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By Arrell M. Gibson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1971 University of Oklahoma Press
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CHICKASAW ETHNOHISTORY: A RECONSTRUCTION
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Chickasaw Nation was in the throes of a comprehensive metamorphosis from the natural state to a general acceptance and application of the ways of Western civilization. One can better appreciate the drastic alterations which occurred in tribal social, economic, and spiritual life by first taking a look at the Chickasaws in their natural milieu. Two broad classes of sources make it possible to produce a generally satisfying reconstruction of this tribe's way of life in nature. One is the extensive body of reports by archaeologists and anthropologists. Their investigations yield professional and critically derived information which illuminates early Chickasaw life and practice. The writings of European agents and traders who resided in the Chickasaw Nation during the eighteenth century comprise another rich source. These men were, in a sense, on-the-spot witnesses to Chickasaw natural ways. Perceptive ones like James Adair not only appreciated their natural ways and went to great length to record them, but also detected the ferment of change which European innovations were bringing to Chickasaw life. Adair expressed nostalgic regret at the emerging disintegration of Chickasaw old ways: "We know by long observation, that, from the time our traders settled among them, they are every year more corrupt in their morals," not only in longpracticed taboos, but in many "religious customs of their forefathers."
A synthesis of these reports and writings reveals that the Chickasaw tribe was a component of a vast ethnological province bounded by the Ohio River on the north, the Gulf of Mexico on the south, and the Mississippi River on the west. Their early neighbors included the Choctaws, Natchez, Creeks, and Cherokees. Most Chickasaw lifeways resembled those of their neighbors. John R. Swanton, principal investigator of the Chickasaws and other southeastern tribes, has concluded that the material culture of these tribes was similar and that only a "few ... local peculiarities" existed.
The Chickasaws' closest cultural affinity was the Choctaws. Some authorities hold that at one time the Chickasaws were an integral part of the Choctaw tribe. The Choctaw-Chickasaw language, except for mild dialectal differences, is the same. Their language, the Muskhogean, was described as "very agreeable to the ear, courteous, gentle and musical; the letter R is not sounded in one word of their language; the women in particular so fine and musical, as to represent the singing of birds; and when heard and not seen, one might imagine it to be the prattling of young children. The men s speech is indeed more strong and sonorous, but not harsh and in no instance guttural and I believe the letter R is not used to express any word in any language of the [Muskhogean] confederacy"
The Chickasaw population ranged between an estimated thirty-five hundred and forty-five hundred, making it a relatively small Indian community when compared to the populous Choctaws who numbered perhaps over twenty thousand on the eve of European contact. The Chickasaws' strong warrior tradition and propensity for war had curious effects on the tribe's demographic composition. Population losses in combat were replaced by adoption of captives, absorption of small tribes residing on the periphery of the Chickasaw homeland, and, in one case, the reception of a remnant of the formerly populous and powerful Natchez after their near annihilation by a French army in 1730.
The early Chickasaw domain extended from the Tennessee Cumberland divide north to the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi River, astride western Kentucky and Tennessee and northern Alabama and Mississippi. Chickasaws used most of this vast province as a hunting range. Their first settlements east of the Mississippi River, according to tribal legend, were situated near the Tennessee River in Madison County, Alabama, at the original Chickasaw Old Fields. In later times the tribe relocated Chickasaw Old Fields in northeastern Mississippi near the headwaters of the Tombigbee River where their settlements remained concentrated until the federal government removed the tribe to Indian Territory during the 1830's.
Near the close of the seventeenth century, the Chickasaws occupied seven towns in the forests and upland prairies of the Tombigbee watershed. The tribal capital was at Chukafalaya, called Long Town by the British and Old Pontotoc by early American settlers. During the 1750's Chukafalaya contained over two hundred households. Akia, situated on a commanding ridge near Plymouth, was the principal military town. Its fortifications guarded approaches to the other Chickasaw towns. The Chickasaws were an expansive and restless people, and while the tribe as a whole maintained permanent residence in the Tombigbee watershed during the late prehistoric and most of the historic period, Chickasaw bands ranged eastward nearly to the Atlantic and west to the edge of the Great Plains. Their settlement patterns were determined by relations with other tribes and the Europeans. During periods of relative peace, they scattered across their country in small villages, at times into northwestern Alabama. At least two Chickasaw bands established semi-permanent villages on the Savannah River in South Carolina and Georgia. In time of war, either with the other tribes or the French, the Chickasaws made their settlements more compact. The Chickasaw depredation range extended south to the Gulf of Mexico, up the Arkansas and Red River valleys in the trans-Mississippi region, and north of the Ohio River.
