Friday, May 2, 2014

Gorgets, Moons, Heads & Coins


Michael Jason Galban

*note - I am not writing this as an "academic paper" per se, so when I add citations it is for those seeking further information and not particularly to validate or properly give credit. Nearly all of what we know or think is influenced by someone else and it is only when we combine all of that understanding and experience and exposure can we begin to organize original thoughts and ideas. My own research has had so many influences that I could not possibly cite them all - but I can thank them all. Nyaweh akwego. 

Of particular interest to me has always been the vocabulary of Native dress and ornamentation. If we are apt students of Native American art and culture we can begin to decipher the complex and sometimes profound language that ornamentation holds. Today, tribal or national distinctions can be as obvious as a t-shirt or ball cap with a striking tribal logo prominently displayed and labled; but in the ancient past, the subtlety of personal adornment was not so obvious. To fully understand the meaning behind ornaments one must look into the language, the folklore, and regional experiences of a people. To simply view the object and record material observations is not enough to interpret such things. That information can be useful and it is certainly of high importance to the greater understanding but it does nothing to reveal the purpose and meanings behind the objects.

Among the myriad objects which hold special meaning to Native peoples is a group of objects known as a shell gorget or “moon” gorget.  The moon gorget in simple terms is a round plate which hangs before the breast. They were originally cut from marine shells and were at times quite large, but soon after contact, the flourishing trade in silver objects spawned a silver version which held equivalent meaning for Native people. Sometimes, in the past, a round gorget-like ornament could appear permanently pricked indelibly into its owner’s chest as a tattoo.

" “A figure of the sun which the Americans (Indians) adore and they offer the smoke of tobacco for incense.”Louis Nicolaus – Codex Canadiensis (1664-1675) the Codex Canadiensis
Good Peter Oneida by Trumbull

The name “moon gorget” belies its very cultural significance. The meaning of the name comes from the Native perception that the “moon” was hung in the sky. In Iroquoian cosmology, the head of the daughter of “Sky Woman” was flung into the sky and would forever be known as “Ahsohntahne Karakwa – “Our Grandmother” - “the night time orb” 

“he made a new light and hung it on the neck of a being, and he called the new light Gaa-gwaa and instructed its bearer to run his course daily in the heavens.”

Esquire Johnson via Asher Wright 1870
Arthur Caswell Parker

M. de Bacqueville de La Potherie - showing two shell gorget suspension ornaments

In many of the old versions of the Iroquois creation story the same holds true. If the literal “suspension” does not occur in the story, inevitably we will see a very strong connection between the “nighttime orb” and the daughters head. (p.62-64 Mohawk, Iroquois Creation Story) In all cases, we are given instructions to view the moon and it path as a sign of new life. According to the ancient “Ganonyok” or “Thanksgiving Address” of the Haudenosaunee, the moon governs the ocean tides and the morning dew; it also has a special relationship with child-bearing women as their bodies follow the lunar cycle which allows them to bring forth new life. (Words That Come Before All Else – Katsi Cook - Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force)

Shell Moon Gorget found at Ganondagan

It cannot be understated that the moon is really perceived as the head of the daughter of Skywoman in this cosmology. Her head which has been suspended or hung in the nighttime sky and looks down on the people of the earth. We can think of the moon-head in the same way a toddler looks upwards and sees their parent looking down on them and smiling.

“I cannot go because he will not know where I have gone” The Grandmother answered. “His mind is already troubled because someone has stolen the head of the mother of you two.”
“Look into the distance,” Skyholder replied. “The one you are talking about is looking this way.”
She turned to look just as the moon arose, It’s rays bursting through the forest.
“It is true,” she said, “It is the mother of you two. Now my mind has once again become positive.” 

