Santo Domingo Turquoise and Shell Jewelry

Santo Domingo beaded turquoise necklace and inlay pin.
Santo Domingo beaded turquoise necklace and inlay pin. | Source
Santo Domingo pueblo, between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Santo Domingo pueblo, between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. | Source
Santo Domingo native Americans also known as the Kewa people.
Santo Domingo native Americans also known as the Kewa people. | Source

The Santo Domingo Pueblo and its inhabitants are located in Sandoval County, NM between Santa Fe and Albuquerque along the Rio Grande River. The pueblo has a population of about 2,500. The people are also known as the Kewa people and prefer to be called this today. They speak of dialect of the Keresan language.

One of the most populous and most prosperous of the Rio Grande pueblos, Santo Domingo is located near the Cerrillos turquoise mines, so it makes it easy for them to use New Mexican turquoise. They have a distinguished history of jewelry making with a very clean and modern look.

Santo Domingo jewelry is very traditional and it is one of the most conservative of the pueblos in the southwest, They are known for their turquoise bead and shell jewelry. Their jewelry is very similar to that produced by the Ancestral Pueblo people approximate a thousand years ago.

You may know the Ancestral Pueblo people by the name Anasazi which has been used for hundreds of years. The pueblos no longer like their ancestors too be called or go by Anasazi because it is a Navajo word that means "enemies." The Pueblos have not been enemies of the Navajos for hundreds of years and are not so today. Therefore, the Pueblo people refer to their ancestors as the Ancestral Pueblo people. To continue to call them Anasazi is considered disrespectful to them. Therefore, when referencing pueblo ancestors always use the term Ancestral Pueblo people.

The Santo Domingo pueblo is admired for keeping strongly to its traditions. One of those traditions is the making of silver turquoise and shell jewelry which are highly revered because they are made in the traditional ways of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Examples of their ancestor's jewelry have been found in archaeological digs in Chaco Canyon and in Mesa Verde, CO.

The pueblo was named for St. Dominic and the pueblo celebrates his annual feast day on August 4 to honor him. Many native Americans are Catholic as their ancestors were converted to Christianity by the Spanish conquistadors. Today, the pueblos also include rituals from their native religions as well.

It is during these feast days that the Santo Domingo pueblos demonstrate how they make their necklaces, pendants, and earrings, and, of course, sell their jewelry.

Each August 4, residents of the Santo Domingo pueblo are joined by other pueblos to take part in their traditional corn dances. Corn is at the center of pueblo life, culture and religion as corn symbolizes fertility and life. Without corn, the pueblos believe, there would be no life and therefore the pueblo peoples would not exis

Each dancer is dressed in traditional native garb which is also enhanced with their own jewelry. Many necklaces, bracelets, pendants and earrings are worn as shown above and below.

Many of the native Americans today blend their Catholicism with their jewelry making and native religious belief, and include their corn dances in their celebrations and honor of Saint Dominic.

Po'pay, leader of the pueblo revolt.
Po'pay, leader of the pueblo revolt.

History of Santo Domingo Pueblo

The early history of the Santo Domingo pueblo people is a violent one. It began before the Spanish conquest when they lived in relative peace, but with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors life changed dramatically for the pueblos.

Juan de Onate was the Spanish conqueror and colonial settler of what we know today as New Mexico in 1598. Santo Domingo became the headquarters for the Spanish colonial mission system along the Camino Real (Royal Road) that the Spanish built. Here the Franciscan priests set up their headquarters for converting the pueblos to Catholicism a the native American religion was considered pagan.

At first, the Spanish promised the pueblos they would protect them from any warring native tribes who wanted to attack the peaceful pueblo people, for example, the Navajos or the Apache. But eventually the Spanish became oppressive.

The Spanish were not kind to the Santo Domingo pueblo people, in fact they were quite barbaric, violent and cruel. Their main objective was to subjugate the pueblo people to their rule through any means possible: torture, lynching, be-headings, and mutilation by cutting off the left foot of anyone who refused to subject to Spanish rule.

