Choctaw Beaded Sashes: Crossing Histories

By: and Erica Dienes

December 17, 2018

In 1901, during the Wanamaker Pan-American Expedition, Penn Museum Curator Stewart Culin purchased a selection of Choctaw objects from Louisiana.[1] The collection included two elaborately beaded red wool sashes—objects #38472 and object #38473—which were identified, in the Choctaw language, as ska-bo-chai.[2] The coiled designs evoke ancient motifs seen in Eastern Woodland Mississippian and Early Historic period pottery. Those motifs have persisted, influencing a southeastern beadwork style that is immediately recognizable as distinctive to Choctaw traditional regalia.[3]

Choctaw beaded sashes, objects #38473 and 38472. Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum.

The sashes were purchased by Culin for $2.50 in 1902. The Museum catalogue card identifies them as Muskogean Choctaw, “purchased from Ernest Faure – a half-breed – and his wife. Wife was the daughter of Prince Pisa, a Choctaw.” The catalogue card notes that there are two photographs of Native men wearing these specific sashes (also called bands or baldrics): one photograph taken in the late 1800s shows Prince Pisa; the second shows Ernest Faure.[4]

Pisatuntema in 1909. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, BAE GN 01102B20 0622900.[7] 
Historically, sashes like this were typically worn by male leaders in tribal communities, to reflect the roles they played and the respect they received.[5] Women sometimes also wore these sashes, as can be seen in a 1909 photograph of Prince Pisa’s daughter Pisatuntema wearing a similar beaded sash. She was, at that time, well-known as a traditional storyteller and the oldest woman in her Choctaw band in the Louisiana marshes.[6]

Ernest Faure in 1902. Penn Museum Archives 13975.

When Stewart Culin met with Pisatuntema in 1902, he noted that “she had the ornamented blue calico shirt and the baldrics (ska-bo-chai) of red flannel, ornamented with white bead work in characteristic scroll design, which her father had worn for his picture.” Her husband Ernest then “kindly put on the costume and allowed me to photograph him.”[8] 

These two sashes were intended to be worn together, one across the chest and one around the waist, as seen in the photograph taken by Culin. The sash worn across the shoulder is currently on display in the Native American Voices exhibition at the Penn Museum, but the other sash rests in collection storage. Although the sashes are related, their story is disconnected when they are not presented together.

Patterns of Choctaw Identity

In addition to the spiraling designs, the sashes display a unique beading style that distinguishes them from other Native American beadwork: each stitch holds one horizontal bead and one vertical bead, in what Cherokee artisan Martha Berry calls a “two-bead line stitch” that resembles the patterns of stepping in a traditional stomp dance.[9] Most of these Choctaw sashes were made with a red wool background and thin strips of blue wool placed between the rows of white pony beads. No other bead colors were used. A few sashes have a dark blue wool background with red strips between the rows of white beads. One of these—object #E25410 in the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum—was collected by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions near the Choctaw school on the Yalobusha River in Mississippi.[10]

From a mixed European and Choctaw perspective, these sashes were meant to be worn by a leader or a warrior, signaling Choctaw identity in a way that is highly visible from a distance. Similar shapes of sashes were made and worn during the 19th century by men from other southeastern tribes, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole. A Seminole contemporary artisan, Brian Zepeda, notes that “the easiest ones to pick out are Choctaw. . .They use red [wool] and white beads, with white spirals.” The sashes reflect the adaptability of cultural cohesion over time, weaving together old symbols with new materials.[11]

The designs seem playful and decorative, but they are more than mere adornments. From the Indigenous perspective, they evoke Choctaw beliefs about relations with other-than-human beings. Choctaw contemporary artisan Jerry Ingram, who makes modern versions of these sashes, says that the designs represent “two snakes always uncoiling and recoiling.”[12] The coiled spiral design evokes the “Great Serpent, Sinti Iapitta,” a powerful being known throughout the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Similar coiled designs can be seen in some of the mounds constructed in ceremonial landscapes in the Choctaw homeland in Mississippi.[13] To provide cultural context for the sash on display, the Penn Museum exhibition text explains these beliefs as follows:

“A Choctaw man wore this strap for special occasions. The white-beaded coil design represents the horned serpent from the mythologies of Southeastern tribes. The motif was often inscribed on prehistoric Mississippian ceramics during the same era. The horned serpent is thought to represent the great spirit of the underworld.”[14]

Typically, two sashes were worn, crossed over each other.[15] On a practical level, the sashes could be used as shoulder straps to attach to shot bags or powder horns, or simply worn across the chest to signal the status and identity of the wearer.[16] The sashes reflect both Indigenous styles and European influence: the red and brown colors resemble the bandoliers/cartridge belts worn by 18th and 19th century British and French soldiers in combat, while the spiral designs clearly communicate a distinct Choctaw identity.

