Witness Post: Squash Blossom
Kathleen Hooper surprised us and bought four tickets to the John Mayer concert at the Clark County Amphitheater in Vancouver, Washington on July 17, 2013.
She invited Mollie Moore, a good family friend, to be with us for dinner and the concert that night. Although Mayer is still recovering slowly from throat surgery, he sounded strong and controlled. He did not strain his voice in ways that would jeopardize his vocal chords. He may have transposed some of the songs in lower keys to accommodate his throat, but to us Mayer’s voice sounded emotional, connected and full of vitality. We were all blown away by his pure musicality and soaring guitar riffs. In short he was FANTASTIC.
John Mayer came back on stage for some great curtain calls, including his hit album, Gravity. He was respectful and professional in every way. He thanked the audience profusely and applauded our loyalty and staying power after all these years. Tracy and I had missed his last concert in the area (2007), due to some crisis at work at the time, so we felt it was also our reprieve. What a blessing for us to hear him live and in person this time.
John Mayer and his set crew, while seeming very fresh and new, must revere the very old. The magical backdrop to his stage filled the amphitheater with images of either Arches National Park or Monument Valley or other distinctive places in the Four Corners States. The mesas and buttes were superimposed in alternating patterns with a light show of the Aurora Borealis and the Milky Way and a magnificent sunset. These monuments are a “fur piece” from Mayer’s New England roots. The “Born and Raised World Tour” concert confirms, therefore, that while born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mayer feels he was raised in other parts of this country, including the American Southwest.
At the start of the night my wife, Tracy, pointed out that John looked so sexy in his jeans, white t-shirt, long blue bandanna and a mid-chest Squash Blossom necklace. Really? I was wearing a studly black hat at the time, so I was feeling a little deflated when Tracy talked about Mayer’s cool attire.
But WAIT! Aren’t Indian Squash Blossom necklaces for women?
Navajo women are often seen wearing silver bracelets, concho belts, silver hairpins, and long strings of beads. They also wear silver chains overlapped by Squash Blossom necklaces around their necks. I had never seen a man wearing one. The Squash Blossom necklaces are signs of fertility and rebirth, which pointed clearly to the mother. I bought Tracy a lovely antique Squash Blossom necklace, when we were in Taos, New Mexico one summer. However, upon further reflection, men are a vital part of the fertility process as well, right? Why should women be the only ones allowed to wear that bold and symbolic necklace?
At home and after some some research, I discovered that lots of American Indian men have worn Squash Blossom necklaces over the decades. My investigation revealed some interesting notions that provide the backdrop for this Witness Post.
Witness Post: Squash Blossom Necklace
One of the most characteristic Indian jewelry designs in the Southwest is the Squash Blossom. It has been around for over a century, having its roots in the European countries whose soldiers arrived in the 18th and 19th century. The earliest of these necklaces were worn by the Navajo, who made them from silver that they melted down from coins. The oldest designs were of a simple silver necklace with symmetrical blossoms adorning each side and the crescent-shaped “Naja” in the middle, at the lowest point of the necklace. Not all Squash Blossom necklaces have a classic Naja, but most of them have some central amulet for visual focus and interest.
Three examples of Squash Blossom Necklaces
No one seems to know where the name “squash blossom” came from. The Navajo name for the necklace doesn’t mean squash blossom, nor does it translate as squash blossom in any other native language.
The name may have been mistranslated by the English or Spanish interpreters, because anyone who has examined a flowering squash would deny that the necklace resembles the blossoming vegetable; however, the name has stuck and become woven into the fabric of the jewelry, the land and the people.
The Zuni Indians introduced stones to the necklace, particularly turquoise in fine silver bezels. The turquoise inlay patterns have been incorporated in many of the modern examples of the jewelry.
Introduction of Turquoise Stones – Zuni inlay (above)
Navajo sand-cast design (below)
The necklace I bought Tracy in Taos is old. Although we bought it through a reputable jeweler, it probably came into our possession through a pawn shop. The Navajo people often have a hard time getting “consumer credit” with which to buy items they need for their families. They often take their family jewels to pawn brokers who loan them money, at usurious interest rates, while holding the jewels as collateral. The Indians pay off the debts over time and get the jewelry back with the last payment. Sometimes they cannot make the payments on time and the brokers claim the jewelry (called dead pawn) as his final payment. The brokers are then free to sell the jewelry to whomever they want. Many of the old pieces of Navajo jewelry have come back into circulation as dead pawn.
Tracy Hooper’s Squash Blossom Necklace
The Naja Pendant
For thousands of years, people all over the world have used similar symbols to represent forces they feel guide their lives. The inverted crescent is one of those symbols. The crescent is mentioned in the Bible (Book of Judges) as an ornament worn around the necks of camels. In the Phoenician culture the goddess of fertility is represented by the inverted crescent as well. Similar symbols are found in ancient Roman and Cretan artifacts.
