work. Certain symbols, lines, and patters are cut out of copper. These templates are placed on the board and used to quickly apply glue in the proper location. Often, they are also to apply sand. Templates are used often in the more “commercial” grade of sandpaintings.

Another item, the air brush, has become popular with sand painters. It allows for the rapid creation of a multi-hued background. This technique does not lessen amount of work required for the background; it simply adds an artistic dimension. And, what is sandpainting, after all, but an art?

The Evolution and Influence of Sandpainting Art

Sandpainting as an art was first seen in tapestries and later in paintings and drawings. These forms still exist. As weavings, very few Navajos will attempt a sandpainting; they are extremely difficult to do well and require a long time to finish the final tapestry. Those who undertake this task can — and do — command a high premium.

The Navajo Yei rug, first woven with great controversy near the turn of the century, quickly became popular because of its resale success. It is still popular, a “must” for any weaving collector. It is not uncommon to see Yei weavings blended with other regional rug patterns.

Artists frequently employ one or more figures from a sandpainting in their contemporary work. Noted Navajo artist Harrison Begay frequently used one or more guardians in his paintings as early as the late 1930s. Justin Tso, Jack Lee, Benson Halwood, and many others do also.

Sandpainting figures also appear in many Pueblo pottery designs. Hopi Kachinas are used most often, but the use of Navajo Yei figures has also increased.

Sandpainting has undergone some great changes. At first, paintings incorporated the more common Yei figures and occasionally a corn plant. Then they evolved to render simplified Chants or Ways — the Whirling Logs, Big Thunder from the Shooting Chant, Coyote Stealing Fire, etc. Now we see renderings or realist and impressionist movements, as well as pictures of Shiprock, fetish bears, and pottery depictions, among others. Generally the work is not complex, but it is pleasing and represents a strong art movement.

Over a period of several years, various competitions began to recognize sandpainting as an art form. As more and more museum shows, fairs, ceremonials, etc. began to award prizes based on quality and innovation, these works increased in quality, quantity, and innovation. Today, we see in exquisite detail, pure traditional sandpainting designs. Also, several artists blend two or more sandpainting designs, or elements, together. Among the best of these groups are Rosabelle Ben and Fred Geary. Other master artists such as Eugene Baatsoslanii Joe, Bobbie Johnson (d.), J.M. Cambridge, Keith Silversmith, H.R. (War Eagle) Begay, and Gracie Dick use a blend of tradition, impression, and realism to achieve one-of-a-kind expressions that rival, in expression and in quality, any great art.

As a last note, sandpainting designs now appear in sterling and gold-cast jewelry, which is popular and selling well. It is easy to see that the core of Navajo life — the religion and its expression in the sandpaintings — has influenced all forms of Navajo art. Its influence is expected to continue.

References / Suggested Readings

Ronald McCoy, 1988, “Summoning the Gods,” Plateau Magazine of the Museum of Northern Arizona. (An excellent, detailed presentation—most of our spellings of Navajo terms and other details are from this work.)

Eugene Baatsoslanii Joe and Mark Bahti, 1978, Navajo Sandpainting Art, Treasure Chest Publications, Inc., Tucson, AZ. (A well-written and illustrated book with many personal observations by the most famous of all living sandpainting artists.)

Tom Bahti, Revised by Mark Bahti, 1982, Southwestern Ceremonials, K.C. Publications, Inc. (Brief overview, very well written.)

Frank Johnson Newcomb, 1964, Hosteen Klan, Navajo Medicine Man and Sandpainter, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. (For in-depth understandings of Navajo life and the role of the Medicine Man.

Ernest L. Bulow, 1982, Navajo Taboos, Southwesterner Books, Gallup, NM. (Very interesting and a brief review that gives insight into the many pressures on the traditional Navajo way of life.)

Franc Johnson Newcomb and Gladys A. Richard, 1937, Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant, J.J. Augustin, NY, Reprinted Dover, New York, 1975. (In-depth view of Navajo life and the intricacies of the most varied of the Navajo Ways or Chants.)

David Villasenoor, 1963, Indian Sandpaintings of the Greater Southwest, Naturegraph Publishers, Inc., Happy Camp, CA. (A pamphlet describing 14 Navajo Ways, with color photos.)

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A History of Navajo Weaving

An article by  by Lee & Eric Anderson

In the Beginning

It has often been said “the land was good for nothing else so we gave it to the Indians.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The original Navajo, the T’aa dine’, chose this very area some six to seven centuries ago. This nomadic people arrived and apparently lived in harmony with the existing Anasazi until the latter’s disappearance or assimilation.

Undoubtedly, the T’aa dine’ learned much from their neighbors, the Pueblo Indians, including the skill of weaving with domestic cotton and native grasses. They necessarily modified their traditional, nomadic way of life.

In the 16th century, the Spanish began exploring this area. Shortly thereafter, Spanish rule and the Catholic Church dominated the Southwest. The traditional arts of the pueblo dwellers and the Navajo were severely curtailed. In fact, some scholars refer to the ensuing two-and-a-half centuries as the “Regressive Period” of pueblo arts and crafts. The Navajo, unwilling to be subjected to outside domination, simply reverted to their original, nomadic way of life.

They retreated deep into the high deserts and canyons. From these strong points, they began raiding Spanish and Pueblo livestock.

By this time the Navajo were already accomplished weavers, having learned this skill from the Pueblo Indians. It was a simple transition to start weaving with the wool of the purloined Spanish sheep instead of cotton, like the Pueblos. The belt loom and, later, small vertical looms were transportable, lending themselves to this mobile existence. Naturally, this caused changes in the Navajo’s weaving styles. For approximately 300 years, the Navajo pursued this nomadic way of life and hence developed the unique culture we know and respect today.

Although nomads and raiders, the Navajo had homes — areas devoted to agriculture and permanence — but these homes were few and far removed from civilization. The Navajo moved continuously, raiding constantly. They were feared by the local Pueblo Indians, the Spanish, and the Americans alike; they were, as Don Dedera writes, indeed, the “lords of the desert.” Their pride was intense and it remains so today. Their legends, religion, and language have been, and still are, passed from generation to generation. All of this is expressed, wonderfully, in their weaving. No other cultural group in the world weaves as the Navajo weaves. The finished work is a fine expression of the pride and the creation of beauty of these people.

The Last 200 Years

The difficulties of Navajo were not limited to just the Spanish or their old neighbors, the Pueblo tribes. The Navajo’s lifestyle also conflicted with the rapidly expanding population of the U.S. The problems created by this new economic, social, and cultural interaction are beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is important to note how the conflict ended in 1863. The ensuing changes dramatically affected the Navajo’s weaving art.