John Mohawk, Iroquois Creation Story

The moon in this instance acts as a tool of enlightenment much in the same way wampum or “Otko-ah” is used to “illuminate the mind”. The term for spark “-jist-a” is synonymous with the term for wampum which of course is a shell bead and perhaps, more specifically, the white shell bead which is bright or shines (p62, Chafe, Seneca Morphology). Her mind was clearly dark and negative because her grandsons mind was dark but the moonlight brought to her mind a healing light which translated into her admission of new found peace and positivity. It is clear that the moon holds tremendous power and ability for Haudenosaunee people. 

The moon, being the “nighttime orb” was full of brightness and light and could be a guide in the darkness for people. Visually, woodland peoples viewed things which reflected light and brightness as being inherently good and therefore protective and even transformative.

Woodland warrior wearing a shell gorget by Townshend

Not only does the object itself hold powerful meaning but perhaps even the act of hanging it is part of the story as well. To suspend the ‘moon/head” in the night sky is critical in the process of creating the world as we know it. So, when a shell moon is hung from the neck it also deserves a physical counterpart. These objects are what I am calling “gorget suspension ornaments”. This type of object which exists in collections across the globe represent a little understood set of Northeastern woodland material culture. 

Some like the British Museum example pictured still have the large moon intact. Others, like the Pitt Rivers example do not. They range in style and material, some use wampum beads, others fingerwoven wool yarn and porcupine quillwork. There is not enough of a real pattern of construction for them to indicate societal connections or badges of sub group memberships but simply that they were made ornately and with great care. I suggest that these suspension ornaments were individualized for the job they were designed for and not for any ceremonial membership. Because there are many such objects with such varied construction schemes, and because of the diverse cultural emblems on them, I feel that they represent perhaps an ancient understanding that goes beyond the colonial era culture groups in which the examples were made. We see thunder birds in the British Museum example, and we see human forms in the Liverpool example. Some have simply abstracted designs which we cannot begin to interpret with much certainty. 

I have found seven true gorget suspension ornaments, some with their shell moons intact, others without. The British Museum, The Canadian Museum of Civilization, Liverpool, Oxford, The National Museum of Ireland, Peabody Harvard and at the National Museum of the American Indian all hold such elaborate objects. I include examples which do not have a shell moon attached in the list because of their similarity to the known gorget suspension ornaments. A case can be made that they might be designed to suspend some other object like a knife case or a pouch but comparative examples of such a notion do not as yet exist. 

British Museum
Canadian Museum of Civilization
National Museum of Ireland
National Museum of the American Indian

Pitt Rivers Museum
Liverpool, UK
Peabody Harvard

There is a secondary type of shell gorget which exists. This is the moon or sun made of wampum beads. They are embroidered into a dial of radiating beads to emulate a solid shell gorget. 

“One of the Iroquois Captains exhibited, in his turn, some very rich presents, in answer to the various articles of peace proposed by the Father. The first and finest of these presents was a large image of the Sun, made of six thousand porcelain beads, its purpose being, as he said, to dispel all darkness from our councils, and to let the Sun illumine them even in the deepest gloom of night.”

Journey of Father Simon Le Moyne to the Agnieronnon Iroquois 1655-1656

“Round their neck, they have a string of violet wampums, with little white wampums between them. These wampums are small, of the figure of oblong pearls, and made of the shells which the English call clams… others have a large shell on the breast, of a fine white colour, which they value very high, and is very dear.”
Peter Kalm


“Now, assuredly, she had made fast the Sun for herself, and also the moon. She imposed on them the duty of furnishing her with light for their part. Verily, indeed, it was the head of her girl child who was dead that she used to make the moon,”

Mohawk version Creation story
Hewitt – “Iroquoian Cosmology”

Since the moon as a celestial body holds such potential power, a talisman which could evoke the moon and its power would also have the same effect. A “moon gorget” would project the wearers inherent light to the world and harness the power of fertility and life as well. The placement of the gorget before the breast can have many meanings but perhaps because we face forward when we walk or run, the gorget-wearer can project into the area beyond their own light and power.