In the Middle Ages, when the Moors rode their horses from the East and conquered territory deep into Spain, the Iberian Peninsula adopted the symbol of the inverted crescent as a bridal ornament. The Muslim tradition (Maghrebine Berbers) said that the symbol protected the horse and rider from “the evil eye.” The subsequent generations of Spaniards who sailed to Central and South America brought the same crescent symbol with them to protect the soldiers and their horses. So it seems over time that the Moors taught the Spanish, who taught the Mexicans, who taught the Navajo about the semi-circular symbols and the Naja belief systems. 
The Naja became the headstall for Navajo horses, as they placed it in the front center band of the horse’s bridal. Many Navajo claim that the Naja is strictly ornamental and not symbolic of any religious or deity worship. Whatever its meaning or purpose, the inverted crescent became more and more visible in the Navajo artwork, as it appears in their sandpaintings, rug weaving and necklaces.
The Navajo also carried forward the art of metallurgy.
The Navajo were not the first, nor the only Native Americans, to be successful as silversmiths, but they are perhaps the best known. The Navajo learned the art and perfected it to an extraordinary level. One possible reason the Navajo reached such high art may have been because of the silver itself. The Plains Indians were taught silversmithing by European men working with German silver, which has different mixtures of metals than Mexican silver, which was favored by the Navajo. 
The name German silver is really a misnomer, because although it looks like silver, it is actually a mixture of nickel, copper and zinc, making its alloy components physically different from Sterling silver. Mexican silver, on the other hand, is a higher quality metal as it comes from 92.5% to 95% pure silver, with 5% to 7.5% other metals, depending on the year it was formulated. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver, for example, because artisans have found silver that is more concentrated than 92.5% is very difficult to work with, as it is too soft to hold its stamped / molded / engraved patterns over time. 
Be-Ich-Schluck-Ich-In-Et-Tzuzzigi (Slender Silversmith)
“Metal Beater,” photo by George Ben Wittick (1883)
Perhaps the biggest advantage to the Navajo from adopting the art of silversmithing was that the workmanship allowed the men and women to move their culture away from a nomadic warrior society to a more stable merchant society. With the prestige of mercantilism, came wealth, power and influence. Silversmithing appears to be an important part of this cultural change.
Grandfather Tom Henio: Builder, Craftsman, & Jeweler
Grandfather Tom Henio, a revered Navajo jeweler, builder and craftsman, taught his sand-cast silversmith skills to hundreds of campers in New Mexico, through the summer Expeditions led by the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation. The Foundation helps promote camper creativity. Many of the campers flock to the Native American Workshop (NAW for short) to try their hand at art. The Workshop is located on the Base Camp south of Thoreau, New Mexico. The campers often finish making a leather strap, or an earring, or a pot, or a piece of silver jewelry; they are all important keepsake for their labors.
I was one of those fortunate students to witness Grandfather Henio at work with silver. He was a real artisan as he worked with his daughter, Gracie. For his silversmithing lesson, he guided us to the Gulch hogan and we walked into the east facing door and sat quietly while he worked. Gracie translated from Navajo to English for us and back again for her father. Grandfather Henio prepared to transform sandstone blocks and molten silver into a high art .
We watched while he etched the finishing touches on the Naja pendant in the stone. He smoothed out the inside and cut some air space tails or vents on the Naja, which allowed the air to escape and the silver to flow to the edges. He then carved a hole for pouring molten silver in the top, and clamped down another piece of stone and tightened them firmly together. He placed the clamped stones in the fire with the top hole facing up. The stones became white hot. Grandfather heated the silver in a metal crucible using a hand held bellows and it turned red as it reached the melting point. He slowly poured the molten liquid into the top hole.
Having made lots of silversmith mistakes, I know first hand that things can easily go awry. In this case the stones cracked when the silver was poured, but not enough to hurt the design. If done perfectly, an artist can sometimes reuse the stone for multiple metal imprints. In this case the stones could only be used once.
When cooled and filed, Grandfather Tom spent many hours polishing the Naja. When he felt it was ready, he attached the silver amulet to the rest of a Squash Blossom necklace. Later than summer he gave it as a special gift to one of his granddaughters, who was going through her Kinalda, or coming of age ceremony.
Thank you, John Mayer, for allowing us to see a “real man wearing a Squash Blossom necklace.” Never will I look at Navajo jewelry quite the same again. And thanks for honoring the Navajo Nation and its people, as well as the other Native American cultures of the Southwest, in your Born & Raised concert tour.
Have a great world trip!
With the advent of romance between John Mayer and singer-song writer, Katy Perry, it is interesting to watch the videos of the song, “Who You Love.” In the versions in the public domain, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSRCpertZn8 Katy Perry is the one who is wearing the squash blossom necklace…. Seems fitting.