The U.S. Cavalry appointed Colonel Kit Carson, the famous mountain man, explorer, scout, and guide, to the task of effectively eliminating the “Navajo threat.” He adopted General Sherman’s “scorched earth” technique and effectively destroyed the Navajo’s livelihood. Leading the U.S. Cavalry through the area, he ravaged crops and homes, killed sheep and horses, and finally destroyed the orchards of peach trees in the rugged Canyon de Chelly. This last act insured the starvation of the Navajo, who finally surrendered.

At this time, the tribe numbered approximately 14,000 to 15,000 strong. Approximately one half, or 8,000 people, were gathered and forced to travel 350 miles to Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. Here the government tried to change their way of life to an agricultural style.

The project was a failure. The land and the Navajo were simply not suited to agriculture. The local people, Americans, Mexicans, and other Indians, including Apache and Comanche, were most inhospitable. The Navajo, defenseless, were preyed upon by all. In a period of 4 years, nearly one fourth of the population died. The high cost to the federal government for maintaining these people in food, lodging, and clothing was politically and economically unacceptable, especially since the program was obviously not working. A new program was needed.

Shortly, Lt. General William Sherman and the Navajo leader, Barboncito, agreed to a new treaty. The Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. It had to be a bleak and discouraging return. All was in ruins — except the land. Never hospitable, it seemed to welcome them home. With the government issue of sheep in 1869, the Navajo tribe began reemerging.

It was a slow and painful rebirth and growth fraught with many difficulties. Overgrazing and lack of rain caused most of the difficulties. Stock reductions were necessary. Food and jobs were scarce. Disease was a serious threat. Still, their numbers increased markedly, from approximately 12,000 in 1869 to approximately 35,000 in the early 1930s.

According to Don Dedera, it was not until World War II that the Navajo’s lot seemed to improve significantly, if only temporarily. About 3,600 Navajos were in the military and another 15,000 in the defense industry. After the war, however, jobs dropped to about 600 while the population soared to 60,000. The reservation boasted only 460 hospital beds and 95 miles of paved road. Only 6,000 of 20,000 school age-children actually attended school.

Today conditions are much improved but still fall well below the standards that most Americans enjoy. Although the reservation paved highways traverse much of the Reservation, lateral roads are frequently impassable in wet and winter months. Often the Arizona Air National Guard and other state agencies are called upon to airlift food and other supplies to cut-off families. Hay drops are not uncommon. Helicopter evacuation of the sick is often necessary.

However, industry is growing. The Peabody Coal Company is a major employer. Timber, oil, minerals, and other natural resources are being developed, and through recent legislation, the Navajo people are realizing greater benefits from their land than ever before. Conditions are still far from ideal, however.

The schools are excellent. However, because of the size of the reservation and the greatly scattered population, long-distance day and boarding schools are required. Today, school enrollment includes over one half of the population. Literacy is still well below the national average, and most children do not continue beyond the 8th grade. However, compared to conditions two generations ago, progress is not only evident but also impressive. Although unemployment is often quoted at approximately 50 percent, it is still better than 600 jobs for a population of 60,000 at the end of World War II. Families then used the buckboard and two horses for transportation; today that sight is a rarity, and a pickup truck the norm.

Progress and improvement in living conditions is, in truth, rapid. But for those experiencing the hardships of Reservation living, that progress is simply not evident or painfully slow.

Throughout this period of history, one thing has remained constant — the unique and beautiful Navajo weaving. These hardy people adopted weaving techniques from their Pueblo neighbors. From then on, the development of style, pattern, and quality was uniquely theirs. (The influence of the traders will be discussed shortly.) You can see, even in the earliest of blankets, excellence of design and uniformity. In remarking on the tightness of the weave, early authors often exclaimed that the blankets “would hold water.” Today’s fine, tight tapestries, beautiful rugs, and wall hangings are an extension of this early period. Many variations, changes, and styles have come and gone. The next section details how these styles developed chronologically. It is not exhaustive; for much greater detail, consult some of the excellent references listed at the end of this paper.

Early Weaving or Early Classic Period (to 1804)

The Navajo almost certainly began weaving shortly after arriving in the Four Corners area in the homeland of the Anasazi. Undoubtedly, the “belt loom” was the original loom adopted from their Pueblo dwelling neighbors. The year 1650 is generally accepted as when the Navajo’s shifted to the vertical or upright loom. The patterns of these early works were influenced by the Spanish, the Pueblos, and the Navajo’s own ideas of beauty.

Following the Pueblo revolt of 1680, the Spanish influence waned for a few years. Once the Spanish returned, the Navajo again had access, through trade and raiding, to Churro sheep. Their weaving, once again, blossomed with even more variation of design. Navajo weaving now included designs from baskets, stepped triangles and diamonds, serrated patterns, and colorful stripes. By the beginning of the 19th century, Navajo weaving was in demand, mostly by other Indians — Navajo, as well as Utes and Cheyennes. They also traded with the Spanish in New Mexico and, through them, to Mexico and Europe. It is unfortunate that almost no examples of this period of weaving exist today.

Early Navajo weavers used wool, dyed with native, natural dyes, as well as a rewoven thread from Bayeta (bright red wool of flannel consistency from England). They unraveled other blankets and clothing and, by adding these materials to their own homespun wool, developed a beautiful variety of colors and styles.

The best-known example, reputedly the earliest Navajo weaving still in existence, is the “Massacre Cave Blanket” from Canyon de Chelly. This all-wool balnket, frequently dated at 1804, was recovered from the ruins of the massacre. It features all-natural dyes, medium and dark brown and beige on white. This blanket is regarded as marking the end of the Early Weaving or Early Classic period; it is often cited as marking the beginning of the Classic Period.

Classic Period (1804–1880)

There are few examples of Navajo weaving between 1804 and 1850, but the last 30 years of this period are well represented. Bayeta had been introduced earlier. This famous, cochineal, red dye from Mexico was popular and available, but Navajos rarely used it on homespun weavings during this period because of its expense. They did, however, use cochineal by unraveling other Mexican weavings. Saxony yarn from Europe was also popular during this period.

In the earlier portion of the period, most designs featured alternating stripes. In the later period, they combined stripes and diamonds, triangles, and zigzag lines. Occasionally, designs featured serrated, diagonal lines within a given stripe.

The Classic Period is known for blankets that were made for wearing and designed for warmth. They are soft, tight, and not heavy. Usually the weft count (number of weft threads in an inch) would exceed 40; 60 was not unusual. Often these blankets, known as “Chief’s Blankets,” were given as gifts to other Indian leaders and to American military and political authorities. Blankets were also a trade item, affordable only to the well-to-do.

It is in this context, that the latter phase of the Classic Period and the subsequent Eye Dazzler Period are further time-defined. Remember that designs from this era were used well into the 20th century. As such, design alone cannot be used to date a blanket or rug. (The designs described below are the norm; certainly, others existed.)

