Sex and the southern cult

Susan M. Alt, Timothy R. Pauketat

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Recent theories of gender and sexuality go beyond the mere location of men or women in the past and extend to investigating the sites of cultural construction where people lived and continuously produced gender identities and sexual practices' among other things ( Joyce 2000). These theories do not "give primacy to sexed difference" as if the categories and practices of people were fi xed and static (Meskell 2000:21). Instead' they understand the bodies' bodily movements' and experiences (including sexual acts) of people in the past to have re- produced cultures in material' spatial' temporal' and corporeal dimensions. Gender and sexuality were inextricably bound up in the process' in a recursive' ever- changing manner. Ancient American Indian peoples' namely the "Mississippians'" did not all possess the same gender categories or sexual practices any more than they shared an unchanging worldview' iconography' or cosmology. So' across- The- board assertions that some iconographic motif or another represents a woman' a man' or another gender should be questioned on the basis that all such depictions were themselves active projections or constructions of individuals' identities' and cosmologies. Likewise' stating that one Mississippian gender or another did or did not do something- say' use menstrual huts- erroneously assumes that Mississippian cultural identities and "primitive" gender relations were static and homogeneous (note that second- wave feminist interpretations are as guilty of this as nonfeminist ones [e.g.' Galloway 1997; Koehler 1997; Trocolli 1999' 2002]). While assertions of shared Mississippian norms and static gender roles are inappropriate' there clearly were historical relationships between people in North America that help explain the pan- eastern patterns we call Mississippian. In addition' we suspect that gender and sexuality were important in the history of Mississippianization' especially given their relationship to political centralization and inequality in other parts of the world (see Gailey 1987; Silverblatt 1987; Weiner 1976). But how do we adequately analyze gender and sexuality in an area lacking written records and absent the graphic depictions seen in other parts of the world (e.g.' Hegmon and Trevathan 1996; Hill 2000)s For starters' our archaeology needs to be more sensitive to the idea that' at many different sites' ancient people- biological males and females- created unique local cultures' political- religious cults' centralized polities' and a varied transregional ethnoscape that archaeologists have long glossed as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC) or' more loosely' the Southern Cult. The central processes of historical change' from our vantage point' were not purely political and economic and the SECC symbolism was not merely the legitimating icons of politicos. Gender and sexuality were subsumed in Mississippian practices and representational art in ways that we have yet to effectively unpack. To illustrate' we review a few of the ways in which the lived experiences of people in one locality may have been causally related to the gender identities' sexualities' and broader political- religious practices commonly associated with many later Mississippian peoples elsewhere. For present purposes' we seek only to illustrate such causal relationships in a preliminary fashion. Our archaeology begins where' it could be said' the founding men' women' and children of the original SECC converged- At Cahokia. We present some preliminary observations of one of the historically unprecedented and singularly important ridge- Top mortuary mounds at Cahokia: The unpublished excavation of the Wilson or "Junkyard" Mound made by Preston Holder and Joyce Wike. Our archaeology ends with some thoughts about the dispersion of the gendered and sexual imagery in inanimate Cahokian objects that' presumably' were animated in key localities across the American midcontinent and mid- South in order to tell some variant of a story about' among other things' sex and the Southern Cult. Our conclusion is that early Cahokia's "public theater"-involving ridgetop mortuary spectacles' Ramey Incised pots' chunkey games' and carved redstone fi gurines- contributed greatly to the gendered identities and sexual practices of later people.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSoutheastern Ceremonial Complex
Subtitle of host publicationChronology' Content' Contest
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9780817354091
StatePublished - 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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