Joseph Brant by James Peachey

“Upwards of one hundred years ago a moon of wampum was placed here in this country with four roads leading to the center for the convenience of the Indians from different quarters to come and settle or hunt here… a dish with one spoon was likewise put here with a moon of wampum…”

J. Brant to A. McKee

Claus Papers, Vol. 5 reel C1479, pp 285-288.

Shell moon owned by Joseph Brant

It seems that whelks of different sorts are used to make these objects. Lightning whelk in particular is quite commonly used. It is interesting to note that this is one of the very few whelks which grow sinistrally. That is to say, they grow outward in a counter clockwise or “left-handed’ spiral. Most all of the other whelks grow dextrally. I find it interesting that this shell which grows uniquely is chosen for such objects like ‘moons’ and wampum beads. The center column of this creatures shell is where we get white wampum beads not from the white portion of a quahog clam shell. The spiral cleft is still evident when you look at old white wampum beads in fact. It is also interesting to note that the whelk as a creature predates on quahog clams. They use their string ‘foot’ to pry open the clam and then they remove the quahog with their proboscis. Allegorical or incidental, the white shell creature consumes the dark bead producing creature. I find that sort of observation as perhaps an ancient interpretation of the world’s tendency to move towards a peaceful balance.

Apparently, the mobile version of this blog won't show the imbedded video I posted. So, here is the link to the youtube video:

The lightning whelk when it is young has sharp lightning shaped lines on its shell hence, the name, but inside, it is pure white. When a ‘moon’ is cut from this shell it is naturally polished and absolutely pure white. It is obvious when you see one why it was selected for white wampum beads and for making sacred moon ornaments. 

Since we have established that the moon is also a head in the Iroquoian cosmology, it is therefore possible to suspect that to suspend an object like a head it is evoking the power of the moon head or furthermore we can see the carrying of heads as a war practice as being evocative of the same suspension of power. It is true that war trophies were taken during the early colonial period and much earlier, included the taking of entire heads or more commonly and conveniently, simply the scalp. (The Unkindest Cut, or Who Invented Scalping James Axtell; William C. Sturtevant The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 37, No. 3. (Jul., 1980) pp. 451-472.) The scalp was the portion of the hair which warriors kept groomed and prominently displayed during war times. In fact, it was often the only hair left on the head after careful plucking or shaving kept the rest of the skull clean. The “scalp lock” as it is known, is found at the crown of the head where the “sworl” of hair exists. This area was viewed as the focus of the persons being his “spirit’ which could be seized and kept to assume the power of your enemy or even symbolically replace a loved one in a symbolic sense. Scalps contained the essence of a person which of course Native people viewed as being contained somewhere in the head. (Hamell 2010 Some Thoughts on Great Serpents, Dry Bones, and Souls, and the Scalp Lock - Draft)

Detail of an Iroquois man's scalplock from B.Wests's "Death of General Wolfe"

  *A side note: As a young adult I listened to many native elders talk about our history and how unjustly we are portrayed in the media and in literature. It was then, that I first learned that we, (Indians) learned to scalp from the Europeans and that any claims otherwise were simply untrue. I then became a scalping denier. Then, it was in college that I began to learn more about the subject and was then convinced that indeed, we did scalp on occasion, and in ancient times perhaps even beheaded our enemies. (My own G-G-Grandfather even seized leadership from his rival by bashing in his head with a rock!) So, I revised my thinking and became a scalping apologist. It has only been recently, that I have been so frustrated with the world that I think I am gradually becoming a scalping resurrectionist! I think it might do certain people some real good. 

When warriors would remove a “scalp” it was treated as a head trophy and could be worn before their chest as the moon-heads were worn.

“some also had scalps hanging from their ears, others on their chests”

J.F. Wasmus
German company surgeon 1776-1783
Of the Huron and Iroquois

“I discovered he had a scalp hanging at his breast, and one side of his head was painted red the other black.”

The Captivity of Jane Brown and her Family 1788

An extension of the scalp-taking tradition

“The only idol which the Indians have, and which may be properly called an idol, is their Wsinhoalican, that is image. It is an image cut in wood, representing a human head in miniature, which they always carry about them either on a string around their neck or in a bag.”