One observer, in characterizing the southeastern tribes, called the Chickasaws the "Spartans" of the lower Mississippi valley, for "martial virtue, and not riches" was their only "standard for preferment." Chickasaw men were hunters and fighters first and agriculturalists only on occasion. Their women and Indian slaves performed the menial tasks of clearing land, caring for crops, and gathering firewood. Early visitors described Chickasaw warriors as "tall, well-built people," with reddish brown skin, raven black hair, and large, dark eyes, their actions exhibiting a superior and independent air. The women and older men wore their hair long. The warrior hairstyle was to shave the sides of the head, leaving a roach or crest which the wearer soaked with bear grease. Both men and women plucked all hair from their faces and bodies with tweezers made in early times of clam shells and later of wire. Chickasaw warriors painted their faces for ceremonies and war, the color and design indicating their clan association. They wore ear and nose ornaments and decorated their heads and shoulders with eagle feathers and a mantle of white swan feathers, the ultimate badge sought by every warrior.
James Adair, long-time trader among the Chickasaws and their chief advocate, was struck by the warriors' strength and endurance. He described them as exceedingly swift of foot: "In a long chase they will stretch away, through the rough woods, by the bare track, for two or three hundred miles, in pursuit of a flying enemy, with the continued speed, and eagerness, of a staunch pack of blood hounds, till they shed blood." Bernard Romans, an early visitor to the Tombigbee towns, was not as complimentary of the Chickasaws as was Adair. While granting that they were excellent hunters, expert swimmers, and fierce warriors, and were well made and powerful, Romans claimed that the Chickasaw warriors also were haughty, insolent, lazy, cruel, "filthy in their discourse," and "corrupt in their morals."
Europeans described Chickasaw women as "beautiful and clean" They gave much attention to their appearance, "never forgetting to anoint, and tie up their hair, except in time of mourning," and bathed daily except during periods of menstrual seclusion. The basic male garment was the breechcloth; in the heat of summer their only clothing with a shirt of dressed deerskin. Long shaggy garments of panther, deer, bear, beaver, and otter skins, the fleshy side out, warmed them in winter. Hunters wore deerskin boots reaching to the thigh to protect against brambles and thorny thickets. Chickasaw women wore dresses made from skins sewed together with fishbone needles and deer sinews. In winter they wrapped themselves in buffalo-calf skins "with wintery shagged wool inward." After English traders brought cloth to the Chickasaw towns, native women made a loose petticoat, fastened with leather belt and brass buckle, which reached "only to their hams, in order to shew their exquisitely fine proportioned limbs." The women made shoes for their families from skins of deer, bear, and elk, carefully tanned and smoked to prevent hardening.
The Chickasaw living mode was simple and steeped in nature. Their life cycle, institutions, and activities were expressed, to some degree, in religious terms. Chickasaw religion explained, interpreted, and provided answers for the mystifying aspects of life processes—birth, puberty, marriage, and death—and natural phenomena. Their methods for relating themselves to nature and one another were crystallized in set patterns or practices. All things in the Chickasaw universe had natural and religious overtones. Like other Indian tribes in the native state, the Chickasaws had no written language. Thus the tribal elders transmitted traditions, customs, lore, and accumulated knowledge to the young orally and by example.
This tribe's immersal in nature was demonstrated by their method for calculating time, which was based largely on lunar cycles. The first appearance of every new moon was a time of tribal observance and rejoicing. An early observer noted that on this occasion "they always repeat some joyful sounds, and stretch out their hands towards her." The Chickasaw year began at the first new moon of the vernal equinox. They divided the year into the four natural seasons, applying to each a descriptive designation: for autumn, "Fall of the Leaf." Chickasaw elders were the keepers of time and tribal lore generally. They numbered years by units of lunar months and seasons and commonly used "winters" to designate a span of years. The Chickasaws constructed primitive calendars consisting of knots on cords or thongs and notched sticks. Tribal leaders distributed these among headmen of the different towns to number the winters, moons, sleeps, days in travel, and the appointed time for a tribal council or for a campaign against the enemy. As each day passed, holders of the common calendar loosened a knot or cut a notch.