Phase I: Chief’s Blanket, Classic Period (from1850–1865). The designs usually include three red- and indigo-patterned stripes between broad black and white stripes. Colors vary.

Phase II: Chief’s Blanket, Classic Period (1860–1875). This represents a transition from the simple Phase I to the more elaborate Phase III. Usually the red and blue (or other color) stripes are interrupted along their length by shorter, colored bands — again, three is the most common number. These blankets have the dominant wide, alternating, black and white bands.

Phase III: Chief’s Blanket Classic Period (1875–1900). Although this pattern retains the wide black and white bands, it also features stepped triangles on the corners, sides, and ends as well as a stepped diamond in the center. Reds and blues are most common; however, a plethora of other colors are often encountered — purples, oranges, and many shades of brown. The Phase III pattern was so popular that weavers continued to use it well after the demise of the wearing blanket, simply carrying it over into rug patterns.

Heavier pieces, more suitable for rugs, probably date from 1890 to the present. Rugs of this later period, regardless of pattern, are rarely considered examples of the Classic Period. Nevertheless, they are highly collectible pieces that show the influence and carryover of design as well as the way the economy dictated techniques.

Please note that these dates are generalizations only. Some Phase I patterns were woven in the late 1890s for example. The type of wool is a better dating tool.

Eye Dazzler Period (1880–1900)

The influx of Germantown three- and four-ply yarn entered the Navajo weaving story in the 1880s. Its brilliant colors, and the Navajo weavers’ thirst for this color, added style to the sedate “Chief’s Patterns.” Germantown yarn gave birth to the “Eye Dazzler.” Brilliant reds, greens, yellows, blues, and more found their way into blankets and wall hangings.

At this same time, aniline dyes were stocked by the trading posts. These chemical dyes gave the weaver a greater variety of colors and were far easier to use.

Until 1890, most weavers created wearing blankets. However, once the Pendleton Woolen Mills introduced their product, this need ended. The Pendleton (still used today) was lighter, warmer, every bit as colorful, and much less expensive. Navajo weaving declined. It probably would have died except that non-Indian people started using Navajo blankets as floor coverings, bedspreads, and wall hangings. This new demand, coupled with pattern changes and a heavier style of weaving (largely instituted by the reservation traders), undoubtedly saved the craft.

The transition was not immediate. Germantown weavings proliferated well into the 20th century, with a definite eye to balance the pattern. This more expensive yarn was only used by the better weavers.

Early Rug Period (Late 1800s–1920)

The transition from blankets to rugs actually began in the 1880s. Although most Navajo weaving of that period was for wearing blankets, a new market for rugs and tapestries was growing. The salvation of weaving and its huge growth at the turn of the century is largely attributed to two men — Lorenzo Hubble of the Ganado Trading Post and J.B. Moore of the Crystal Trading Post. Both men envisioned a market for Navajo weaving, both had the foresight to encourage quality, and both were instrumental in developing basic designs that would complement the eastern U.S. fashion dictates of the period.

The most-often encountered rug in the late 1800s and early 1900s was the Oriental rug. It was found that the motifs of these rugs, especially the Caucasus, were well suited to the Navajo weaver’s idea of balance and pattern. Moore and Hubble incorporated these patterns. Artists Burbank and Little were commissioned by Hubble to paint rug patterns as samples. Hubble used crosses, stripes, geometry, and balanced patterns of the Oriental against a bright red aniline. He also incorporated a designed, black border.

Moore followed Hubble’s example. He even published mail-order catalogs in 1903 and 1911 for use in the eastern U.S. He, too, incorporated classic designs but preferred natural hues, with only an accent of brighter colors, usually red. Many of Moore’s hooks, angles, etc., set his patterns apart from Hubble’s geometry. Both proved very popular.

Both men had their disciples who, as the need for trading posts expanded, carried and modified these basic patterns with them as they established new posts. Of course, the local Navajo modified these patterns with their own ideas. Certain patterns became associated with specific trading posts, giving rise to the first general collector field for Navajo weaving — the regionally or geographically identified rug.

Rug popularity received a blow in the late 19th century, when the U.S. government, hoping to increase the meat production in the Navajo tribe, introduced the French Rambouillet sheep. These sheep did what they were supposed to, but their wool was too short and oily for good-quality weaving. Rugs produced from this wool were coarse, heavy, and they appeared dirty because of the oil. Rugs went downhill. The traders, to stimulate production, purchased rugs by the pound ($.30 to $1). Weavers would now produce rugs as rapidly as possible, leaving the wool as oily as possible, evening pounding in dirt to increase their weight.

The rug industry was in serious trouble at this time. This is not to say that excellent rugs were not produced during and prior to this period; they were. Processed wool from the east, such as the Germantown yarn, was used by the better weavers, who produced outstanding patterns and quality. Prices for these pieces were at a premium, while prices for “pound weavings” were quite low.

Rug Revival Period (1920–1940)

A combination of factors helped revive the Navajo weaving industry: continued demand for a good quality rug and the contribution of several farsighted people.

Several people in different areas began experimenting with vegetable dyes and vegetable-toned chemical dyes. The success of Leon McSparron and Mary Wheelright at Chinle gave not only new, softer, pastel hues to the rugs but also a new design with patterns set in bands on a borderless rug. Mrs. William Lippincott of Wide Ruins did the same with similarly outstanding results. The open, unbordered styles also pleased the Navajo weavers.

The DuPont Chemical Company experimented with developing a wider range of colors. This effort was extended even further by the Diamond Dye Company, which introduced a series of dyes called “Old Navajo.” Now the weaver had, in one package, both the mordant and the colorant. This process was faster and less dangerous than the old mixing with acids, and it produced more uniform results.

In 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Navajo Sheep Breeding Laboratory at Ft. Wingate (near Gallup, New Mexico). Here, they developed a breed of sheep combining the high mutton-producing qualities of the Rambouillet with the better wool qualities of other breeds. The lovely, long, staple wool of the 19th century Churro sheep was, however, a thing of the past.

In addition to these developments, the high standards demanded by many traders and the public nearly eliminated the low-grade weaving associated with the “pound rug.”

Regional Style Rugs (1940–Present)

This period of weaving is characterized by specific patterns, colors, or motifs that are largely geographically oriented. Earlier, we note the strong influences of four trading centers: Lorenzo Hubble (Ganado Trading Post), J.B. Moore (Crystal Trading Post), Leon McSparron (Chinle Trading Post), and Mr. and Mrs. William Lippincott (Wide Ruins Trading Post). Other areas developed specific styles that further identified their product. Many were branches of these four trading centers; some were unique. Not all lasted from 1940 to the present, but many did, and others were created. This clearly different styling gave rise to the first geographical rug collector’s criteria, much like a mint mark for a coin collector. It also allowed collectors to predate their rugs with those of earlier periods leading to their current rug type.

