Indians & Cultural Encounters
Indians Tattoos and Jewelry 02 Bodypaint Indians Tattoos and Jewelry 03 Choctaw Busts Indians Tattoos and Jewelry 01 Markings

Tattoos and Jewelry

Southeastern Indian artists created many objects that were beautiful. Two of the most personal were tattooing and jewelry. Both men and women tattooed themselves. Sometimes they used temporary body paint instead of permanent tattoos.
 
Tattooing was more common among men. European visitors reported that it was also more common among the eastern groups, like the Creeks and the Cherokees, than in western ones like the Chickasaws.  Read Henry Timberlake’s account of tattoos he saw.
 
Southeastern Indians also wore jewelry made from shells, copper, and from brass obtained from white traders. One common type of jewelry was the gorget. A gorget is a metal, stone, or shell disc carved with symbols or figures. People wore them as jewelry. They tied them around their necks, similar to a tight necklace, or they attached them to their clothing.
 
Many gorgets have been found with a carved design of a rattlesnake with one large eye. It is thought that these were used to protect people against disease. Today we don’t know what many of the designs mean; we can only guess.
 
Metal jewelry was not as common as shell or stone. There are examples of copper and silver jewelry which might have been used for decoration and/or ceremonial purposes. Indians mined copper locally. They used it to make armbands and other jewelry. It was often stamped or carved in geometric designs that resembled tattoos or body painting.
 
Some Cherokee men wore silver jewelry in their ears and rings in their nose. The more wealthy ones also wore beads around their necks and bracelets on their arms. When going to fight, warriors removed their jewelry and bells, and put war paint on their face and bodies presumably to frighten their enemies.
 
Women also wore jewelry and would dress their hair. Henry Timberlake observed that women “never cut their hair, but plait it…which is turned up, and fastened on the crown with a silver broach, forming a wreathed topknot, decorated with an incredible quantity of silk ribbands (ribbons) of various colours.”
 



Picture Credits:
  • Drawing of a Native American with markings or tattoos. The man is shown holding a couple of arrows in one hand and a long bow in the other. Originally drawn by John Whyte this picture was included in the book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia by Thomas Hariot. Later the image was engraved by Theodor de Bry and reprinted in 1590. De Bry wanted to make Native Americans look more like Europeans, so he drew them with blonde hair and white skin. Although the drawing is not entirely accurate, it demonstrates how some Europeans did not understand or appreciate the ways in which Native Americans were different from them. The man pictured belongs to the Southern Algonquian group of Indians and are related to the Shawnee. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina.
  • Drawing of a “Native American in body paint.” The image shows the front and back sides of a Native American warrior holding a large bow and a few arrows. Several other archers are also featured in the background. Originally drawn by John Whyte this picture was included in the book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia by Thomas Hariot. Later the image was engraved by Theodor de Bry and reprinted in 1590. De Bry wanted to make Native Americans look more like Europeans, so he drew them with blonde hair and white skin. Although the drawing is not entirely accurate, it demonstrates how some Europeans did not understand or appreciate the ways in which Native Americans were different from them. The man pictured belongs to the Southern Algonquian group of Indians, who are related to the Shawnee. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina.
  • Drawing entitled, “Characteristic busts of Choctaw Indians.” The drawing shows two Choctaw Indians who have extensive tattoos. This drawing was originally included in Bernard Romans’ 1775 book, A Concise History of East and West Florida. The Choctaw Indians traditionally resided in central Mississippi and are related to the Chickasaw Indians. Negative 1102 E, Smithsonian National Antrhopological Archives.


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