Gorgets Offer Insight Into Early Chickasaw Culture
For centuries, Chickasaws have been known for their sense of style and panache. The 18th century English author James Adair noted although Chickasaws wore simple clothing, they adorned themselves with intricate body art and striking jewelry for special occasions and ceremonies. Necklaces and throat collars hold a special place in the heart of the Chickasaw people.
They are known as gorgets, (pronounced gȯr-jət), a French word meaning “throat” or “of the throat.”
Like their European counterparts, gorgets were worn by early Chickasaws as a symbol of rank and status. Different gorgets were worn for different events. For everyday attire, simple gourd or stone gorgets were worn. For special occasions or religious ceremonies, a person would wear their finest regalia.
“Gorgets told a lot about a person,” said Chickasaw artist Dustin Mater. “They told a lot about a person’s status. Most wore common gourd necklaces. Shell necklaces, especially ocean shells, and copper were reserved for high ranking people.”
European explorers of the 18th century took notice of gourd necklaces worn by the Chickasaw people. Gourds were an inexpensive way to adorn the body.
Early Chickasaw gorgets were made from nature. Gorgets came in many shapes and sizes. Gourds, fresh water shells, ocean shells, mollusks, stone and copper were used to make gorgets. They have been carved from these materials for thousands of years by the tribes living on and near the Mississippi River.
The materials used and motifs depicted on the gorget reflected a person’s status within the tribe. The most desired gorget was made of difficult-to-find material. Ocean shells and copper, which required trading with other tribes to obtain, were prized among the Chickasaw. Only the most influential tribal members wore a gorget made from these.
The etching on the surface of a gorget was not merely ornamental. Some motifs were gender specific while others were used to relate family ties. Designs often explained important fables, tales and stories of the Chickasaw.
“There are a couple of designs that were unique to women. They have a Janice-like quality to them,” Mater said. “They depict woodpeckers, a symbol of the protector, and turkeys engraved on them facing each other between a striped pole. Other symbols communicated family relations. The more you learn about gorgets, the more you understand the complex story of each piece.”
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