As you may imagine, one regional style often blends with another. Also, a weaver living in one area can surely create a rug with a design native to another area or blended with her own. This does not affect the rug’s value. The rug is identified by its regional style, not by the location of the weaver. One of the largest and most beautiful “Two Grey Hills” rugs ever created was woven by a Navajo living in Morenci, Arizona — over 200 miles south of the Reservation.

Today, according to one reference, only about 25 percent of all rugs tend to be regional in identification; 40 percent are classified as “General” (See table below). Still, any rug made after 1940 can be classified as “Regional Style” because this period signified the regional development of pattern and color that created the collector field we know today. Also, the blending of the “regional” patterns and colors produced some extremely valuable “general” patterns of today.

There are fewer weavers today, as a percentage of the Navajo population, than 90 years ago; tomorrow there will be even fewer than today. The reason, of course, is economics. Although the prices of rugs have increased enormously, the amount of time involved in weaving one still makes the art much less than cost-effective. This is not true for the well known, award winning, weavers that dot the reservation. For them, the art is rewarding and, for those aspiring to greatness, these rewards are very attainable. For this reason, Navajo weaving is not a dying art; rather, it is becoming a very selective, highly competitive one.

So how long does it take to make a Navajo rug? Quoting from Gilbert S. Maxwell, author of Navajo Rugs, Past, Present and Future,

“A dealer friend of mine once placed an expert Navajo weaver on his payroll for $1 an hour. For her, he bought handspun vegetable dye yarns. He told the woman to do two pieces of weaving: a better than average, twill weave, double saddle blanket (30 x 60 inches), and a 3 x 5 foot quality rug. The saddle blanket was completed in 140 hours and the rug in 238 hours! And this I would remind you was straight weaving time — not spare time.”

“If this weaver had shorn, washed, carded, spun and dyed her own wool, my friend conservatively estimates that it would have taken another 200* hours.”

(* These 200 hours would undoubtedly be for both rugs together.)

We believe that today, this work would take about one-third less time. Still the number of hours involved is staggering. We once asked Mary Lou Curtis, a fine weaver from Leupp, Arizona, how long it took her to make a 2.5 x 4 foot, Ganado-style rug she had just sold us for $300 cash and $100 trade. Her response: “About 3 weeks, but I didn’t weave all the time.” Note that if the weaver uses vegetable dyes and picks the plants herself, time and cost would increase.

Conclusion

This article has been general in nature. Our goal was to place the development of weaving into the context of Navajo history. Today, we note a trend among the better weavers to blend two or more regional styles in a single weaving. Many of these works are truly magnificent, and they are gathering today’s top competitive awards.

In closing, we invite you to compare a fine Navajo weaving with a fine oil painting. Few object to a price tag in the high hundreds to the thousands of dollars for a painting. But many remark, “Why is that ‘rug’ so high, it’s only wool?” If this were true, then a painting would merely be oil and canvas. The time involved in creating a beautiful art piece in wool is, undoubtedly, greater. An artist can paint over an error on a canvas, but a weaving error is far more difficult (or impossible) to remove. If you run out of paint, you can buy more. If you run out of a particular color yarn, on the other hand, it will probably be impossible to dye another batch in exactly the same shade.

Fortunately, Navajo weaving has become recognized as a major art form, not only in the U.S., but also in Europe and Asia. The future bodes well for Navajo weaving artists and those who collect their work.

Recommended Reading

Indian Blankets and Their Makers, George Wharton James, Rio Grande Press, Inc. Glorietta, NM, 1974 (first published in 1927).

Posts and Rugs, H.L. James, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Globe, AZ, 1976, 1979.

Navajo Rugs: Past, Present and Future, Gilbert S. Maxwell. Bell West Publications, Palm Desert, CA. First printing Nov. 1963, 15th printing August 1973.

Navajo Rugs: How to Find, Evaluate, Buy and Care for Them, Don Dedera. Northland Press, Flagstaff, AZ, first printing, 1975, 3rd printing 1979.

Southwestern Weaving, Marian E. Rodee. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, 1977

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Hopi Kachinas: Their Significance in Ceremony and Art

An article by Lee Anderson

People tend to think of kachinas as wooden carvings of masked, human figures they see for sale at trading posts, galleries, and fairs. Or they know that kachinas are often offered as gifts to people in the tribe. But what do these carvings mean? Why are they created?

First, kachinas (note that this word has various spellings) are a part of all the Arizona and New Mexico Pueblo peoples. The Hopi and, to a lesser extent, the Zuni, have a remarkably detailed, codified kachina cult that is practiced to this day. Today’s ceremonies, as well as those of years ago, are deemed essential to a properly balanced life. Certain aspects of their ceremonies are secret and are closed even to some tribal members; others are open — in some cases, even to non-tribal visitors.

This article will concentrate on Hopi kachinas — the most involved and complex of all. The carving of Hopi kachinas is now a world-recognized art form of the highest order.

The Original Kachinas — Ancestral Beings

The first Hopi to enter the surface world encountered Massau’u (the Earth God, skeleton, or “death kachina”). As keeper of the earth, his permission was needed to allow the emerging Hopi to live there. The Hopi, and the several kachinas they encountered, entered into a mutual living partnership. The original kachinas were supernatural spirits and beings. These mostly benevolent entities taught the Hopi the skills they needed to live and prosper in this severe environment — how to hunt, make tools, and most importantly, live in harmony with the earth. By living properly, the Hopi would be blessed with moisture and agricultural fertility. The kachinas also taught the Hopi how to heal sickness, properly discipline those “out of harmony,” offer gratitude to the spiritual forces, and ask these forces for help.

Although the kachinas eventually left their villages, they left the people with skills they needed to live and the techniques to maintain harmony within the community and with the kachinas. These original kachinas are often described as “ancestral beings.”

The Kachina in Ceremony

The ceremonies that the Hopi conduct to honor these spirits are quite varied. All occur during the time of needed agricultural fertility — from the end of December’s ceremonies, through the Powamu (Bean Dance) in February, to the Niman (Going Home Dance) in July. These ceremonies retain the balance and close harmony between the Hopi people and the spiritual kachinas. This harmony is necessary to insure snow in the winter and rain in the spring, which in turn insures a good harvest and other desired blessings.

The Hopi who participate in these ceremonies dress in regalia that is designed to identify a particular spiritual kachina. The “case mask,” worn by the participant, is believed to contain the spiritual essence of the actual kachina; it is quite sacred and cared for accordingly. The remainder of the costume is designed to retain historical reverence. Hence, there are individual and village variations, all quite acceptable. When dressed as a specific kachina in the ceremonial dance, the Hopi is no longer just a person, nor is he considered to be a kachina. He is, instead, a spiritual intermediary because he wears the case mask. His actions during the ceremony transmit the supplications and prayers of the people to the kachina spirits in the sky.

