Ancient Chickasaws Wore Cloth

By Thomas, Judy | The Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Ancient Chickasaws Wore Cloth


Thomas, Judy, The Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture


We have all seen the Hollywood movies of Native Americans wearing the same style of native clothing. The women wearing a dress made of deer skin with long fringe swaying with the movement of the wearer, and the men wearing leather leggings and a shirt of deer skin. It never mattered what tribe they were, they all wore the same style. I have often wondered why Chickasaws would wear such heavy clothing when they lived in a hot and humid climate much of the year.

When working as a Cultural Instructor at the Chickasaw Cultural Center I began studying ancient Chickasaw history so that I would be able to teach and answer questions that visitors asked about our history. According to scholars, we are descendants of the Mississippian Mound Builders, part of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. This is just a term meaning the ancient tribes of the Southeast practiced the same form of social structure and culture. There were at one time thousands of mounds in the Ohio and Mississippi val- ley, and the American bottom region. As European expansion in the United States moved westward, many mounds were destroyed and the foundations of the once great mounds became cotton fields or the plat for the next new town.

Between the 1800 to 1900s early archeologists and artifact hunters began to explore and plunder long forgotten mounds and villages. In doing so they unearthed evidence of the everyday lives of ancient civilizations of the Southeastern Indians. Much of the early artifacts were taken and put into private collections while a few made it to small museums. As time and methods changed in archeological excavations many more artifacts began to be unearthed and cataloged. Among the excavations of several mounds were evidence of cloth and cloth production. At the Halliday site 10 miles east of Cahokia in East St. Louis, spindle whorls were found which were used in the production of cloth (Pauketat p. 121). The spindle whorl seen on the following page is from the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is from a Cahokian site.

"During these excavations, it became obvious that a large number of ceramic spindle whorls were being recovered. Moreover, most of the spindle whorls were re- covered from very few features. The data that I review here suggest that this restricted pattern of spindle whorl distribution may be related to Cahokian consumption of fiber products" (Alt 1999).

A spindle whorl is used to spin animal or plant fibers, such as rabbit hair or milkweed into thread. The spindle whorl is similar to a top. "It has a straight shaft with a weight attached to give added momentum. Along with primitive weapons such as the axe and the knife, it is one of the oldest and most widely used tools of the human race" (Hochberg 1977). The evidence of spindle whorls proved that our ancestors spun fibers into cloth. In 1934 at Spiro Mounds in Spiro, Oklahoma the Pocola Mining Company began looting and plundering mounds. Immediately after opening Craig Mound the men began to uncover many artifacts, and among them were preserved pieces of fine cloth. Later some of the pieces were obtained by the Smithsonian, and one of the largest pieces show a beautiful cloth of spun fiber, and the colors of yellow, red, black and brown apparent along with a geometric design. (See photo above.)

The photo on the following page is of a piece of cloth found at the Etowah Mound in Georgia (Wag- ner 2004). Also found was a piece of cloth that was recovered beneath a stack of copper plates in the Craig Mound. The cloth was a very fine plain weave and was an off-white color and had been tentatively identified as cotton (Brown p. 621). These pieces of cloth were some of the first and best preserved samples of Missis- sippian cloth to be discovered. Cloth made from plant and animal hair fibers didn't normally survive the soil and harsh conditions of the Southern climate. The pres- ervation of these cloth samples is unique.

The Wycliffe Mounds in Kentucky and the Mound- ville site in Alabama have been thought to be earlier settlements of the Chickasaw. …

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