If you live in North Mississippi, you live on ground that once belonged to, and was sacred to, the Chickasaws. The story of how we (meaning white people) came to possess their land is not a story of our country’s finest hour. But it is an oft-repeated story of exploration, conquest and expansion–manifest destiny, some call it.
Chickasaw Nation Governor, Bill Anoatubby, says, that the ancient Homeland still has a special place in the hearts of his people. “For years, Chickasaws have traveled to the homeland to renew their connection with the history and culture of Chickasaw people. It is an emotional experience to walk in the footsteps of our grandparents and see the land our ancestors called home.”
Some of those tribal visitors were in New Albany on April 18th for the Chickasaw Celebration at the Union County Heritage Museum. Members of the Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe joined Inkana Foundation speakers Dr. John Dyson, Dr. Brad Lieb and Raymond Doherty to discuss Chickasaw history and its continuing influence on their Homeland.
Tallahatchie, Tupelo, Tishomingo, Oktibbehah, Pontotoc are just a few of the many local names that come from the Chickasaw language. Tupelo is the virtual ground zero for the Chickasaw Nation’s Homeland history. A village site was accidentally unearthed during expansion of North Mississippi Medical center in Tupelo. The Chickasaw town of Ackia figured in a decisive Chickasaw victory that was the worst defeat of the French by Native Americans. The battle was fought near Long Town, a site now covered over by Lee Acres subdivision, in Tupelo. A family farm in west Tupelo, contains the George and Saleechie Colbert archaeological site. It is where the 1816 Treaty of Chickasaw Council House was concluded, and where Andrew Jackson visited for several weeks. We north Mississippians practically stumble over Chickasaw history every day, and there have been many instances where that history has not been given proper and decent care.
The Chickasaw Nation in history, and before
The origins of the Chickasaw Nation date to prehistoric times in their tribal oral legends. Archaeological evidence indicates indigenous peoples lived in Northeast Mississippi 12,000 years ago. Some cave sites in other places in the US have archaeological evidence of occupation as much as 16,000 years ago.
The indigenous people of North Mississippi, known as the Chickasaw, occupied what is now the northern section of Mississippi, and parts of Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, having migrated here in unknown times, perhaps around 1300, from “west of the Mississippi River.” Traditionally, their first permanent settlement east of the Mississippi River, was said to be Chickasaw Old Fields, on the Tennessee River, just west of Huntsville, Alabama. The exact timing of their arrival is not recorded, but it is known that they were long settled in that region when Hernando de Soto arrived in 1540.
By 1700 Chickasaw Old Fields had relocated to the southwest, at the headwaters of the Tombigbee River in northeast Mississippi. In addition to a portion of northern Alabama, their lands also ranged to western Tennessee and Kentucky west of the divide between the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, including the Chickasaw Bluffs on the Mississippi river in Memphis. This was the Chickasaw homeland during the historic period.
Treaties, broken treaties, laws and acts: whatever it took
Over time, and for a variety of reasons, the Chickasaws signed four treaties (in 1805, 1816, 1818, and 1832) that eventually relinquished all their Homeland. The first crack in the Homeland came in 1805, when the Chickasaw gave permission for the Americans to build the Natchez Trace through their lands. A treaty signed with Andrew Jackson in September, 1816 cost them their remaining lands north and east of the Tennessee River. In 1817 Mississippi entered the union and immediately began demanding the removal of the Chickasaw and Choctaw. Further land cessions were negotiated from the Chickasaw in 1818. Only 27 years after agreeing to allow the Natchez Trace, the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek ceded the last of their lands to the “white man” in 1832, in exchange for $3,046,000, minus costs of surveying and selling the land.
Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, and the clock began to wind down on the Chickasaw’s days in Mississippi. With the money received for their lands, the Chickasaw were to be able to purchase new land in the Indian Territory, but five years elapsed before that came to pass. The first group of 450 departed in June, 1837, and the Chickasaw removal from the Homeland was largely accomplished in two years.
The Chickasaws were known to be great warriors, prone to form small, quick raiding parties that were extremely efficient in waging war. They fought against many enemies over the years, including the Choctaws, the Creeks, the Cherokees, the Spanish and the French. They were considered by many to be the southeast’s most successful fighters. They aligned with the British in the Revolutionary war, but did little fighting and quickly came to terms with the Americans after the war. Joining up with the Confederacy during the Civil War handed them their only major loss in a battle. Even at that, when they surrendered on August 5th, 1865, the Chickasaw Nation was the last political unit of the Confederacy to give up the fight.
The final treaty and a season of defeat
The US government leveraged the Chickasaw’s part in the Civil War against them, claiming it gave the government the right to negate all treaties. In April 1866, the Chickasaws signed their final treaty with the United States. The treaty outlawed the Chickasaw practice of slavery and forced surrender of their claims to southwest Oklahoma. They were also supposed to make their freed black slaves full members of the tribe.
When the Curtis Act in 1895 dissolved tribal governments, the Choctaw and Chickasaw fought the Act until 1897, but finally agreed. With allotment in 1901, the Chickasaw became citizens of the United States and were allowed to vote. Their tribal lands, once amounting to 4,707,904 acres, dwindled to a current 300 acres. In 1906 the Chickasaw Nation’s tribal government was dissolved to allow for Oklahoma statehood. The Chickasaw Nation ceased to exist.
Looking to a better future
After 1935, under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, many tribes reorganized. The Chickasaws refused to do this until 1963, and were not allowed to select their own chiefs until 1970. They are currently the eighth largest tribe, with about 35,000 members, and have become a success story. The nation’s website states: ” Today, the Chickasaw Nation is economically strong, culturally vibrant and full of energetic people dedicated to the preservation of family, community and heritage.
“Since the 1980s, tribal government has focused efforts on building an economically diverse base to generate funds that will support programs and services to Indian people. Business has flourished, programs and services have grown, and the quality of life for all Chickasaws has been greatly enhanced.”
The Chickasaw Inkana Foundation preserves, protects and interprets Chickasaw history. The foundation co-hosted the mini Chickasaw Celebration in New Albany, along with the Union County Heritage Museum. The museum’s event hall and hallways were packed with a crowd of about 250 who turned out on a rainy day to enjoy the presentations and the excellent refreshments.
This year’s celebration also included a new feature, the Homeland Art Competition. Dozens of beautiful artworks by the Union County and New Albany high school art students adorned walls and tables in the event room and hallways. These works will be on display through May 2nd. More about this in a separate article.
Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe:
Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe (with New Albany dancers):