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Anthropologist contributes to major exhibit on peace medals

By Ann Friou
University News Service
November 16, 2011

During America’s colonial period, the Colonies and European powers established political alliances with Native American tribes and nations by giving peace medals to their chieftains.

“The peace medal, a silver medallion worn around the neck, was like the seal on a treaty,” said F. Kent Reilly III, professor of anthropology at Texas State University-San Marcos. “Peace medals provided a way for the Colonies and European powers to set up alliances with major Native American groups against rival powers and to create trading partnerships.”

Reilly is helping to mount an exhibition of peace medals, the largest collection ever assembled, at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla. The exhibit will run from Dec. 4, 2011 through April 1, 2012.

“Peace medals reveal the significant political role that Native Americans played in the world order in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” said Reilly, who directs Texas State’s Center for the Art and Symbolism of Ancient America. Among the collection, for example, is the first peace medal issued by President George Washington. The medal formed a treaty with the Muskogee Creek leader Alexander McGillivray, naming him as the first general officer of the U.S. Army. McGillivray also accepted peace medals from Spain and Britain, cleverly shaping policy with all three powers to maintain the sovereign rights of the Creek people of eastern Alabama, southern Georgia and Florida.

In a chapter that he has contributed to a companion book on peace medals, Reilly explains how the peace medal tradition evolved from the ancient Native American tradition of wearing shell gorgets. The inscription on a shell gorget connected the wearer to supernatural powers in the Other World, Reilly said. Because Native Americans saw Europeans as “other,” they considered Europeans also to have a supernatural aura about them and their proffered peace medals to represent a connection to supernatural power.

“Europeans recognized that it was often by baubles and jewelry that people could be controlled,” Reilly said. “When Napoleon ruled France, one of the first things he did was to institute the prestigious Legion of Honour, whose badges, mounted on red ribbons, are still awarded as commendations to soldiers and civilians. When it was pointed out that France had just fought a revolution to abolish orders of chivalry, Napoleon said, ‘A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.’

“Think about what medals mean for Americans today,” Reilly said. “Our Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Purple Heart mean something that’s beyond monetary.”

In addition to Reilly’s contribution on Native American precursors to peace medals, the exhibit and book contain information on Canadian treaty medals, George Washington-engraved medals, medals of the 1762 Cherokee delegation to London, George III medals, Spanish medals, French medals and peace medals and early photographers.

More information on the exhibit will soon be available at http://gilcrease.utulsa.edu/.