Scholars seek lost meanings of Native American symbolism

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
May 19, 2009

Scholars expect to unlock significant secrets of Native American symbolism when they meet at Texas State University-San Marcos May 27-31 for the 16th annual Mississippian Iconographic Workshop.
“We’re on the cusp of making major discoveries about the nature of the Native American political and ethnic geography of the lower south between A.D. 1300 and 1400 (Mississippian period),” said Kent Reilly, director of Texas State’s Center for the Arts and Symbolism of Ancient America, the workshop sponsor. “We’re right there. This year’s workshop should be really exciting.”
The archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians, folklorists and Native religious practitioners who attend the annual workshop are known in several academic circles as the San Marcos School of Iconographic Interpretation.  They are interested in identifying ancient Native American symbols as a way to reconstruct the Mississippians’ ritual activities, cosmological vision and ideology, and to return this lost information to Native Americans. 
In the 16 years since the scholars began meeting, they have identified several deities and at least 12 sets of other symbols. Two key identifications have been the deities Morning Star and the Great Serpent. Morning Star, also known as Birdman, is a hawk-like figure that brings up the sun from the Beneath World each dawn. Morning Star is associated with everlasting life, and rulers at ceremonial sites in Illinois and Georgia seem to have taken on Morning Star’s divine identity.
In contrast to Morning Star is the Great Serpent--sometimes depicted as a winged and horned serpent and at other times as an underwater panther with a snake-like body--that lives in the Beneath World and in the sky. The Great Serpent is associated with the realm of the dead and--as scholars began to discover in the 2008 workshop--with a distinct cultural area stretching from central Louisiana into Mississippi and from Baton Rouge to Memphis.
Also emerging from the 2008 workshop was evidence that key ceremonial sites in Moundville, Ala., and Etowah, Ga., were not friendly with each other.
“They literally had a Cane Curtain--a kind of Iron Curtain--between them,” said Reilly, who deciphered a symbol from Etowah showing Morning Star slaying a moth-like symbol associated with Moundville and the Beneath World. “This is something brand new that no one had realized till now.
“From the serpent imagery associated with Moundville we begin to see that the ideology of the area seems to focus on the Beneath World, the realm of the dead,” Reilly said. “By contrast, the ceremonial complex to the east at Etowah is focused on Morning Star and the Above World. We don’t know why one complex looks to the Beneath World for its source of authority and power and why the other complex looks to the Above World, but we want to know.”
In addition to investigating this question, scholars in the 2009 workshop will continue their work to define the artistic style appearing in the Louisiana-Mississippi cultural area. They’ll also work on identifying supernaturals among Caddoan imagery as well as symbols related to ritual bundles and sacred cults.
Reilly and workshop participants have produced two groundbreaking books containing their findings about Native American art and symbolism. The first, Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South (Yale University Press 2004), is the illustrated catalog of an exhibition of Mississippian art mounted by Reilly and others at the Art Institute of Chicago and the St. Louis Art Museum.  The second book, Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography (University of Texas Press 2007), presents 10 illustrated essays by scholars in the San Marcos School, analyzing the iconography of Mississippian art in order to reconstruct the Mississippians’ ritual activities, cosmological vision and ideology. A second book of essays from the San Marcos School is due out in 2009, and a third collection is being compiled.
More information about the workshop is available from Kent Reilly,