The Franciscian priests attempted to convert the native peoples to Catholicism and some natives did voluntarily, but those who refused suffered dire consequences.

Sadly, the Spanish tried to wipe out the entire pueblo culture. Gone were the beautiful native clothing, their practices and rituals, and nearly gone was the beautiful beaded jewelry they had been making for centuries.

Finally, the Santo Domingo pueblos and those all throughout New Mexico, rose up in revolt. On August 10, 1680 the Pueblos revolted against the Spanish and ran them out of New New Mexico under the leadership of Po'pay, of San Juan Pueblo and Alonso Catiti of Santo Domingo. (Today, a statue of Po'pay stands in the rotunda our Capitol Building in D.C.) Santo Domingo Pueblo was the key location for the revolt because it was the mission stronghold held by the Spanish. Today, the pueblos call this revolt the "First American Revolution."

This revolt is significant because it preserved the pueblo culture and religion from extinction. After getting rid of the Spanish the pueblos reverted back to their native American ways. They got rid of Catholicism and even those married under Catholicism got rid of their wives and married and lived under pueblo religion and laws. Beaded jewelry making was restored and the Santo Domingo pueblos began wearing and trading their jewelry again.

But, after ten years, the Spanish returned to reconquest New Mexico this time lead by Diego de Vargas. He reasserted Spanish authority over the Pueblos but did it in a much more humane manner. He was less violent and brutal than Onate had been and was more open minded about native cultures and religions. Thereafter, relations between Spain and the pueblos remained quiet and the pueblos lived in relative peace with the Spanish.

White heishi (shell) necklace
White heishi (shell) necklace | Source

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Modern Times

As time went on the the pueblo people were able to live more peacefully, and their cultures began to flourish and thrive. By the 1920's the Santo Domingo Pueblo became a major tourist attraction in New Mexico because of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad which had reached New Mexico in the 1880's.

Now, attention was brought to the arts and crafts and culture of Santo Domingo. Therefore, Santo Domingo pueblos began producing jewelry for the tourist trade. The pueblos have remained resilient and have not forgotten where they came from. They continue to preserve their traditions and one of those is their turquoise, silver and shell jewelry.

It is believed the first Santo Domingo native to learn silversmithing was Ralph Atencio around 1893. He was known for his grinding, drilling and stringing rolled turquoise and shell "heishi" (also heishe) beads similar to those of their ancestors. Heishi is the Santo Domingo word for shell used before the introduction of metals by the Spanish in the 16th century. Heishi comes from the Keresan word for "shell" (the language of the Santo Domingo pueblos) and is traditionally referred to as shell beads. This type of jewelry has continued to be made today and is very popular world-wide.


But where did the pueblos get shells living on the New Mexican desert? Pueblo jewelers traveled south to the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Pacific Ocean for shells when they could not trade for it. Jet and coral were found nearby and are used in mosaics and other jewelry.

Some heishi necklaces contain more than 10,000 beads so finely cut they look like strands of hair. And, many of the heishi necklaces are also made by stringing stone beads or discs together to create color-block patterns. Shells are also used as necklace pendants or are used as stones in earrings. See the examples above and below for their use of turquoise beads and pendants. Their inlay jewelry is made of small pieces of stone or shell and formed in a mosaic design. Their inlay is much different than Zuni inlay as shown at the top of this article

I have a Santo Domingo necklace of stringed turquoise and shell. Surprisingly, I did not buy it in the southwest but in Florida. The only silver on the necklace is the clasp but it is marked 925 and is sterling silver. The necklaces do not have the signature of the artist, but their work is so distinctive that just looking at it one knows it is Santo Domingo.

Santo Domingo jewelers are also known for slab stone necklaces and earrings combined with sterling silver work. They most commonly use tufa stone which is then cast with overlay silver work which creates three dimensional jewelry. Tufa casting is named for the tufa stone and soft lava rock into which a shape and some design elements of a piece of jewelry is carved. Tufa stone is not smooth, so the silver cast using this method is textured.