David Zeisberger
“History of the Northern American Indians”

As brutal as the scalp tradition may seem, it should not be viewed as a simple instance of barbarity. The act itself is a sacred ritual between warriors. We know that warriors throughout time have engaged in trophy-taking rituals. The practice might be as benign as removing an enemy uniform, or capturing a firearm or enemy flag but in the end, it is still trophy taking from a defeated enemy. War in itself is brutal and the warriors who are expected to engage in it share a primal ethos and culture. Native American warriors in the northeast developed highly complex rituals and traditions surrounding warfare. Scalp-taking is only one aspect of that culture. 

Related to that tradition, stories have emerged which confirm both the commonality of scalp taking but also the bravado of the warrior culture. There is an old story which the Haudenosaunee people tell about the origins of certain sacred medicines. I will not delve deeper into the tradition of the medicine but I will share the story as it relates to the spiritual aspects of the scalping tradition.

The oldest written version of this recorded is in Doty's History of Livingston County, New York, as it was given long ago, by an old unnamed Seneca man, to Mr. Horsford, their missionary. I quote this brief account in full.

"In ancient times a war broke out between two tribes. On the one side the forces were jointly led by a great warrior and a noted hunter. The latter had killed much game for the skins, the remains being left for beasts and birds of prey. The battle was going against his side, and he saw that, to save his own life, he must quit the field. As he turned, the body of a great tree lay across his path. He came up to it, when a heavy blow felled him. On recovering he found, strangely enough, that he could as easily pass through as over the obstruction. Reaching home, his friends would not talk with him; indeed they seemed quite unaware of his presence. It now occurred to him that he, too, had been killed, and was present in spirit only, human eyes not seeing him. He returned to the place of conflict, and there, sure enough, lay his mortal part quite dead, and its scalp gone. A pigeon hawk, flying by, recognized the disembodied hunter, and gratefully offered to restore his scalp; so, stretching away in its flight to the retiring victors, he plucked it from the bloody pole. The other birds had, meantime, prepared a medicine which soon united the scalp to the head, when bears and wolves gathered around and joined in the dance. The hunter got well and lived many years, his experience strengthening their religious
faith, and teaching them how to use the remedies so strangely acquired, which, to this day, are among the most efficacious known to the Indians."

In 1881, Elias Johnson, a Tuscarora chief also relates the story. 

The good hunter appears, as one noted for kindness and generosity to all, even to beasts and birds. Though a hunter he was considered the protector of these. On one occasion he went out with a war party. (In some versions they are fighting the Cherokee) . The battle was furious, and in the most desperate struggle he was struck down, scalped and left for dead. A fox came along when the conflict was over, and recognized this friend of bird and beast lying lifeless on the field. Shocked by the sight he raised the death lament, and called all the beasts together. Their cries were heard in the forest; they came by hundreds to the spot and tried to revive their friend. Vain were all their efforts, and he remained lifeless. As they sat down on their haunches to hold a council, they raised their heads and a dolorous cry rent the air. Then the bear was asked to speak, as being the nearest relative and best friend of man. He appealed to each and all for medicine, but though each had his own, none did any good. Again they lifted up their heads and howled a mournful requiem, long continued and with many varied tones. This sad lament, wild as the Highland coronach, brought the oriole to the spot. He was told of their sad plight, and in turn went and called a council of the birds. There was a flapping of wings everywhere, and all came, from the eagle to the wren, in response to the call. With beak and claw they made every effort, but nothing came of it. The hunter was dead, stubbornly dead, and his scalp was gone.

The eagle's head had become white in his long and wise life, and from his lofty eyrie he had looked down, and knew every force of nature and every event of life. This white-headed sage said that the dead would not revive unless the scalp was restored.