The Emergence of an Art Form

Carvings were originally designed as gifts or competitive awards. They were not toys; they were valued possessions designed to keep the recipient aware of the spiritual forces that make up his world. Because these carvings were not spiritual in themselves, they were occasionally traded or sold. Soon the outside world started collecting them, creating a new source of income for the Hopi. The earlier carvings, prior to 1930, were simple, devoid of action and rather plain. (These are now rare and command a substantial premium.)

Carvings following the Great Depression and through WWII reflected more detail, with adornments such as kilts, bows and arrows, yucca whips, etc. Between WWII and the 1960s, the kachinas slowly evolved into the full-action, anatomically accurate carvings that were the true beginning of today’s collector interest. Since 1970, we have seen a revolution in quality, detail, and price. Carvings today are often lifelike, with fingernail and tooth detail. Some are impressionistic sculpture style; others retain the historic presence. All are collectible. One of Wilmer Kaye’s kachina carvings sold for over $30,000.

Remember that the Hopi kachina cult has existed for several hundred years. What once was a rather simple duality (the spiritual kachina had influence over the depicted being or event) is now a rather complex intermeshing of spirit and reality. For example, the Deer kachina is no longer just the spiritual essence of the deer; rather, he is, in association with other animal kachinas, a rain-bringing kachina. This is not only in the Hopi’s best interest, but it also insures a propagation of the various animals. The Hopi kachina cult (some refer to it as a religion) is ever-evolving. So, too, are the kachina carvings.

Further Readings

This is only a brief overview of a highly detailed and lengthy subject. We recommend Barton Wright’s fine book, Hopi Kachinas. There are many other books on kachinas; some approach the subject in great detail, while others primarily show pictures. It is a fascinating subject.

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Caring For Your Jewelry

Jewelry Care

Exercise care in protecting your investment and your selection of authentic Indian jewelry will bring you enjoyment for years to come.

Turquoise. Turquoise is a porous stone. In even the hardest turquoise, deposits collecting in the pores of the stone can cause a color change. Therefore, care should be taken to protect the stones from oils, grease and chemicals. Always remove rings and bracelets before washing dishes or doing dirty work. Hand lotion can change the color of a stone. In addition, it is wise to avoid the use of chemical silver polishes with Indian jewelry that includes stones or has intentionally oxidized areas as part of its design.

Other Stones & Settings. The same care should also be taken with other stones (including coral, spiny oyster, etc) in Native American jewelry, as liquids can affect the setting and cause stones to loosen.

Coral. Coral should never be subjected to liquid cleaning solvents or extreme heat — it can turn white.

Polishing & Cleaning

Polishing Cloth. You will want to polish your jewelry using a soft jeweler’s cloth (found in hardware stores, jewelry stores and Bed, Bath & Beyond). When not in use, storing in a zip lock bag can help delay tarnishing. Silver tarnishes less with frequent wearing. You can also add a piece of anti-tarnish paper/strip to your jewelry box or in zip lock bag with the jewelry. 3M and Intercept make affordable products for this. Intercept sells 100 1”x1” tabs for a very reasonable price; as they should be replaced every 12 months or so, this comes in handy!  Visit interceptjewelrycare.com for more info.

Remember to touch up your jewelry with a polishing cloth after each wear, especially if planning to store for a while afterwards.

Electrolytic Cleaning Plate. We tried this ourselves, and found it really does work. That said, the rules about stones, settings and liquids still apply, however, this is a great solution for restoring tarnished silver chain, liquid silver, or any other silver-only piece (except those with oxidization or antiquing as part of the design) or silver-plated item that is beyond what a polishing cloth can do. We tried the Silver Lion plate with Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda on some old chain and scrap metals that appeared beyond hope and were surprised at how well it worked. Note that the water needs to be very HOT. We used boiling water in our experiment, and noted that once the water cooled, the process stopped working. You can find various brands of Electrolytic Cleaning Plates on the web (Amazon, etc.). Be sure to follow the instructions that come with the plate.

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The History of American Indian Jewelry

An article by Lee Anderson

“Indian jewelry,” as we call it today, probably has origins that predate the advent of the persons we describe as American Indians or Native Americans. However, for the purpose of this paper, we will consider prehistoric man as prehistoric Indian. Archeological evidence shows us that stones (including turquoise), shells, and fetishes predate the Christian (epoch). Turquoise found in Hohokam excavations in southern Arizona dates back to 200 B.C. Likewise, turquoise from central Mexico dates back to about 600–700 B.C.; from South America, ca. 900 B.C. Other beads are even earlier. Since Indian jewelry and turquoise are so closely associated, this paper will discuss both.

Turquoise, as a mineral deposit, is isolated to a rather limited geographical area in the Southwestern U.S. Some — very little — is found in Mexico, and there are some deposits in western South America. We will concentrate on that found in the U.S.

Prehistoric Indians mined turquoise and turned it into jewelry — primarily drilled beads and other hanging ornaments. However, archeological findings include appliqué on shell and other rock, which means that turquoise was probably used with wood for ear decoration as well (the wood would have deteriorated). Extensive evidence of prehistoric mining operations has been found in several areas: the Cerillos and Burro Mountain regions of New Mexico, the Kingman and Morenci regions of Arizona, and the Conejos area of Colorado. Turquoise jewelry found in southern Mexico and in excavated mounds east of the Mississippi has been identified as originating from New Mexico’s Cerillos mining area. This article focuses on Southwestern mining localities.

Turquoise has been dominant in jewelry finds; for example, several thousand pieces were found in Chaco Canyon. However, it is not the only important jewelry find. The spiny oyster shell Spondylus princeps originates in only one area of the Western Hemisphere — off the coast of Baja California. This shell has been found in abundance in archeological excavations of the Anasazi, Mogollon, and Hohokam of the desert Southwest. It has also been found in the same eastern mound excavations where turquoise was found. These finds not only prove early and prehistoric man’s interest in, and use of, jewelry, but it reveals important economic information. It shows the existence of trading in his lifestyle. It also provides a glimpse into probable status levels of these people.

One might argue that this historical context has little to do with the development of Indian jewelry as we know it. However, as some (the Hopi and Pueblo cultures of the Rio Grande) are indeed descendants of the Anasazi and, as many believe, from the Mogollon and Mimbres. So it seems to be a valid beginning of a historic tracing. The Navajo, on the other hand, entered the area fairly recently — some say as early as the 14th century; others, as late as the early 16th. The Navajo, whenever they arrived, were undoubtedly influenced by the existing Pueblo cultures and (later) the early Spanish. As we will see, the Navajo were instrumental in spreading this craft to other Southwest tribes.