The substance of Chickasaw religion was contained in their deity concept, creation epic, migration legend, and eschatology. Over all the Chickasaw natural and social universe was a supreme being—Ababinili—a composite force consisting of the Four Beloved Things Above, which were the Sun, Clouds, Clear Sky, and He that Lives in the Clear Sky. This composite force made all men out of the dust of mother earth. Its earthly agents performed various creative and service functions useful to the Chickasaws. The crawfish brought up earth from the bottom of the "universal watery waste" and formed the earth. Other creatures produced light, darkness, mountains, and forests. That part of the composite force closest to the Chickasaws was the Sun, the great holy fire above. It was represented in each town by a sacred fire. Guardian priests watched over this fire and dispensed coals for household fires. This had the effect of bringing the composite force into each home.
In addition to the supreme composite force, the Chickasaw pantheon contained several lesser deities, the Hottuk Ishtohoollo and Hottuk Ookproose. The Hottuk Ishtohoollo were good spirits who inhabited the higher regions. The Hottuk Ookproose were evil spirits residing in the dark regions of the West. The Chickasaws also believed that certain supernatural beings resided in their immediate environment. These included Lofas and Iyaganashas. Lofas were giants, ten feet tall, who carried off women, beat men, and vexed the Chickasaws by driving deer away, hiding game from hunters, and causing personal disasters. Iyaganashas were little people, three feet tall, who helped the Chickasaws. They trained Indian doctors, transmitting to them their special curative powers, and taught hunters how to pursue and catch deer and other game. Chickasaws also believed in witches who took on various forms in nature. Like the Lofas, witches caused personal misfortune and illness.
A basic part of the Chickasaw religious corpus was the tribe's migration legend. Each generation was instructed by tribal elders in the long and difficult search for the homeland ordained for the tribe by their deities. This search began at some remote prehistoric time when the Chickasaws resided in the land of the setting sun. Their guide was an oracular pole, carried on each day's march by the tribe's holy men. At night, as the tribe rested from its march through the wilderness, the priests placed the pole upright in the ground. During the night, stirred by mystical forces, the pole moved about. The direction it had assumed at each dawn served as a compass to guide the day's march. Almost without fail it commanded that they move toward the rising sun. Eventually the Chickasaws crossed the Mississippi River. Their sacred pole continued to direct them eastward until they arrived at another river, the Tennessee, where they camped. Next morning the pole was as erect as the holy men had placed it the night before. With great rejoicing the Chickasaws cleared the land, planted corn, and built settlements which became Chickasaw Old Fields. The holy men kept a vigil over the sacred pole, and, after a time, it leaned westward. The Chickasaws answered its command, abandoning their towns on the Tennessee River and marching in the direction whence they came. In the Tombigbee highlands of northeastern Mississippi the pole again assumed a perpendicular position. The tribe set to work and restored Chickasaw Old Fields.
Chickasaw eschatology included a belief in an existence after death and implied a judgment and consignment by the celestial composite force to a life of joy in the sky or a life of torment in the Chickasaw hell. Their mortuary practice and mourning formula were essential steps in preparing the departed for the journey to the judgment. When a person died, the family dug a grave inside his house. They washed the corpse, anointed the head with oil, painted the face red, and dressed him in his best clothes. His gun, ammunition, pipe, tobacco, and a supply of corn were buried with him. The body was placed in a sitting position facing west "for otherwise it was thought that the soul would lose its way." The mourning formula included extinguishing the fire in his house, removing all ashes, and starting a new fire. The formal mourning period lasted twelve moons for about two hours a day. The widow or widower wept over the grave just before sunup and sundown for a month. Women played an important role in the extended obsequies as mourners. Those skillful at lamentation wailed. Warriors shot arrows near the grave to keep off evil spirits. Relatives commonly slept over the grave to "awaken the memory of their dead with their cries" and if "killed by an enemy, this helped to irritate and set on fire such revengeful tempers to retaliate blood for blood." The Chickasaws believed that the ghosts of those slain in battle haunted the dwellings of the living until revenged. In the Chickasaw eschatology, souls of the dead traveled west to the judgment. Those who had been good ascended to the sky world to live with the Great Composite Force. Evil ones were consigned to the western quarter of the Chickasaw universe, "from which came witchcraft."
The Chickasaws observed ceremonies, taboos, and sacrifices as religious exercises to placate and win the favor of the composite force and lesser deities. Their diagnosis of illness and healing practices were steeped with spiritual overtones. They explained natural phenomena in a celestial context. Most tribal legends, transmitted by priests and elders, were conspicuously religious in theme. The Chickasaw social system, based on clans and totemic associations, as well as tribal institutions, were suffused with divine ordinance.
Excerpted from The Chickasaws by Arrell M. Gibson. Copyright © 1971 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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