Detail of coiled beadwork designs on Choctaw sash, object #38472. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Alliances and Entanglements

Historically, the relations among European settlers and the Choctaw over time were complicated. Southeastern Native communities were disrupted by successive waves of Spanish, French, and English settlers, and those pressures led to civil wars within and among Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek nations, disrupting older kinship ties.[17] By the 1740s, the Choctaw had decided to ally with the French leaders of Louisiana colony. One of Louisiana Governor Vaudreuil’s officers, Jadart de Beauchamp, went so far as to suggesting that fighting for the French was a perfect outlet for Choctaw expressions of masculinity and prowess, stating that if they are “men today,” “it is to the French alone that they are obliged for it.”[18] Perhaps these sashes were adopted to emulate the bandoliers worn by their French allies?

During the early 1800s, most of the Choctaw rejected Tecumseh’s offer to join his Indian Confederacy and fight against Euro-American settler colonials; this choice was likely motivated by survival instincts. Yet, as seen historically in the relations between colonial settler nations and Native peoples who chose to join them during times of war, the respect that Native people gave was rarely the same as the respect ­they received. During their alliance with American colonial leaders, the Choctaw were enticed to sign their lands over to the federal government, and after Mississippi was designated as a state, the Choctaw were pressured to relocate. In 1830, during the negotiations around the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, most of the Choctaw elders, both women and men, spoke against removal, but a few leaders welcomed the opportunity to claim land in Oklahoma.[19] In the end, despite American promises to reserve traditional Native homelands in Mississippi, the Choctaw were among the first Native people to be removed from the south and pushed to the west.[20]

Full length view of Choctaw sash #38472, which was worn as a belt. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

What was the Choctaw motivation in emulating European dress and forming an alliance with these colonial settlers? Did they want to be seen, like their European allies, acquiring respect in battle, or did they strategically utilize these sashes as a means to assert Choctaw identity while fighting against removal? These sashes tell their stories, not solely through the objects themselves, but through the people who wore them, how they were respected, and the roles they played within their community. The blended European materials and Choctaw designs represent honor and military prowess, while also suggesting negotiated survival and assimilation. The Choctaws were warriors and willing to fight alongside white settlers, perhaps trusting that they would not be displaced as a result. Yet, the European soldiers who wore bandoliers changed the way of life for the entirety of the Choctaw nation. These sashes must be interpreted as more than merely decorative clothing in order to fully convey the tangled crossings of these histories.


[1] John Wanamaker, was one of the financiers and founders of the Archaeological Museum that evolved into the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). See Joseph H. Appel, John Wanamaker Founder and Builder: America’s Merchant Pioneer from 1861 to 1922 (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1940), 404.
[2] Stewart Culin, 1901, “Archaeological and Ethnological Trips, Louisiana and Arizona: New Orleans; Keams Canyon; Canyon Diablo; First, Second & Third Hopi Mesas; Oraibi; Walpi. Choctaw; Hopi. Brooklyn Museum.
[3] “Choctaw Beadwork,” Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians website.
[4] Notes on Penn Museum Catalogue Card.
[5] “Traditional Clothing of Choctaws,” Choctaw Nation Store. Also see “Choctaw Sash,” Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Cultural Services website.
[6] See David I. Bushnell, Jr., “Myths of the Louisiana Choctaw,” American Anthropologist New Series, 12 (4) (Oct. – Dec., 1910): 526.
[7] The photograph is captioned: “Pisatuntema in Partial Native Dress with Native Hairstyle and with Ornaments.” Photograph number BAE GN 01102B20 0622900 in the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Another photo, taken at the same time, shows a Choctaw man named “Ahojeobe or Emil John” wearing the same sash (photograph number BAE GN 01102B13 06226200).
[8] Culin appears to have interchangeably identified these objects as “bands” or “sashes” or “baldrics.” Stewart Culin, 1901, “Archaeological and Ethnological Trips, Louisiana and Arizona.
[9] Martha Berry, quoted by America Meredith, in “Stitches in Time: The Rebirth of Southeastern Woodlands Beadwork,” First American Art Magazine, March 27, 2015.
[10] A very similar Choctaw sash, dated 1835-1850 and collected by John and Marva Warnock, is pictured on-line in “Splendid Heritage: Treasures of Native American Art.” Another very similar Choctaw sash was collected in Arkansas in the early 20th century, and sold at a Cowan’s Auction in 2011. The National Museum of the American Indian has 17 Choctaw sashes in its collection, most of which were collected by Mark Raymond Harrington; see, for example, this Choctaw sash collected in 1908 from Agnes Wallace.
[11] Brian Zepeda, quoted by America Meredith, in “Stitches in Time: The Rebirth of Southeastern Woodlands Beadwork,” First American Art Magazine, March 27, 2015.
[12] Sean Everette Gannt, Nanta Hosh Chahta Immi? (What Are Choctaw Lifeways?): Cultural Preservation in the Casino Era, Ph.D. thesis (University of New Mexico, 2013), 8.
[13] Donna L. Akers, Culture and Customs of the Choctaw Indians (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2013), 146. For a detailed discussion of the beliefs and practices that informed the pre-colonial mound-building ceremonial complex, see James Vernon Knight and Vincas P. Steponaitis, eds., Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom: Chronology, Content, Contest (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2007).
[14] Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now, Penn Museum exhibition text.
[15] Rayna Green with Melanie Fernandez, The British Museum Encyclopedia of Native North America (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 17.
[16] Patricia Galloway and Clara Sue Kidwell, “Choctaw in the East,” in Handbook of North American Indians: Southeast, R.D. Fogelson, ed., vol. 14 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2004), 507.
[17] John R. Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931), 4-6. There is also evidence that the Choctaw and Chicksaw were closely linked before separating into two distinct tribal nations before Europeans arrived. See Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995). Also Richard Green, “Beyond the Divide: Chickasaw-Choctaw Warfare,” on the Chickasaw Nation website, August 13, 2014.
[18] Matthew J. Sparacio, In Time of Iron-Age: The Choctaw Civil War and the Southern Frontier, Ph.D. thesis (Auburn University, 2018), 90, 97-99.
[19] John R. Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931), 4-6.
[20] James T. Carson, Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

