Stories through Symbols – history, thoughts, ideas, dreams


Symbols have been around for a long time. Past cultures have embedded special meaning and spiritual significance into various symbols. We have been discovering these over time and the lasting symbols are those that were left by previous cultures in the form of art. The art has taken the form of pictographs, petroglyphs, images placed on pottery, patterns woven into fabrics and symbols carved on various surfaces.

The Visitor Center design has utilized much of the symbolism, philosophy and culture of the Chickasaw Nation. This symbolism has been incorporated subtly and boldly both inside and outside the project. Perhaps the most bold and graphic statement is incorporated into a functional element on the site.

If you recall in the post “Sculpting the Land,” we had to deal with a challenging site that sloped some 8 feet from the back to the front. This led to the need for a creative solution for incorporating sidewalks and ramps that would allow pedestrians to get from the northwest corner of the site to the southwest corner of the site and somewhere in between get to the lower building entry on the south side. Handrails are needed along these ramp and stair locations.

Usually these exterior handrails are provided for functional reasons only and become very utilitarian in providing something to hold on to as you negotiate a change in vertical elevation; typically via a ramp or stair. The Visitor Center deserved more as it is a place that tells a story. And in this case a Chickasaw Story. FSB decided to have the handrails be a piece of art and incorporate symbols important to the Chickasaw Tribe.

The following are details from the construction drawings showing the handrails and symbols.

Construction Details

The following is a rendering of the Visitor Center from the west showing the handrails along the sidewalks.

CN Vister Center-Handrails

The Meaning of Some Symbols

Some symbols go back to the Mississippian culture which flourished in the mid-eastern and southeastern US around 800 CE to 1500 CE. A number of Native American tribes descended from these cultures including the Chickasaws. These deeply spiritual native tribes communicated their history, thoughts, ideas and dreams from generation to generation through symbols and signs.


Individual Symbols - Copy (6)

The circle is symbolic of equality, where no person is more prominent than any other person. Circle meetings ensured that all people were allowed to speak and the words spoken were accepted and respected on an equal basis. A circle around other Native American symbols signifies family ties, closeness & protection. The circle has no break and holds that which cannot be broken.

Individual Symbols - Copy (3)

The traditional meaning of the cross in the circle symbol was that the four equal lines pointed from the center to the spirits of the north, east, south, and west and a representation of the Sacred Four elements, the great primary forces of Fire, Air, Water and Earth.

Individual Symbols - Copy (5)

The 8 pointed star symbolizes hope and guidance. A circle around other Native American symbols signifies protection. The circle has no break and cannot be broken. The Inner Star pointed to the four cardinal points, east, west, north and south. The points in the Outer circle led to the summer solstice where the sun path would be at its farthest north when the days are longest. This is a time of renewal, great potential and hope for the future.

Individual Symbols - Copy (2)

The meaning of the Four Ages of Man symbol signifies the milestones in a person’s life. Their birth and infancy, their youth and adolescence, their maturity in Middle Age and their wisdom in their old age.

Waves & Spirals

Individual Symbols - Copy

These symbols denote water and cycles of life, renewal & springtime.


Individual Symbols - Copy (4)

Fire symbolized the heart of the People and its smoke, which could also be created in a pipe, carried prayers to the Great Spirit. The Fire Symbol represents cleansing and renewal because out of the ashes of a fire comes new growth and new thoughts and ideas. Often times the symbol for fire was also the symbol for the sun.

The Eye of the Great Spirit

Individual Symbols - Copy (7)

Also known as the all-seeing eye of God, The Great Spirit was the principal deity in the religion of many Native American people. “Ababinili” is how the Great Spirit is known by the Chickasaw tribe. This is a very sacred symbol and is only used in appropriate locations and settings. The outdoor railing was not the place for this special symbol.

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