Fashion of decorating one’s body was not limited to tattoos or other permanent markings. Another important part of the Mississippians’ lives came certain dress codes, ornaments as well as the fashion that demanded complete removal of one’s body hair.
One of the early French chronicles Jacques Gravier claimed that in some settlements women followed the custom of blackening their teeth by chewing burned tobacco mixed with wood aches, rubbing their originally unblemished teeth every morning with it. However, as no other French chronicle remarked on a custom like that, we are left in certain doubt regarding such practice.
Nearly every account refers to the decidedly flat tops of people’s heads, which were the fruit of traditional body modification. Luxembourg goes into great detail recording the procedure:
“…They have their heads pointed and almost of the shape of a miter. They are not born so; it is a charm that given them in the early years. What a mother does to the head of her infant in order that the tender bones assume this shape is almost beyond belief. She lays the infant on the cradles which is a simple board on which is spread a skin of an animal. One extremity of the board has a hole where the head is placed and it is lower than the rest. The infant being laid down entirely naked she pushed back its head into the hole and applies to it on the forehead and under the head a mass of clay which she binds with all her strength between two little boards… It sleeps thus every night until the skull takes on the shape which custom wishes it is to receive…”
Aside from such practices of lasting effect, the Mississippians were reported, as stated above, to be meticulous about removing their body hair. Having beards or hair in armpits and other delicate regions seemed to be considered a bad taste. According to Dumont:
“…they never have any beard, or hair on their bodies, which comes from the fact that from their youth they come to great pains to pluck it out…”
Du Pratz goes into a great detail on the manner in which every man and woman went about having their body hair removed by plucking it painstakingly, or sometimes using beeswax in careful manner. It was considered unworthy to have a hair anywhere but on one’s head, a custom completely foreign to the French describing it.
It was of course the other way around when it came to various calls of fashion regarding hairstyle and hairdressing . Men and women took great care of grooming their hair, wearing it differently, especially men. Some were shaving their entire heads, leaving only a fashionable tuft on their tops, braided and decorated meticulously. Others were reported to cut their hair on one side while keeping the opposite side as long as it grew. Some sported carefully braided tresses hanging from each side of the cleanly shaved skull. Others wore their hair short, leaving a crown in the style that reminded the French of their own monks’ hairdo.
Women and girls in their majority, according to Dumont, wore their hair thick and very long,
“…very black and beautiful locks and wear them either braided in tresses or bound into a cue with a belt of that bison hair, which I was told is fine and soft as wool, as a ribbon. These tresses are ordinarily interlaced by the way of ornaments with strings of blue, white, green or black beads, according to their taste, sometimes also with quill of porcupine…”
Pearls and pearly decorations were definitely favored by the fair sex. River mussels, found in abundance in both great and small watersheds of the region, were collected patently by women and sorted, with precious pearls extracted when found, then worked into necklaces and bracelets. Often the inner pearly parts of the mussels were also incorporated into fine jewelry.
“…They have fine necklaces of pearls that they received from their ancestors, but they are all spoiled because they pierced them with the aid of a hot fire. Two or three are placed around the necks of the infant nobles when they come to the world; they wear them to the age of 10 and then replace them in the temple…” said Penicaut
In preparation for ceremonies and celebrations, people did their best to decorate their bodies with paintings and not only festive clothing and jewelry. All French remarked on the increasing trade in vermilion when festivities were hovering on the horizon.
