Pearls in Native American Jewelry

Pearls have been used by my Chickasaw ancestors for thousands of years.  Chickasaws lived in the southeastern region of the United States until we were removed from our homelands beginning in 1836.  Our original homelands encompassed an ecologically diverse area spanning from northern Mississippi, and northern Alabama, to southern Tennessee.  Our contemporary tribe is descended from the mound cultures of the southeastern region of the united states.  Great earthen mounds still standing today were a part of a vast trade network of large cities, located throughout the Mississippi river watershed. Sophisticated agriculture, hunting, and fishing sustained these large populations.

 Map of southeastern mound sites.  Image from Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. 2004. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Map of southeastern mound sites.  Image from Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. 2004. The Art Institute of Chicago.

The rivers that these cities were next to were essential to the vast trade network that ran from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. this trade network allowed for the flow of exotic materials to artisan workshops located at the city centers.  These workshops produced finely crafted objects and adornment for use in ceremony and regalia.  Pearls harvested from the Mississippi watershed were a popular material for adornment.  They were hand drilled and fashioned into necklaces, sewn onto clothing, and even draped from important buildings.  

Pearls were valued for their luminescence.  Reflective surfaces represented the reflections of light on water – the meeting of the sky world with the water world.

Hernando de Soto’s Chronicles Describe the Use of Pearls.

The violent conquistador Hernando de Soto and his men were the first group of Europeans that our Chickasaw ancestors encountered.  They arrived in the southeast in search of gold, and brought violence and disease wherever they went (the Panther Woman Collection Celebrates the Chickasaw victory over de Soto).  Along their conquests De Soto and his army did document their interactions with the many Nations they met.  These first hand accounts describe many details about the adornment and art forms unique to the southeast, including the use of pearls.  

Pearls were frequently mentioned in these documents, as the Spaniards were most interested in any items that held value in European cultures.

In 1539 an account of the temple of Talomeco (in present day South Carolina) describes “The upper part of the temple about the walls was adorned like the roof outside with periwinkles and shell… with skeins between them made of strings of pearls and seed pearls hanging from the roof.” Bailey, Garrick. Continuity and Change in Mississippian Civilization. Hero Hawk and Open Hand. University of Chicago Press. 2004.

In 1540 De Soto and his crew traveled through South Carolina. They came to a town called Cofitachequi. They were greeted by the leader of the town, Lady of Cofitachequi. She gave De Soto pearls as a welcome gift.  

I am continuously inspired by the craftsmanship and innovation of ancient southeastern artisans.  They created objects of great beauty and meaning, and their materials and techniques inform my work today. I love using pearls in my pieces to reference this history, and continue these traditions. These statement necklaces are brand new to our online store and both feature beautiful pearls.