The Navajo were nomadic within their Dinetah or homeland. They were farmers only to the extent of planting a crop, leaving it to the vagaries of the weather, and eventually returning to reap the harvest, if any. They and their Apache cousins could be likened to the early Mongols of the 12th and 13th centuries. They not only raided but also took, kept, and developed whatever suited them. Beaded necklaces (a symbol of prestige), decorated “ketoh” (bow guards), and concha/concho likely originated from their most frequent conquests, the Spanish and their Pueblo neighbors.

The Navajo were in constant contact — sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly — with the Spanish as they populated the Southwest from the late 16th century on. From these people, the Indians developed a great appreciation for personal adornment. Some of the early Spanish designs such as the Moorish inspired crescent and the pomegranate blossom became key to Navajo jewelry design. This is discussed later in the section on the origin of the Squash Blossom necklace.

In time, the Spanish became dominant in the area. Although raids continued into the 19th century, the period was better described as one of “suspicious-cautious coexistence.” It was a 200-plus-year period of close association and sharing of the best of several cultures. The Navajo wore ornaments they obtained from those they conquered and from their trading partners. These ornaments were made from German silver (a copper-nickel-zinc substance that was bright and wore well), copper, brass and to a much lesser extent, silver. They learned to appreciate and hold dear the symbols of their prowess or their wealth. The early Navajos’ wearing a cross or the crescent-shaped naja on a rawhide necklace was likely an ornament of beauty and pride, not a reflection of their appreciation for Christianity or for the Moorish influence on the Spanish. If one person had such an ornament, others wanted one —if possible, something even better. Thus the pendant cross evolved, as did the naja, into a multitude of variations and blends. The simple thong on which they were displayed gave way to stone, shell, silver, or other metal beads.

The studies vary regarding the actual date that the Navajo began making silver jewelry. The two best works are by John Adair; subsequent research and writings are by Carl Rosnek and Joseph Stacy (see suggested reading list). All seem to agree that Atsidi Sani (“Old Smith”) was the accepted first Navajo silversmith. He learned the blacksmith trade in the early 1850s and possibly even dabbled in silver in the early 1860s.

After much warfare, the Navajo were captured by the U.S. Cavalry and marched into captivity in 1864. Approximately 8000, including Atsidi Sani, were sent to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, where they were weaned from a nomadic, warlike lifestyle and taught to be farmers. The experiment failed and in 1868 they were returned to the Four Corners area, the Dinetah. Although many accept 1868, including the great Navajo leader of the time, Chee Dodge, as the year Atsidi Sani learned silver making, some evidence suggests that this is not wholly correct. Major Henry Wallen, the Commandant of Fort Sumner in 1864, made the tantalizing comment, “Some of them are quite clever as silversmiths.” Of course he may have mistaken German silver for real silver. In any event, Atsidi Sani wears the mantle as the first Navajo silversmith.

The early Navajo silver work concentrated on concha (concho) belts, bracelets, bow guards, tobacco flasks and necklaces. Rings, earrings, pins, hair ornaments, buckles and bolos evolved from these. A full line of silver jewelry existed throughout the reservation by the 1880s.

The earliest Navajo work consisted of hammered work with file decoration. Turquoise, a very popular and much respected stone by the Navajo, appeared in silver jewelry around 1880. It is important to note that turquoise, as a jewelry item, had existed for centuries. It had been used in combination with other stones, shells, and metals long before 1880. However, the early Indians glued or otherwise attached the turquoise to the stone, shell or metal. It is known that Mexican silversmiths (plateros) toured the pueblos and Navajo enclaves in the early to mid 1800s selling and trading silver jewelry for Indian products. This is the likely origin of silver ornamentation in the Indian possession prior to about 1860. It is fairly certain that there was no indigenous Navajo or pueblo silver industry.

Early Navajo smiths used Mexican and U.S. coins for their silver. Often, if they were given a special order from a trader, local rancher, or businessman, they would receive silver in the form of candlesticks, tea pots, etc. to melt for their work. The Navajo preferred to use melted Mexican silver coins because they were easiest to work (.90275 fine). The next preferable source was whatever sterling silver was available (.9025 fine). Least desirable, but most available and durable, was silver from melted U.S. coins (.900 fine). In 1890, the U.S. made it unlawful to melt or deface (by soldering on hooks, eyes, jump rings or by “doming”) coins for beads. However, this was difficult to enforce, and U.S. coinage continued to be used in the developing Navajo silver industry. Now that there was a demand for materials and tools, the reservation traders began to stock many of the needed items. Although the Navajo were able to make flux from native materials, the commercial flux was superior. Likewise, commercial cutting, grinding, and fine polishing tools were more desirable than homemade ones. This was the beginning of a new economy involving the Indians, traders, and eastern suppliers.

Very shortly after Atsidi Sani began silversmithing, the craft spread across the area. He taught his sons and they taught others. The craft appeared in Zuni around 1872. Atsidi Chon (Ugly Smith) taught his close Zuni friend, Lanyade, the skills. The Zuni were already skilled in metalworking, making items in copper, brass, and iron. Research shows that a forge existed in Zuni in 1852. It is reported (see Rosneck and Stacy) that Lanyade paid Atsidi Chon “one good horse” for his instruction.

Lanyade learned the trade well. He began touring the various pueblos selling his jewelry. While on Hopi First Mesa at Sichomovi, he taught the first Hopi silversmith, Sikyatala, the skills. Since Lanyade was taught by a Navajo and the Hopi were taught by Lanyade, all the jewelry of the period was Navajo in style. As a side note, this is why provenance (history of origin-ownership) is so important for 19th century jewelry in properly identifying its origin. It’s too easy to say that because it looks like Navajo work it is therefore of Navajo origin.

During these early years, the use of solder was learned and developed, as was the skills of making silver dies. Soldering permitted the artistic and permanent joining of two or more metal pieces, resulting in a multitude of design possibilities and the ability to set stones. Die making was probably adopted from the many leather tooling dies used by Spanish, Mexican, and later Indians, to work both leather and tin.

As the years progressed, the styles that were basically of Navajo origin were gradually modified by their pueblo students. For example, the Zuni, since prehistoric times, were excellent lapidaries. These skills slowly changed their work to the fine and channel inlay we now associate with them. However, the Hopi change occurred a bit more abruptly. In 1938, the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona, working with Hopi silversmiths Paul Saufkie and Fred Kabote, began a program of developing a style that was exclusively Hopi. The work was interrupted by World War II. Following the war, a government grant helped a silversmith training program with the Hopi Guild. The “overlay” technique they created involved the cutting of designs in a heavy gauge silver sheet and then soldering this to a solid silver sheet. The designs were usually adapted from the pottery shards found in the Sikyatki Pueblo ruins of the 15th and 16th centuries. These pre-Hopi designs were mostly bird motifs. The Hopi Guild also used kachina symbols, animal and clan motifs.