 The first of all the fox went to seek this. He visited every bird's nest and every hen-roost, but no scalp did he find. The pigeon hawk took up the search, but soon returned. She flew so swiftly that no one expected her to see much, for birds have characters as well as men. The white heron flew more slowly, and said he would do better, but came to a field of luscious wild beans, which tempted him. He fed and slept, and fed again, while the council awaited his return. At last the crow took up the mission. The warrior who had the scalp knew of the council, but feared nothing when he saw the crow flying near, for he was accustomed to that. She saw the scalp stretched on its hoop, to dry in the smoke above his cabin. Her chance came and she carried it off. Great was the rejoicing at her successful return. At once they put the scalp on his head, but so dry
and warped had it become that it would not fit. Here was a new trouble. All did their best but nothing availed. Then the great eagle said that on the high rocks where he lived far above all other birds, the mountain dew had collected on his back, and perhaps this might serve. He plucked one of his long feathers, dipped it in this dew, and applied it to the scalp. It worked finely and the scalp was moist again. The animals brought other things for the cure. The scalp was placed on the head, to which it closely adhered. The hunter revived and recovered his strength. They gave him the compound which had restored
him, as the gift of the Great Spirit, and there was then a pattering of feet and a rustle of wings as the council dispersed. The good hunter returned to his lodge in peace.”

We can clearly see that scalp-taking holds special meaning among the Iroquoian people and is the source of a powerful medicine tradition. Such is the origins of all of these head-wearing traditions and the immense respect for the power it invokes. 

There is another bit of historical phenomena which is likely coincidental but it falls within the range of this discussion. In Europe it was customary to create medals or coins which commemorated special events or even people. These medals typically had a bust of a king or perhaps a queen and some sort of emblem of that country on the obverse. Sometimes they had special meaning as in the so-called “peace medals” other times they could be simply a sign of allegiance or reward. They were worn on the chest suspended by a ribbon. In the colonial period, Natives were introduced to this concept and embraced this idea greatly as it fell in line with the pre-existing ideas of shell moon/head ornament wearing traditions. It is a quirk of serendipity that both traditions align so well in this case. I do not believe that one had to do with the other but more likely, the practice was enhanced and promoted by all. 

Lastly, I want to reemphasize the connections between heads, and scalps, moons, shells and medals in the woodland tradition. They are all related in some way to one another and ultimately they are all hung from the neck. 

PS. I simply have to include this last story related to scalp-taking. It is far too amazing to be left out of this blog post. Enjoy.

And then from “Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader” by John Long in 1791 we receive a detailed explanation of wartime scalping and also an amazing anecdote from earlier in the century.

“A Mohawk, of the name Scunnionsa, or The Elk (it means”they have a large nose” also a word for a moose), and a Chippeway Indian of the name of Cark Cark, or The Crow, having met at a council of war near Crown Point, in the year 1757, were extolling their own merits, and boasting of their superiority in taking scalps. The Mohawk contended that he could take a larger scalp than the Chippeway warrior; who was very highly offended, and desired that the experiment might be made. They parted, each pursuing a different route, after having first agreed to meet at a certain place, on a particular day, when a council was to be held. At the time appointed they returned, and appeared at the council. The Mohawk laid down his scalp, which was the skin of the head and neck of a man stuffed with fine moss and sewed up with deer’s sinews, and the eyes fastened in. The Chiefs expressed their approbation, and pronounced him to be a great and brave warrior. The Chippeway then rose, and looking earnestly at the Mohawk, desired the interpreter to tell him that it was an old woman’s scalp, which is considered a term of great reproach, and called to one of his sons to bring forward his scalp; when instantly he exhibited to their view the complete skin of a man, stuffed with down feathers, and sewed very close with deer’s sinews. The Chiefs loaded him with praise, and unanimously acknowledged his superiority. The Mohawk warrior, fired with resentment, withdrew from the council meditating revenge; and as soon as he saw the Chippeway come forth, he followed him, and watching a convenient opportunity, dispatched him with his tomahawk, rejoicing that he had, even in this dastardly manner, got rid of a victorious rival.”