Sources Cited:

Akers, Donna L. 2013. Culture and Customs of the Choctaw Indians. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.

Appel, Joseph H. 1930. John Wanamaker Founder and Builder: America’s Merchant Pioneer from 1861 to 1922. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.

Bushnell, David I. Jr. 1910. “Myths of the Louisiana Choctaw.” American Anthropologist New Series, 12 (4) (Oct. – Dec. 1910): 526-535.

Carson, James T. 2003.  Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.

Culin, Stewart. 1901. “Archaeological and Ethnological Trips, Louisiana and Arizona: New Orleans; Keams Canyon; Canyon Diablo; First, Second & Third Hopi Mesas; Oraibi; Walpi. Choctaw; Hopi. Unpublished report in Series 2.1: Collecting expeditions 1898-1928, Brooklyn Museum.

Galloway, Patricia. 1995. Choctaw Genesis. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Galloway, Patricia and Clara Sue Kidwell. 2004. “Choctaw in the East.” In Handbook of North American Indians: Southeast, edited by R.D. Fogelson, 499-519. Vol. 14. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Gannt, Sean Everette. 2013. Nanta Hosh Chahta Immi? (What Are Choctaw Lifeways?): Cultural Preservation in the Casino Era. Ph.D. thesis. University of New Mexico.

Green, Rayna, with Melanie Fernandez. 1999. The British Museum Encyclopedia of Native North America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Green, Richard. 2014. “Beyond the Divide: Chickasaw-Choctaw Warfare.” Chickasaw Nation website. August 13, 2014.

Knight, James Vernon and Vincas P. Steponaitis, eds. 2007. Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom: Chronology, Content, Contest. Alabama, GA: University of Alabama Press.

Meredith, America. 2015. “Stitches in Time: The Rebirth of Southeastern Woodlands Beadwork.” First American Art Magazine (March 27, 2015).

O’Brien, Greg. 2008. Pre-removal Choctaw History: Exploring New Paths. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Sparacio, Matthew J. 2018. In Time of Iron-Age: The Choctaw Civil War and the Southern Frontier. Ph.D. thesis. Auburn University.

Swanton, John R. 1931. Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out and consider similar materials, research articles and archives, Indigenous knowledges and histories, and non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Blackfeet Moccasins: A Gift to Charles Stephens.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Tlingit Raven Rattle: Transformative Representations.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”
• With Ben Kelser. “Children Among the Caribou: Clothes for a Young Innu.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”
• With Leana Reich. “The Mysterious Beaded Collar.”

For links to blogs from past Museum Anthropology classes, see:
2017: “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory”
2015: “Deep Description and Reflexivity: Methods for Recovering Object Histories”
2015: “The Speck Connection: Recovering Histories of Indigenous Objects”