Today’s Indian silversmiths are, in many cases, also goldsmiths and lapidaries. They cross tribal design boundaries with will and abandon. No longer can you look at a piece and say, “It’s Zuni style so it must be Zuni-made.” The artist of today may incorporate into a single piece all the styles available, plus his or her own innovation. Indian jewelry today transcends tribal styles.

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.

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The Squash Blossom Necklace

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.

Early Influences

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.

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Turquoise in Indian Jewelry

An article by Lee Anderson

Turquoise has been native to jewelry in the Southwest for over 2000 years. Then, as now, the stone was deeply appreciated and revered. No doubt, the prehistoric Indians and the ancestors of our current Native Americans ascribed a multitude of properties to this stone.

Pima of Southern Arizona

According to the Pima, turquoise was a talisman of good fortune and strength to renounce ailments. However, if you lost a turquoise you would be afflicted by a physical ailment treatable only by a Medicine Man.

Zuni

The Zuni believed the blue turquoise was male and of the sky, and that green was female and of the earth. Most Zuni fetishes were either made of turquoise or had turquoise properties such as eyes, mouths, or attachments of turquoise, to give it more power. Turquoise was powerful and important to most early ceremonials.

Rio Grande Pueblos

Most Rio Grande Pueblos believed that turquoise color was stolen from the sky and preserved in stone. Their most precious idols were adorned with turquoise. They also use turquoise for good fortune

Hopi

The Hopi have many traditions regarding turquoise. They, like their Rio Grande Pueblo and Zuni contemporaries, adorn their most important fetishes with turquoise to enhance their powers. In one legend, turquoise is the excrement of lizards, an animal that is greatly respected for his above- and below-world connections. The Hopi believed that turquoise can hold back floods, a common problem in the desert Southwest.

Apache

The Apache felt attaching turquoise to a gun or a bow will cause the weapon to shoot straight. It brought rain and could be found at the end of all rainbows. It was key to the strength of their medicine men.

Navajo

Wearing turquoise brings good fortune and insures favor with the Yeis, who mediate between man and the supernatural. When thrown into a river with the proper ceremonies, turquoise will help bring rain. Turquoise is offered to the Wind Spirit to appease him; the Navajo myth is that when the wind is blowing, it is searching for turquoise. The Navajo carve fetishes out of turquoise for increased powers and fortunes. Turquoise is the sacred stone and color of the south and the upper world. The “Sacred Mountain of the South,” Mt. Taylor near Grants, New Mexico, is made from a mixture of turquoise and earth. The mountains are inhabited by Turquoise Girl. Suffice to say, turquoise plays many roles in of their healing ceremonies and sand paintings.

The Southwestern Indians use an abundance of turquoise in their jewelry. Some of the turquoise is of exceptional quality and some is not even turquoise. Most range between these extremes.

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.

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How the Quality of Turquoise Affects Its Use in Jewelry

An article by Lee Anderson

What is the best turquoise for jewelry? The answer is, “it depends on the type of jewelry you desire.”

Gem Grade and Rare

If the piece is to be one-of-a-kind, competition, top-investment-quality, the turquoise should be gem grade and rare. The stone should compliment the artist and the gold or silver work. The cost can exceed $40 per carat.

Gem Grade

Very high quality jewelry, also suitable for investment, requires gem-grade turquoise — but not necessarily rare stones. Such stones are beautiful but not as costly ($10 to $20 per carat). They are equal to one-of-a-kind stones in every respect but one — rarity. A breathtakingly beautiful spider web cabochon of Chinese or Tibetan turquoise can cost considerably less than a gem-quality piece of Lander or Lone Mountain turquoise, for example.

Very High  to High Grade

In some cases, the goal is to produce, in quantity, high-quality jewelry at a price that the top 25 percent of the market can readily afford. For this goal, a very-high-grade to high-grade turquoise, properly selected for color, matrix balance, etc., is appropriate. This turquoise should cost about $5 to $7 per carat.

Jewelry Quality, High Quality, and Investment Quality

Most natural turquoise jewelry is made from stones classified as jewelry, high, and investment quality. These stones are good, they have nice luster, but they are not hard enough to preclude long-term color change. They are too good to stabilize and should please nearly everyone. Their cost will be $2 to $5 per carat.

Good Quality (Stabilized)

Jewelry made from many matched cabochons or pieces of inlay nearly always uses good quality turquoise that is stabilized so the color will not change. A beautiful inlay or needle-point necklace will loose its appeal if the turquoise near the wearer’s neck begins turning green while the remainder remains sky blue. This color change may occur as the turquoise absorbs skin oils. Good, stabilized turquoise is usually sold by the pound since so much is wasted in cutting and grinding. In this case, the value of the turquoise is simply part of the value of the artwork and overall material cost for the piece.

Good to Average, Mine Run, and Stock Qualities (Stabilized)

These stones are used for carving and craft shop jewelry. By and large, this is an extremely valuable area economically. It is estimated that over 70 percent of Indian craftspersons, either individually or as shop workers, use this type turquoise. The result is a beautifully balanced piece that is priced remarkably low for the craftsmanship involved. This is the quality of turquoise that created the Indian jewelry market as we know it today. This stone typically sells for approximately $80 per troy pound, but better color can double this cost.

Low Quality (Stabilized)

The lowest qualities —chalk, chip stock, and bulk — must be stabilized to be used. Often this turquoise is “color shot”— in other words, artificially colored. Much of it is used for assembly-line manufacturing, machine stamped work, etc. It, too, has a place in the market: It is sterling silver, it is turquoise, and it portrays the “Santa Fe look” at a remarkably low price. Many collectors get their start here; they like the look and become interested in the whole field. As they learn more, their tastes change, almost always upward. This type of turquoise costs $20 to $30 a pound.

Fake and Synthetic

This turquoise is often found in “Indian” jewelry made overseas. It, too, is available in the U.S., and is used by some Indians. It has a place in the market also, as long as you view it from the standpoint of art and craftsmanship. Look at the jewelry as you would a painting. Don’t look for material value…only the value of the art…the creation. Fake and synthetic turquoise costs about the same as chip stock or bulk stabilized turquoise.

As you can see, turquoise values range dramatically, and it’s not always easy to apply a value… even though it is easy to establish a cost. In other words, value often exceeds cost because of the artwork and craftsmanship involved. Sometimes we must view turquoise in the same way we view an oil painting. The individual components have little or no value individually, but as a whole, the artwork has significant value.

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.

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Stones Used In American Indian Jewelry

An article by Lee Anderson

This article explores stones (other than turquoise) that are commonly used in Indian jewelry: coral, sugilite, charoite, and gaspeite. To learn more about turquoise, read Lee Anderson’s articles.

