Ancient mound-builder imagery in modern art

By Keli Gonzales
on March 7, 2017

Winged serpents, rattlesnakes, spiders and warriors are prominent in Cherokee iconography and often misinterpreted as Central American motifs. The history of these designs dates back to the mound-building societies of the Mississippian and protohistoric periods of North America. Many Cherokee artists (as well as other artists belonging to the tribes whose homelands were in the Southeast, such as the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole) use Mississippian Era designs in their work today. Various establishments throughout the Cherokee Nation display these types of images.

Discovery of these images happened largely around the Mississippian Era mounds. Historically, Cherokees hail from the areas where these mounds emerged. Ritual and ceremonial objects found at these sites display supernatural beings and events that may be historical or mythical. Depictions of winged serpents and people dressed in elaborate regalia depicting eagle dancers are common. Gorgets from this period are pendants made from shell. A great number of these pendants are circular, but archeologists also discovered square gorgets. Gorgets often include animal and geometric designs representing celestial beings, such as the sun. Other common designs include the hand symbol, which often has an eye in the center, and the “weeping” or “falcon” eye that is a forked design over an eye. The iconography of this time period is related to Cherokee cosmology and myths. Some of the beasts and events from Cherokee stories are identifiable on artifacts from the mounds.

These ancient images have survived and made their way into the modern art world, thanks to archeology. Several Cherokee artists incorporate these designs into their work. The symbols from the past are taken out of their old context and given new life. The artists use them in creative ways in their paintings, pottery, sculptures and jewelry. Many paintings depict life in the Mississippian era, and from the artwork, one is able to imagine the use of the motifs. The use of other mediums, such as metalwork and sculpting, adds a new appreciation to the longstanding themes. Attending regional Native American art shows and galleries is a good way to see these works of art.

Some places of business in the Cherokee Nation even use the iconography as decor. The Spider Gallery in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, has the image of the water spider on the sign on their building. The lobby in the new Cherokee Casino in Roland, Oklahoma, prominently displays a serpent design behind the registration desk. The south entrance of the Roland casino includes many other works with Mississippian Era symbolism. The second floor mezzanines of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Catoosa, Oklahoma, and the southwest entrance of the Cherokee Casino in Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma, also display this type of imagery.

Symbols from an early era transcend their original intent and purpose. They are kept alive by the descendants of their creators. These motifs provide a connection to the past, and those connections are being displayed and brought to the public in new and exciting ways.