Culture

The tribes and trails of Arizona’s turquoise

Posted 11/30/21

The vast amount of turquoise encased at local Native American vendors in Old Town Scottsdale have a rich history behind the glass, not just in how the jewelry came to be, but what the stone …

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Culture

The tribes and trails of Arizona’s turquoise

Young women wear turquoise jewelry in a previous Parada del Sol parade in Old Town Scottsdale. The turquoise stone carries sentimental value, that can change tribe by tribe.
Young women wear turquoise jewelry in a previous Parada del Sol parade in Old Town Scottsdale. The turquoise stone carries sentimental value, that can change tribe by tribe.
(Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)
Posted

The vast amount of turquoise encased at local Native American vendors in Old Town Scottsdale have a rich history behind the glass, not just in how the jewelry came to be, but what the stone represents to different tribes in the area.

However, for the most part, it’s not the Native American tribes buying the stone as much as they are selling it.

A total of 22 tribes are recognized in Arizona by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including local tribes — Navajo, Zuni and O’odham. Unbeknown to most, the sentimental value of these stones between the tribes are not the same.

For example, the Navajo commonly symbolize turquoise with good health, good luck and protection from evil. The Zuni believe turquoise signifies strength against demons, and the O’odham combine the two.

“It’s a universal stone,” said Marcus Monenerkit, community engagement director at the Heard Museum. “You can find it all over the world. The Navajo wear it because it’s how they get identified by the gods.”

Turquoise mines are not unique to the Southwestern states. According to Turquoise Unearthed by Joe Dan Lowry, Mexico, Iran and Egypt are also known for turquoise mining.

China also represents approximately half to the world’s turquoise production, despite Arizona holding the highest quality, according to Lowry.

Outside of authoring, Lowry established and curates the Turquoise Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his family has been involved in the turquoise trade for five generations.

The market for turquoise has differing intentional benefits. According to Lowry, China is sought after for its abundance of mines, Iran has the oldest turquoise mines, Egypt is known for its unique stone variations, and Mexico for proximity.

Autriya Maneshni, a resident who was born in Iran, states that for her culture, it “associates the blue color with good omens. So we wear the jewelry typically to repel the bad omens that come near us, sort of how the evil eye works.”

But aside from obvious visual differences like matrix (the earthy webbing on turquoise), how do Scottsdale consumers estimate what they’re buying?

There are fundamental factors specific to turquoise like craftsmanship, matrix and how the stone is cut that affect the price.

There are also more invisible factors including how knowledgeable the seller is about their product and if the product is as advertised.

“[There is a] lack of knowledge about how much of an impact the arts have for the communities,” Monenerkit stated.

While gathering information for this story, several different Native American-based stores were not able to provide information on where their products like turquoise rings and straw baskets came from.

This can be viewed as a “red flag,” sources say, for store owners to not be able to identify where their inventory originates.

There’s also a counterfeiting issue.

“People try to forge and fake Indian artwork since they’ve been coming in contact with each other,” Monenerkit said. “That happens a lot and it can be damaging to real Native Americans in their art form.”

Art consultant Adillae Banks states that she has the benefit of working at a place where she is in continual contact with suppliers and artists.

“Every business is meant to make a profit, but you can do that while being honest,” Banks said.

Banks works at the RC Gorman Navajo Gallery, which features Native-made turquoise in the center of the gallery. It’s also named after late Navajo artist Rudolph Carl Gorman, the second-highest producing painter, right behind Pablo Picasso.

Banks stated “there are two types of buyers in turquoise: those who buy the stone for its quality, rarity and specifics, and those who just buy jewelry.”

The richness of a stone’s history and who it came from also plays a part in how it’s sold, says Jackie Michael, general manager at Albert’s Diamond Jewelers.

What determines that richness, however, depends on how knowledgeable the stone’s seller is and how much of that history is known.

“You’re selling something that people don’t need. There’s a mystique around jewelry, something that sells it,” Michael stated.

Turquoise transactions in Scottsdale represent the dissonance between Native American Indian culture and modern American consumer culture. The purpose of Native American Heritage month is to spread awareness of these traditions, even if the world around them moves at a faster, more monetary pace.

Editor’s Note: Scott Daniels is a student journalist at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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