Forging History-Southeastern Jewelry Crafted with Meaning

As a Native American Jeweler, people often ask if I work solely in turquoise and silver. The answer to this question is NO, and to explain why not, I find myself delving into a brief history of the diverse Indigenous communities who call the southeastern region of the United States the Homelands. It is unfortunate that the general population does not know that throughout the eastern portion of what is now the United States, huge metropolitan centers connected through a vast trade network existed earlier than 100 A.D. Modern-day tribes including the Muscogee Nation, Choctaw Nation, Seminole Nation, Cherokee Nation and my own, the Chickasaw Nation, trace their roots to specific city centers which were concentrated around huge man-made earthen mound structures. These were centers of culture and religion and were connected throughout the entire eastern part of the continent through the trade of valuable materials. These societies developed rich material cultures expressed through sacred and ceremonial objects, personal adornment, and architecture. As a Chickasaw, It is the history and continuity of our southeastern personal adornment that inspires the direction of my jewelry line. One of the most impressive artistic feats of our Mississippian ancestors was the working of native copper, a highly revered and valuable material sourced from all the way up north from the Keeweenaw peninsula of Lake Michigan. Chickasaw ancestors forged nuggets of this copper into large sheets thin enough to create intricate relief sculpture in the metal. These copper pieces must have taken many months of hard labor to complete and were used in important ceremonial regalia. The copper-working tradition is one of the most unique aspects of southeastern jewelry and adornment. In my metal-working practice, I have replicated this southeastern relief sculpture technique by working a flat piece of metal into relief sculpture using softened pitch as a support for my piece. This allows me to create anything from abstracted forms to traditional symbols to realistic images of animals. I have not yet used the native copper for the relief work but that is my next goal. So far I have forged a nugget of it out to a thickness of about 1/8th inch. Not nearly thin enough to shape. To the best of my knowledge, Native copper has not been worked since what archaeologists call the Mississippian period. It is my goal to revive this incredible art form in my contemporary jewelry. Though it is hard work, I will keep forging my native copper because I hope it will mark an exciting new chapter of southeastern cultural revitalization.

Photos: My Grandfather’s Sky Gorget features hand-forged native copper set with sapphires and surrounded by pitch-worked fine silver in the phases of the moon, The Chickasaw are connected to the Moundville archaeological site in Alabama, here a Steven Patricia rendering depicts Moundville as it may have appeared in the 13th century.