The Nanih Waiya mound is located in Winston County on July 30, 2023. The mound is the sacred origin site of the Choctaw people. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Earlier this year, Amanda Bell and her family planned a visit to Nanih Waiya. 

Located in southern Winston County between the Crystal Ridge and Bogue Chitto Choctaw communities, the Nanih Waiya mound is “the heartbeat of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians,” said Bell, who is manager and Choctaw archivist of the Chahta Immi Cultural Center in Philadelphia.

The trip to the mound was meant to be a moment for reflection and family, but it quickly devolved into a horrific and saddening day instead.

As they arrived at the site in February, Bell and her family found destruction: donut tire tracks on and around the mount, litter and bottles of alcohol strewn around the sacred site. 

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Department of Public Safety posted photos of the vandalism, along with a request for information on Facebook after Bell and her family discovered what happened.

“Nanih Waiya Mound is a sacred and important landmark of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians,” the post reads. “It is an area that should be respected by all people who visit.  We are saddened to hear that our sacred Mound grounds was vandalized recently.”

Months later, the search for the vandals continues.

Photo of Nanih Waiya vandalism taken by MBCI Department of Public Safety.

‘The Mother Mound

Nanih Waiya, which means “leaning hill,” is 25 feet high, 618 feet long and 140 feet wide, roughly matching the earliest recorded descriptions of the site. 

Originally, the mound also included a ramp, which has now been destroyed. While Nanih Waiya itself has received only minimal damage across the centuries, the entire site has not been as fortunate. Several small burial mounds, which have now been nearly leveled by plowing, are several yards from Nanih Waiya, while a raised embankment and a moat once circled the site. 

Nanih Waiya is prominently featured in the two Choctaw creation stories.

In one, each of the Southeastern Indigenous nations emerged from Nanih Waiya. After spending some time near the mound, they eventually went in their various directions, becoming the Creek, Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations. The Choctaw were the last to emerge from the mound. Once they did so, unlike the other nations, they saw that the “Mother mound,” had birthed them in a good place. They decided not to leave.

In the other legend, Choctaw ancestors came from the West, looking for a place to resettle. Each night of their travels, a Miko, or chief, placed a pole in the ground. The group would continue on in the direction in which the pole leaned the next day. When they reached Nanih Waiya, the pole remained upright, thus it was determined by the Choctaw ancestors that this is where they would remain. 

Nanih Waiya represents not only the MBCI’s history but its resiliency. Despite its status as a sacred site — one Choctaw people fought to protect and retain even as early European settlers took more and more of their land — the U.S. took Nanih Waiya, along with about 11 million acres of what is now Mississippi, from the Choctaw people in 1830 with the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.

After eight previous treaties between the Choctaw and the United States, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was the last. It was also the first removal treaty, carried into effect under the Indian Removal Act, sparking the Trail of Tears. In exchange for their home, the Choctaw received about 15 million acres in what is now Oklahoma. About 15,000 Choctaws left Mississippi for Oklahoma.

But not all Choctaws participated in the Trail of Tears.

Several thousand stayed in Mississippi and, in doing so, experienced decades of retaliation and intimidation. In 1945, those who stayed behind formed the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the only federally recognized American Indian tribe in Mississippi. In 2007, with one nay vote in the House, the Mississippi Legislature passed SB 2732, returning Nanih Waiya to the MBCI after nearly 200 years. 

Miko Beasley Denson and 17 Tribal Council members signed a proclamation in 2008, saying that the mound was never to be taken from the Choctaw people again, Bell said. In celebration of this, the MBCI celebrates Nanih Waiya Day the second Friday in August.

Photo of Nanih Waiya vandalism taken by MBCI Department of Public Safety.

‘I hope they learn their lesson’

Once they arrived at the site, Bell said they noticed tire tracks in the shape of a donut on the left side of the mound. In one area, it seemed as if someone had attempted to drive up the side of the mound. Trash, including a cardboard box, liquor bottles, beer cans and cigarettes, were scattered about the sacred site. The “Mother Mound” seemed to have been used not for ceremony or contemplation, but for debauchery.

Months later, Bell is still seeped in sadness when recalling the vandalism.

“How could they disrespect this sacred site? To this day, they haven’t found the person or persons that committed that,” she said.

But Bell is hopeful that the story doesn’t end there. 

She hopes that bringing attention to the harm the vandals caused will prevent similar instances in the future, and that it will encourage all Mississippians to learn about the state’s first inhabitants. 

“It was sad and a bit of a heartbreak,” she said. “The person that did this, well, they’ve gotten away with it. I hope that they learn their lesson that this is a sacred site … I hope it will open eyes to others that it needs to be respected. It’s not just a hill, it’s a mound. It’s the Mother mound and a sacred space where the early Choctaws settled.”

Note: If you have any information about the vandalism, contact the Choctaw Police Department at 601-656-5711 or the Attorney General’s Office at 601-656-4507. You can anonymously share information by calling or texting 844-601-1308.

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