Mississippi Indian heritage, once nearly erased, reclaims relevance

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Photo by Ariel Cobbert

Choctaw Princess Emily Shoemake at the spring festival.

Europeans, Africans and more recently Asians and Central Americans are credited with creating our contemporary Mississippi culture. But the contributions of Native Americans, who were here long before the others, often are overlooked.

“It’s impossible to say where the state would be without the tribal history,” according to historian James F. Barnett, author of Mississippi’s American Indians.

“Of course, only one of Mississippi’s tribes is still resident here and that’s the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians,” Barnett said. “All the other tribes, including the Chickasaws, the Natchez, the Yazoo and all of those other groups left the state due to pressure of one kind or another. We only have this one small group to represent all of the tribal groups that once lived here.”

Photo by Ariel Cobbert

Children perform Choctaw dances at a Choctaw spring festival.

While the Choctaws are the only tribe still thriving in Mississippi, the Chickasaws have an undying connection to their land of origin.

The Choctaws and Chickasaws once were a single tribe, and what caused the division is still debated. Each version of the story — whether it has a Choctaw or a Chickasaw origin — includes a journey from the West, a sacred pole and a virtually unavoidable division of the group.

This representation of an ancient Chickasaw village shows a stickball game going on to the left of the stockade.

Collectively, the tribal land stretched across Northeast Mississippi into parts of Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The Chickasaws, pressured to cede their land to the U.S. government and move west across the Mississippi River in the 1830s, still claim the Tupelo region as their homeland. Almost two centuries ago, nearly 40,000 Chickasaws lived in the area. And their descendants are proud of it. Today, tribe members ride buses 500 miles from their homes in Oklahoma to Tupelo in an attempt to reconnect with their past.

“For obvious reasons, this land that we inhabit today was theirs first and some of their influence can still be found in the way our roads are laid out and why towns have their names,” said Neal McCoy, executive director of the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“The Chickasaw Nation is a very successful nation from terms of financial stability, and their values and hospitality really align well with the people of North Mississippi.”

Many current-day Chickasaws say they feel at home when they’re there. The tall, lush trees conjure up stories shared by elders about living off the Mississippi land.

Tupelo was an easy choice for the Chickasaws when they selected a site for a state-of-the-art heritage center. The Chickasaw Inkana Foundation has been a major player in planning the multi-million-dollar center. Once completed, the center will play an important role in both preserving the Chickasaw tradition and heritage as well as raising awareness of the tribe’s existence.

“This is a re-connection to the tribe’s homeland, which, for them, is a very emotional and sacred place,” McCoy said.

Two hours south, about four miles west of Philadelphia, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians own a reservation known for, among other things, glitzy tribe-owned casinos.

The Mississippi Choctaws historically were one of the poorest Native American populations in the country until Chief Martin brought ideas from the Marshall Plan’s success in post-WWII Europe back with him to the tribe.

“When Chief Martin saw that Europe had rebuilt itself from rubble to prosperity under the Marshall Plan, he realized if the Choctaws were going to improve, they’d have to do it themselves,” said John Hendrix, the tribe’s director of economic development.

They created their own jobs in businesses such as a greeting card assembly plant. But their entrepreneurial spirit, exhibited in commerce and trading, extended much farther into the past.

Photo by Chi Kalu

The tribal seal and other traditional beadwork on display at the a spring festival.

“They were basically the Mississippi economy before Mississippi became a state,” Hendrix said. “Now, the Choctaws are one of the largest employers in Mississippi with half of the employees being non-Indian. Without that we wouldn’t be as strong of a state as we are today, especially east central Mississippi.”

The Choctaws, who have a population of approximately 11,000, have the power of self-governance within the reservation. Beyond preserving their heritage, such as teaching youth the tribe’s native language and crafts, the Choctaws have invested in health care by building a state-of-the-art hospital facility that houses many medical specialists.

“This transition improved patient care and service,” Hendrix said. “People are more likely now to come to the hospital because they can get treated in a timely fashion by professionals.”

Every year the tribe hosts the Choctaw Indian Fair, and stickball is still one of the most popular activities. The sticks used are similar to those in lacrosse, but smaller and made of wood, and each player gets two. Players score points each time they hit a pole in the middle of the field with the ball. It’s a physical game with plenty of pushing and shoving.

“I think it’s good for the people of Mississippi to know the history of the land and the history of the people that inhabited the land before they came along and the state even existed,” Hendrix said.

Photo by Chi Kalu

Holding hands provides encouragement as children await their turn on the dance floor.

James Barnett, who wrote Mississippi’s American Indians, adds that knowing Mississippi history is knowing the deep and sometimes dark history of the original inhabitants.

“An understanding of the history of the state’s native people is vital to any understanding of how Mississippi developed and how it became the state and culture it is today,” he said. “Anybody who lives in Mississippi is living on land that was once the possession of tribal groups in the state, and it’s important to understand that when European settlers came to Mississippi, they weren’t just putting up their tents and cabins on different land and settling. They were taking the place of the native population that lived here.”

And, over the years, the U.S. government systematically forced the tribes to leave their homelands sometimes at the points of bayonets. Some tribe members were put in stockades while whites looted their homes and belongings. Then they were marched thousands of miles to newly designated Indian territories west of the Mississippi River. Thousands endured epidemics and starvation; thousands died on the journey.

Both the Chickasaws and Choctaws are on the rise, doing better than they have in many years.

Now one of the Chickasaws’ and Choctaws’ biggest challenges is racing against time to preserve their culture, document elders’ oral histories and teach traditions to the younger generations. The clash of present and past also can be hard to handle.

“I think if people only took away one thing, it should be the importance of recognizing Mississippi’s American Indian heritage,” Barnett said. “So many aspects of our state are constant reminders like the names of counties and towns. Plus, the names of rivers and geographic places. Mississippi has a very rich and diverse past, especially when you begin to look at the tribal roots.”