Gorgets Offer Insight Into Early Chickasaw Culture
Like pottery, ancient gorgets follow a culture’s influence through time.
“Gorgets have been made for thousands of years and are a good archive for the pre-contact era,” Mater said. “You can see the dress, stories and iconography we had before European influence. They are a real treasure trove. There are all these mysteries within gorgets we are slowly tapping into.”
“There were all kinds of commerce and trade between the early Muskogean empires,” Mater said. “Mound builders ranged from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to Toronto, Canada; wherever there were waterways of the Mississippi. Tribes shared a lot of the same iconography. The influence of the mound builders can be found all over the eastern United States. There are many repeating patterns on pottery and gorgets.”
Today, most associate gorgets as metal, crescent-shaped necklaces. This style of necklace was brought to the Native Americans by Europeans. European gorgets were worn by military officers—or men of authority—to distinguish rank. Southeastern tribes quickly began to adorn themselves with the fashionable European gorget. They, too, wore necklaces to symbolize status and rank.
Still uniquely Chickasaw, artwork adorning metal gorgets worn after contact with Europeans took a European style and flavor. For Chickasaws, wearing gourd and shell gorgets fell out of popular favor for metals. Gold, steel, and silver were traded materials popular to make gorgets. The woodpecker and the four directions are among the traditional motifs that adorned the new style of gorgets and survived the transition of what was thought of as the contemporary of the time.
“Once European metals and silver were traded among the tribes, gorgets drastically changed,” Mater said. “One of the great abilities of the Southeastern tribes is to adapt and change quickly. You were a real somebody if you had a big metal gorget.”
Chickasaw gorgets have seen resurgence in the last 20 years. Contemporary gorgets blend new designs with traditional themes. Today’s Chickasaw artists, such as Mater, create their own unique art inspired by their ancestors.
Mater is a self-professed fan of shell gorgets. For more than five years, he has devoted himself to researching the motifs etched on pre-European contact pieces; incorporating them into modern gorget shell carvings.
“I am drawn to the Southeastern Indian art,” he said. “It is so geometric and iconographic. There is nothing like it. There is a Renaissance among Southeastern artists. They are saying ‘hey, this is our birthright; it is our well.’ There is such diversity with gorgets. There could be a hundred people, a thousand people, and no one is going to do it exactly the same.”
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