Coral

Created by colonies of the marine coral polyp, coral is a calcium carbonate combined with magnesium. Originally, the best red coral came from the Mediterranean, but pollution and over-harvesting has greatly reduced that source. Today, most top-quality intense red coral comes from the Sea of Japan. It is sometimes referred to as “Mora coral.” Generally, the deeper the color, the higher the value, although this axiom must be tempered by the presence, if any, of impurities, holes, fissures, etc. Also, the pink-colored, delicate “angel skin” coral and creamy orange coral have become popular; the highest grades are also expensive.

The highest grades of “ox blood” (intense red) coral can easily be $80 per carat and higher for rarer, large pieces. Coral should never be subjected to liquid cleaning solvents or extreme heat. It can turn white.

Sugilite

An alkali of iron, aluminum, manganese, lithium, and water, sugilite ranges from a yellow-brown in Japan to a beautiful, deep purple in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa. The African sugilite is used in jewelry. Sugilite has been registered under the trade names Royal Azul and Royal Lavulite. This stone ranges from an attractive light purple with deeper purple inclusions to a gem-grade that can best be described as solid “grape jelly.” Values range from a few dollars per carat for the lighter shades to $80 a carat for the stones with the deepest and purest color. Also, like coral, larger cabachons of the highest grade are quite scarce and prices for these are even higher.

Note that sugilite looks like the beautiful (and also purple) spiny oyster shell Spondylous princips. A magnifying glass will reveal “lines” in the spiny oyster shell specimen. Also, a scratch test with a needle or sharp knife will easily be seen on spiny oyster shell, but not on sugilite. Sugilite can also be confused with charoite, discussed below.

Charoite

This popular purple stone is only found near the Chara River in eastern Siberia. It is a calcium-potassium-silicate found with deposits of tinaksite (orange), augite (black), and feldspar (white). The range of color is extensive. When prepared in jewelry-ready cabachons, a deep “glittering” crystalline effect is noticeable. This stone is quite lovely in all its manifestations but becomes more valuable as the deeper purple intensifies. It also becomes increasingly dominant in the cabachon. The stone was first discovered and considered for jewelry use in 1976. It is still rather inexpensive, ranging from $2 to $4 to as much as $20 per carat for the deeper colors. This too will change as more jewelers begin to see its beauty. In this regard, Indian silversmiths such as Bruce Hodgins are taking a leading role.

Gaspeite

This light, very soft and pleasing, green stone is a nickel carbonate colored by iron and magnesium. It is found on the Gaspe’ Peninsula in Canada; hence, the name. Most, however, is mined as a byproduct of nickel mines in western Australia. Gaspeite is similar in hue to Pixie and Damale turquoise and to a recent shade of green from the Carico Lake turquoise mine in Lander County, Nevada. Also, some shades of varasite are quite similar to gaspeite. The stone is used as a cabachon in jewelry and as attractive color accents in silver, gold, and channel inlay. Its value is, at the moment, fairly uniform at about $5 to $8 a carat. This will undoubtedly increase.

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.

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The History of Turquoise

An article by Lee Anderson

Although turquoise has captivated man’s imagination for centuries, nobody knows when it came to our attention. Archeological and literary references to the stone predate the Christian era by five millennia. The four bracelets of Queen Zar, found on her mummified arm, date back to the second ruler of the Egypt’s First Dynasty, approximately 5500 B.C. Although not specifically mentioned in the Bible, scholars believe that the robe worn by the high priest Aaron was adorned with turquoise. Aristotle, Pliny, and others refer to stones that must have been turquoise. After the 4th or 5th century A.D., many of the writings that appeared discussed the stone.

Explorers such as Marco Polo took time to write about it.

Turquoise was likely found and used by early man. Certainly, the prehistoric peoples of the Western hemisphere knew about turquoise; pieces have been found in burial and archeological sites throughout the two continents. The Anasazi and Hohokam mined turquoise throughout our Southwest. There is absolute evidence that these prehistoric people mined turquoise at Cerillos and the Burro Mountains of New Mexico, Kingman and Morenci in Arizona, and the Conejos areas of Colorado. It’s apparent that turquoise was a popular trade item, as so much has been found in archeological sites many hundreds of miles away from sources. A prime example is the Cerillos, New Mexico, turquoise found with the Aztecs.

It seems clear that turquoise was always considered a stone of life and good fortune and it even had healing properties. Many people from around the world found uses for turquoise in numerous ways.

Egypt. The earliest known use of turquoise and the first mines on the Sinai occurred during this civilization. The ancient Egyptians believed it had mystical powers and used it in art, figures, and ornaments such as Queen Zar’s jewelry (5500 B.C).

Persia. The legendary home of the world’s finest turquoise is the mines at Nishapur. Turquoise became a major trade and barter item for the early Persians. Persian turquoise was found in ancient graves in Turkistan and, in the 1st to 3rd century A.D., in graves throughout Caucausus. Persian stones were much coveted in Afghanistan and as far north as Siberia. It was used in art, medicine, and in jewelry in India.

Tibet. This country also has its own source of turquoise — usually a green cast, very hard stone with a significant amount of spider webbing. Turquoise was a highly revered item to Tibetans, who ranked them in six grades, the most expensive valued well above gold. Every Tibetan wore or carried a piece of turquoise throughout life. Turquoise was used for currency in many areas of Tibet.

Mongolia. The Mongols’ knowledge of turquoise likely came from Tibet and China. It became immensely popular.

China. The history of turquoise in China dates back to the 13th century A.D. Although mining did exist, most stone came from trade with the Persians, Turks, Tibetans, and the Mongols. Much Chinese turquoise was used for carving and for creating other art and decorative items. It never became a precious stone for the Chinese (unlike jade, for example).

Japan. Turquoise was unknown until the 18th century in Japan.

Europe. Although turquoise was unimportant in early and medieval Europe, it became popular during and following the Renaissance. As Asian conquests of, and incursions into, Europe occurred, the European’s familiarity with turquoise increased.

North and South America. As mentioned earlier, turquoise was a very important item to the early inhabitants of North and South America. The stone was used in religion, art, trade, treaty negotiations, and jewelry. It was considered by some to be associated with life itself.

Turquoise has also been used for medical purposes. These uses varied from land to land and from age to age. Some thought it could prevent injury through accident, prevent blindness (by placing perfect stones over the eyes or ground into a salve) and cure stomach disorders, internal bleeding, and stings from snakes and scorpions, when ingested as a powder. Turquoise also found its way into the mystic arts. Its color could forecast good or bad, predict the weather, and influence dreams. It was good for nearly every ailment —including insanity. As a good luck talisman, it found usage in nearly every culture.

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.

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