5 Ways That Coral Plays a Role in Native American Life
Whether used alone or in combination with other valuable gems like turquoise, coral remains one of the iconic gemstones of Native American jewelry in the Southwest. Here’s a brief history, along with some of the mystical and traditional qualities behind this beautiful element.
Animal, or Mineral?
There is debate on whether coral is a living animal or mineral. That’s because it’s a living marine life species while in the sea, but once out of the water, it turns into a rocklike substance. The coral seen in the Southwest is mainly Red Mediterranean Branch Coral, but there are other types – pink coral from Italy, apple coral from Indonesia, and many more.
From the Sea and the Spanish to the Southwest
Native Americans of the Southwest were introduced to coral by the Spanish, who also brought items such as horses, sheep, wheat, and metalwork. For centuries, Native people had been fashioning beads from shells like spiny oyster, and the deep red Mediterranean coral quickly became a prized material, traded between the Spanish and various pueblos and the Navajo (Diné) people of the Southwest. Native Americans also consider the gem as a sign of wealth and status because of its expense and rarity. Since coral was very pricey then (and still is), it is worn by wealthy individuals, medicine men, and elders. And of course, the darker the red, the better!
Coral Used in Many Ways
Originally, the coral that was imported was in the form of shaped beads mostly used for rosaries. However, it was used in other ways by the ancestral people of the Southwest. Santo Domingo Pueblo, for example, incorporated coral into heishi bead necklaces used for trade or adornment. Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo artists used the gem for adornment and in necklaces worn in ceremonial dances. Coral was first set in silver in the late 19th century after the Navajo, Zuni, and Pueblo people learned silversmithing. In the 1930s, traders encouraged its use by supplying it to Native artists, particularly the Zuni. Red is a sacred color for the Zuni, and they believe coral brings good luck and longevity to the wearer.
The Spirit of Water
In Native American beliefs, coral is seen as a water spirit, or that it holds that essence, since it comes from the ocean. With that being said, wearing it during ceremonies or in everyday use widens the chance of your prayers being heard. It is also used in traditional ceremonies to help evoke the spirits and Creator to be of help, and even more so to bring rain.
An Element of Protection
There are many stories of the uses of coral as a symbol of protection throughout the world. An example: In Greek mythology, Medusa was a priestess of the goddess Athena. It’s said that after Medusa’s death, the blood from her head covered the Mediterranean Sea, and formed the blood-red coral that we see today. After her death, Athena used an image of Medusa’s head on her shield, protecting her from negative forces.
Similar to turquoise, many Native Americans believe that coral also protects us against evil and darkness. Since it does come from our Mother Earth, she will always protect her children when they are wearing a piece of her. And when coral is paired with turquoise, it is said to embody the earth, air, and water – all the sacred elements needed to sustain life and give life!
We hope this has given you some unique insight about coral and how it plays a key role in the Pueblos and surrounding areas of the great Southwest. To learn more about coral and other gems; or to get an original, unique, and guaranteed authentic piece of jewelry that will become a treasure to share across the generations, our team at Indian Pueblo Store is a trusted destination for fine Native American art.