Their signature jewelry pieces are thunderbird necklaces, heishi necklaces and mosaic inlay on shell or bone which can be bought on the reservation, in stores and on-line.

The Zuni Pueblos, especially, purchased Santo Domingo heishi and have incorporated it into their own work. (White shell and mother of pearl)

Each type of native American jewelry in New Mexico and Arizona, Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and Santo Domingo all have their own unique style and method of creating it. Each style is as beautiful as the other.

Santo Domingo Pueblo Jewelry

Turquoise and shell earrings
Turquoise and shell earrings | Source
Jet and silver bead necklace
Jet and silver bead necklace | Source
1930's vintage heishi turquoise necklace
1930's vintage heishi turquoise necklace | Source
Turquoise necklace - large turquoise mixed with brown heishi and a jocla hangling from center
Turquoise necklace - large turquoise mixed with brown heishi and a jocla hangling from center | Source
Shell, turquoise, and silver pendant
Shell, turquoise, and silver pendant | Source
Multi-stone heishi bead necklace
Multi-stone heishi bead necklace | Source

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Comments 14 comments

Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 2 months ago from Orlando, FL

Bravo, Suzette! The pueblo would be honored with your presentation of their fine craftsmanship! If you haven't been to the Santa Fe Plaza yet, I highly recommend it, the vendors are lined up selling their trinkets and treasures. They also have concerts and car shows that my NM friends post on FB...very cool.


Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 months ago from Queensland Australia

Suzette, thank you for the terrific history lesson and also sharing the photos of this beautiful jewellery. Wonderful article.


whonunuwho profile image

whonunuwho 2 months ago from United States

Nicely done mu friend. A wonderful look at a great culture. whonu


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Linda, I haven't been to Santa Fe yet, and thank you for your suggestions. I love native American jewelry and will certainly check out the plaza. I have heard how beautiful Santa Fe is.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Jodah, thank you for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 months ago from Taos, NM Author

whonu: Thank you so much for reading and I am glad you enjoyed it. The native American pueblos are a great culture.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 months ago from England

Hiya, fascinating read, and one thing I thought was how barbaric people were back then when they took over someone else's country. while people blame Americans and brits etc, it was the Spanish who were one of the worse. on the subject of the turquoise its beautiful isn't it? I love my turquoise bracelet, lovely and so natural!


Margaridab profile image

Margaridab 2 months ago from Lyon, France

Great article! Not only because of the beautiful jewellery but also the good history aprouch. Thanks.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Nell, so glad to hear you enjoy your turquoise bracelet. I love them. Yes, the Spanish were one of the worst when it came to subjugating the native Americans in New Mexico. And the Spanish Inquisition was one of the worst tortures under the name of God. So, I think the Spanish claim the title here. But, to tell you the truth, the Americans and the Apaches, Comanches, and Mescaleros here in the southwest were horrible to one another in the 1860-1880's. The marauding, be-headings, and tortures on the side of the Americans and natives were an eye opener to me. I think anytime one culture tries to subjugate another these horrible acts occur. Still to this day the natives, Spanish, Mexicans, and Anglos here in the southwest hold prejudices against one another because at one time or another they each were the rulers for a time.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks Margaridab, I am glad your enjoyed reading this. Yes, the history of the southwest is an interesting one and this is just a small part of that history,


MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 2 months ago

Suzette, thank you for keeping up this series on wonderful Southwest turquoise jewelry. I just took for granted that heishi was Japanese simply because it is spelled like a Japanese word translated into English. You really are educating us.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Miz: I thought the same thing about the word heishi. It does look Japanese but I soon learned it was of the Keresan language they speak. Each native tribe has their own distinct culture and jewelry type that I find fascinating. I am so glad you have enjoyed this series.


DDE profile image

DDE 5 weeks ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Beautiful jewelry, you certainly accomplished an interesting hub on a unique topic.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 5 weeks ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks again, Devika and glad you enjoyed this.

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