“…The men and women of the Mississippi paint the face and employ for that purpose different colors with more efficiency then we do. Red, blue, black and white enter into the composition of their complexions. Sometimes half of the face is red or white; another marked with stripes as broad as thump and of opposite colors. In preparation for ceremony they are differently daubed. The taste of each is seen and distinguished in the manner of applying and placing those colors. It appeared to me that those more fantastic are those more refined; they are not countered with the face; they paint also a part of the head…” said Luxembourg
“The ornaments for festivals in themselves are as simple as the garments. The youths are as vain as elsewhere, and are charmed to vie with another to see who is most dressed up, so much so that they put vermillion on themselves very often. They also put bracelets made of the ribs of deer which they have worked down very thin, and bent in boiling water. These bracelepealrts are as white and as smooth as ivory on the outside. They wear glass beads in necklaces like the women… They put white down around the head, which is shaved. But for the little forelock or skein which they leave in the middle of the fontanel of the head they attach the whitest straight feathers they can find. They do, in short, everything that they young head is capable of inventing to adorn themselves.
Those who were warriors often had the lower part of their ears split in order to pass through them wire in the form of worm screws, a full inch in diameter. Nor did women let themselves fall behind on earrings of any sort. The most popular seemed to be made of a core of great shells, a pedant as large as a little finger, according to Du Prutz. Those who wished to sport such decoration had to make a hole large enough in their earlobe to insert the ornament, because the head of such earring had to be larger than the earring itself in order not to fall off.
“For this purpose the women take the end of a beautiful shell of a spiral form and rub them long time on hard stones and thus give them the shape of a nail provided with a head, in order that when they put them through the ear they would be stopped by this pivot, for these women have their ears laid open much more than our French women. One might pass the thumb, whoever large, through . They also wear on their necks plates about 3 or 4 inches in diameter, made of pieces of this shell, which they shape in the same manner on stones and to which they give a round or oval shape. They them piece them near the edge by means of fire and use as ornaments.”said Dumont.
Luxembouge confirms the size of the earrings:
“Their greatest ornaments consist of bead necklaces of different colors, with which they load the neck and the ears, where they have holes as well as the men, large enough to pass an egg through, which the size and the weight of what they put there from infancy greatly enlarges.”
An excerpt from “Shadow on the Sun“, The Mound Builders Series, book #1.
That made her smile return promptly. “We do plenty. We aren’t lazy or as poor as some town-people would love to think we are.”
That was more like it. “They certainly think that you have nothing but deerskins and some dried meat to spare.” He spread his arms wide, palms up. “That’s why they are so upset with you now. They think they will have to pay for what your brother did, knowing that you have nothing to offer in compensation.”
“They said that?” she cried out, the smile gone again. “But those are lies! We came to trade our goods with them just now, beautiful decorations, necklaces, shirts. They are the ones to pay us with food for those. Not the other way around!”
“Simple jewelry, they said.” It was too easy to lead her on. He felt a prickle of irritation against the stupid feeling that it wasn’t worthy or right to play games designated for crafty elders with her. “Nothing as beautiful as pearls. Only some polished bone.”
“Pearls?” she cried out so loudly, the people with torches who had gone toward one of the fires in the meanwhile looked back at them. “They said we didn’t bring any pearls?”
He shook his head noncommittally.
“Oh, but those are lies, open lies! Our pearls are most beautiful and the people of this very town are eager to exchange plenty of goods for them. Not only here but other villages downstream are asking to get our decorations. Kayina makes the most beautiful earrings and bracelets and necklaces out of her pearls. Everyone wants to wear them. Not only her pearls, but the decorations she makes out of mussels’ pieces too. They took everything we brought on the day before.” Again too loud of an exclamation. “Everything!”
Ahal nodded to himself, satisfied. “I see.” By the pair of the strangely curving mound, Utawah’s stocky figure was pacing impatiently, unmistakably his, a torch in his hand flickering angrily.
What now? he wondered, knowing that he should be there with his men, calming the spirits, or better yet, retiring to one of the elders’ houses for a good rest. Even though the results of this side conversation were rewarding, confirming their next destination, justifying the chase of the criminal should the young hothead turn out to be successful at getting away. It was better for everyone that he came back and confessed, sparing them the trouble of chasing him down or making an example out of the rest of his countryfolk. This young woman did not deserve to take the brunt, did she?