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The Mysterious Case of the Figurines with No Gender

The Mysterious Case of the Figurines with No Gender


The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has one of the finest Native American artifact collections in the United States.  If you have never been there, it is well worth the trip to Knoxville, Tennessee.  The museum is on the campus of the University of Tennessee and closely tied to the Anthropology programs there. 

The letter from the UT student below reminded me of a funny incident that occurred at the museum over a dozen years ago.  Actually,  I recognized one of the professor’s names that she listed as her mentors for the Mouse Creek Thing.   This professor also has a major role in our comedy play.


The Plot

I had been doing projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation for a relatively short time and realized that I had much to learn.  The Southeastern Archaeological Conference announced a convention in Charlotte, NC on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The theme for the Saturday morning program was “Native American and Spanish interaction in the Carolinas during the 16th Century.”   My game plan was to drive over to Charlotte Friday afternoon . . . attend a lecture by a famous archaeologist . . . mix and mingle at the social that evening . . . spend most of the day at the conference Saturday then drive home that evening . . . unless I met an interesting lady.

Act One –  The Archaeologist’s Social

It was not what I expected.  The few “outsiders” who attended the social were made to feel very unwelcome, even though they had bought tickets.  The archeologists basically didn’t know what architects had to know and treated me like the hired help.  One of them from Georgia even asked me, “What are you doing here?” 

There were plenty of unattached women, but they were apparently only interested in talking to men, who looked like the Wookies in the Star Wars movies.     They would turn their back on me and walk over to guys, who I swear, had passed through a Star Gate from the Hippie Era.  A feller jest can’t get respect.

Act Two – Spaniards in the Carolinas

Saturday morning started out interesting enough.  The big lecture hall was self-segregated.   Undergraduates sat on the front rows. Graduate students sat in the next rows, followed by young professors and professionals.   The Old Guard sat on the last row, leaving most of the back half of the seats empty.  Apparently, that is where the rest of us were supposed to sit.

At the time, I really knew very little about either the De Soto or the Pardo Expeditions . . . plus absolutely nothing about the Spanish colony of Santa Elena.   The speakers at the table seemed to know what they were talking about, except they butchered the pronunciation of all the Spanish words.  It didn’t matter, I was there to soak up as much of their knowledge as possible.  

A Latin American-looking lady came in the room about five minutes after the lectures started.  She squeezed past me and sat two empty seats to the right of me.  Got a whiff of her expensive perfume.  Her body language said that she didn’t know anybody there.  Her latest fashions from Paris said, definitely . . . she was from a large Latin American city.   Both Middle Class and Upper Class Latin American women in large cities “dress to kill.”   I noticed that she grimaced every time that a Spanish word was mispronounced, but that is understandable.  PhD’s and professionals, such as architects, in other countries are expected to know at least two other languages.

THEN . . .  someone interrupted the speaker on Cofitachequi to ask him, if Cherokees or Catawbas lived in Cofitachequi.  He said Cherokees. There was a round of no’s and boo’s from the South Carolinians in the audience.  Someone shouted, “Catawba!”

Say what?  Dummy,  Cofitachequi is a Creek word, meaning Ethnically Mixed People!” . . . but not being a SEAC member, I couldn’t speak.

The meeting broke down from its agenda, despite the best efforts of the moderator.  The arguments back and forth between North Carolina and South Carolina became increasingly heated and occasionally off topic.  I could see that La Senorita was fidgeting and frowning.  I thought perhaps she needed to go to the restroom, but was embarrassed to ask a strange man to stand up and let her pass.  I whispered, ” ¿Está enfermo?”  (Are you sick?)

She looked shocked . . . shook her head to mean “no” . . . and then whispered, “You speak Spanish!”  I answered, “Más o menos.”   She immediately jumped to the seat next to me.  (I am not worthy.  I am not worthy.)   She whispered, “You are the first person in the United States to speak Spanish to me, except customs.”  We started passing notes back and forth like seventh graders. 

Maria was an anthropology professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.  I will call her Maria, because she is still a professor in Colombia, but with a married name.   She wrote that this meeting was bizarre.  It was about Spanish explorers and the North American Indios, but not one speaker was either Latin American or Indio.   She was right.

Maria had been awarded a research grant from the US State Department to study Pre-Columbian and Post-Columbian ties between the Southeastern United States and Colombia.  The trouble was that she knew more about the Spanish explorers than the Gringo professors . . . and the Gringo professors refused to discuss the possibility of contacts between North America and South America before Columbus. So she decided to just become a tourist and visit the interesting cities in the Southeast.  So far, Savannah and Charleston had been her favorites.  Meanwhile, the meeting had broken down into chaos.

Maria asked me if I was an archaeologist.  I told her that I was an architect.   Her eyes lit up, “¿Un arquitecto?”   In Latin America, architects have more prestige than doctors or lawyers.   She was impressed and probably thought I was wealthy like most architects, south of the border.

Maria passed me a note, asking if my wife was there.  I told her that I was single.  She then passed me a note that said, “Vamos! This is a waste.”   That evening I told her that she would enjoy visiting Asheville and the Biltmore House, but I had a construction inspection on Monday.  We could rendezvous in Knoxville later in the week to visit the McClung Museum.  She agreed.

