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Roger Weller, geology instructor

Aimee I. Tranfaglia
Physical Geology
Fall 2007


Use of Turquoise by Indians



Turquoise is hydrated copper and aluminum phosphate [CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8×4H2O] that is extensively used as a gemstone. Turquoise is a secondary mineral deposited from circulating waters, and it occurs chiefly in arid environments as blue to greenish, waxy veinlets in alumina-rich, weathered, volcanic, or sedimentary rocks. (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2007, pg. 1)  Isolated patches exist in north-central Mexico, but large belts of turquoise lie in Arizona, New Mexico, and California. 


Map of turquoise mining in the Southwest United States




Many complex geologic events must occur in a synchronized pattern to create one vein of turquoise.  Because many events must be synchronized to create turquoise, the mineral can be seen as an accident or fluke of nature. Turquoise is the rare product of an immense number of chemical and physical processes that have occurred over time.  These processes must occur at the appropriate place and in the proper combination and environment over a period of millions of years. Turquoise holds a prominent role in the cultures and history of Indians in the Americas. 

Turquoise “Robin’s egg”


In the Americas, the Pueblo, Navajo, Anasazi, Hohokam, Aztec, Inca, Zuni, and Maya are some of the Southwestern Indian cultures who valued turquoise for its many uses.  The Anasazi and Hohokam mined turquoise throughout the Southwestern United States.  Turquoise was a popular item traded by local peoples and has been discovered in archeological sites hundreds of miles from the original source of the mineral. 



Indian face and headdress with turquoise inlay

The Anasazi began to mine for turquoise around 1000 AD and established vast and complex trading routes with the people of Central and South America. These mines were located in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Mayan ruins as far away as Honduras contained jewelry with stones mined from the fabled Cerrillos Hills along the Turquoise Trail in New Mexico.  Apaches often traded for turquoise with the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest.   Cultures of the American Southwest began to use turquoise as currency in the 16th century.


Indian woman selling turquoise in a market


Historically, turquoise has been used as an important source of trade for food, clothing, livestock, or for use as a body adornment and for medicinal purposes.  Apaches offered slaves, animal hides, flint, and shells to trade for pottery, agricultural products, textiles, and turquoise with Pueblo Indians. The Pecos Indians served at intermediaries between the Apache and Pueblo Indians.  The Pueblo Indians became economically powerful as a result of turquoise and the trade that developed.  Pueblo Indians also traded with the Spaniards and Comanche's for buffalo products, alibates flint for cutting tools, and slaves. 

Turquoise Buffalo 


Turquoise has also been used for medicinal purposes. Some shaman believed that turquoise could prevent accidental injury; prevent blindness by placing perfect stones over the patient’s eyes, and cure stomach pains and disorders, and internal bleeding by eating ground turquoise.   Ground turquoise was also used to treat the bites and stings from animals within the environment such as snakes and scorpions.  Excavation of Central American burial grounds dated to 500 BC found teeth that were decorated with turquoise. This tooth decoration was a tribute to early dentistry and illustrated a new method of adornment for the indigenous people.  Ancient Indian cultures also made jewelry from the turquoise stones.  The ancient turquoise jewelry of the Zuni tribes is characterized by prominent insets of the mineral. Other cultures used differing methods to create jewelry and the Navajo turquoise jewelry features designs that were die-stamped.


Turquoise inlaid mask 

Turquoise found its way into the mystic arts. Indigenous people believed that the stone’s color could forecast the outcome of an event as good or bad, the stone could predict weather, and influence dreams.  Aztecs viewed turquoise as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.  Ancient Southwestern Indian cultures believed turquoise was helpful for nearly every injury and illness.   One Navajo belief is that a piece of turquoise cast into a body of water, followed with a prayer to the rain god, will result in rainfall.   A common Southwestern Indian belief was that a fine turquoise stone was hidden in the damp ground at the end of the rainbow.  Most Southwestern Indian culture has used turquoise stones as fetishes and good luck talisman.   Since the fourteenth century, Indians have decorated the harnesses of domesticated animals to protect the animal and the owner from injuries.  Turquoise evolved through the millennia and became objects from which jewelry was created. 


Turquoise Talisman

Southwestern Indians began the jewelry business in the mid 1800's. This revolution came at a time when the Indians were held captive on reservations in the American Southwest and it became obvious that the people needed a way to support themselves.  The idea of creating jewelry became a solution and the development of a cottage industry established roots.  The Indians were used to creating jewelry with silver and the addition of turquoise was a natural combination.  Turquoise has been important to Southwestern Indian cultures throughout the centuries for the perceived medicinal value, as a mystical artifact, and as an important source of trade.  Today, Southwestern Indians still rely on turquoise as a source of income and many Indian communities on reservations create jewelry from turquoise as a source of income.



Modern Indian jewelry made from turquoise