Act Three – the McClung Museum

Maria was fascinated by the McClung Museum.  She had no idea that the Southeastern Indians were so culturally advanced.  Her brief courses in North American anthropology had only discussed the Southwestern pueblos in detail.  Her specialty was Pre-Colombian art.  She was especially fascinated by the many ceramic figurines on display.  

We came to a group of small figurines that were labeled “Personal figurines . . . gender unknown.”    I told her, “That’s ridiculous.   These are my ancestors.  Creek men always sit cross-legged.  Creek women always kneel. ” 

She exclaimed, “Por seguro . . .  it is the same with the Mayas and many of our Indios. You must tell the museum manager.” 

On the way out, we asked the student running the cash register to go get the manager.  We explained to him that among the Creeks and Mayas, the men sat cross-legged and the women knelled.  He wrote the information down, plus our names and thanked us.

We had walked maybe 30 feet down the exit hallway, when we heard a woman’s rapid footsteps behind us and shrill screams, “Stop!  You come back here.”    My first thought was that someone believed that we had stolen something . . . ridiculous. 

The woman did not have a heavy build, but was waddling and swinging her arms . . . with a deranged look on her face.  Well, to be honest, she looked like she was demonically possessed.  In between shouts, she was mumbling words, we couldn’t understand.

Maria was terrified.  I was in shock.

When the Banshee caught up to us, she shouted, “How dare you interfere with our museum?  Who do you think you are?

The Banshee rolled out her academic title and name.  I guess she thought that we would know who she was and be humbled.  

I tried to tell her that what I told the museum manager was common knowledge among the Creeks, but she was talking so fast that I don’t think she heard me.  She blurted out, “Neither one of you are qualified to say anything in regard to archaeology.  We anthropologists must study for years to gain our special knowledge.” (Actually, I have just as many of years in college under my belt as she does. )

Well . . . both Maria and I were obviously part Native American.   In a sane world, any anthropology professor, who specialized in Native American archaeology, would have at least paused to see what we had to say . . . oh . . . and also ask what we did for living.

At this point, Maria was thoroughly PO’ed.   She introduced herself and her academic honors in Spanish as a putdown to the ignorant Gringa. Of course, the Banshee didn’t understand a word, despite her professed intellectual superiority.  The Spanish words just irritated the Banshee further.  She told us to get out of the museum and not to come back.

Maria unleashed a long line of Colombian profanities, once we were outside the museum.   I was glad that I didn’t understand what she was saying and was not directing them at me.  You wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of this chiquita.

She was Upper Class Latina, way out of my league financially, but oh what a way to reek havoc in a museum.

Maria didn’t settle down until I had driven her up to 5800 feet tall Hoopers Bald at the crest of the Unaka Mountains for a magnificent view and a muy romantico picnic. Nearby was a rock outcrop with some letters carved on it.  Neither one of us bothered to look at the letters closely.  That day was like something out of a chick flick,  but Maria quickly lost interest in me after that day, when she realized that I couldn’t afford to hop on a jet and visit Bogata, Colombia each weekend.

Five years later, I WOULD look closely at that boulder with Spanish words on it.  They would change the history of the Southeastern United States.


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Love this post Richard. some people think they know it all don’t they. They never want to listen to another point of view. Your Spanish lady sounds a very nice lady. Pity she could not speak the language of the people at the Museum because I am sure they would have changed their tune. Well maybe !! Thanks again for a lovely story.

    • Actually, la senorita was fluent in English and French – typical of most archaeologists in Latin America. She spoke in Spanish to the Tennessee archaeologist as a way of pointing out the crazy lady’s ignorance. Most universities in the United States no longer require PhD candidates to be proficient in at least one foreign language. I think that it is a mistake.,.

  2. The policy of the People of One Fire has been from 2006 that no partisan party political statements are allowed. I didn’t trash this one so the policy would be very clear to all parties concerned. All of our problems prior to that came from rightwingers making stupid, off-topic political statements like they do on regular blog sites. From the beginning this has been educational website used by researchers and educators . . . for exchange of information to the history and culture of the Southeastern indigenous peoples.

    In regard to the salient part of the comment . . . . No that is the whole story from what “Maria” and I observed. At that time, I lived a totally anonymous life and very few people even knew that I was doing research projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation. The professor was obviously crazy as a loon.


    Hi Richard, I just found this wonderful website, while looking up ancient or old symbols. I’m trying to decipher a round brass pendant that was found very close to a tree in Indiana, that about 2 feet under. A friend, who just metal detects for fun, found it and gave it to me. She’s had several people, curators and an archeologist, look at it and she was told it could be native American or Egyptian, maybe perhaps even earlier, but no definitive answer has been made. It may nothing, but you never know. I thought it was beautiful, so she sent it to me.

    I thought I would try here to see if anyone may have any thoughts or knowledge as to it’s origin. I tried posting the pics here, but it appears that isn’t allowed. So an email addy would be appreciated. Thanks so much, I can also be reached at:



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