A “language archaeologist” told 60 people gathered for a noon luncheon meeting today at the Union County Heritage Museum how the Tallahatchie River got its name.
John Payne Dyson has devoted about 20 years to researching the language of the Chickasaw nation, the tribe of Native Americans, originally living in north Mississippi, which was “removed” to what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s.
Born in Batesville, Mississippi, Dyson spent a great deal of his youth on the farm of relatives in the Pinedale community in the west part of Union County. He earned a PhD at the University of Kansas and was a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University, Bloomington, for nearly 40 years.
He had developed an interest in the Chickasaw language before retiring from his Indiana professorship in 2003. He says he followed behind when his uncle when plowing in Union County during his youth, collecting arrowheads and other artifacts which would sometimes be turned up by the moldboard. Thus, his interest in Native American culture is a long-standing one.
Before being forced to leave Mississippi to make way for white settlers during the 1830s, the Chickasaw tribe did not have a written language. They spoke a Muskogean language and many of them also spoke some English, a result of considerable contact with English-speaking white settlers before they were pushed out of Mississippi by the American government.
The Chickasaw tribal leaders observed that the use of the language was dying out as older Chickasaw speakers passed from the scene. Dr. Dyson’s efforts are focused in on restoring and further developing the written Chickasaw language using the Latin alphabet, which was originally taught to Chickasaws by Christian missionaries.
Dyson refers to himself as a “language archaeologist” and has labored to recover original place names and other words about to be lost to the Chickasaw language. He pores over books, maps, old documents, diaries, any source he can find — searching out Chickasaw words that are all but lost to the language.
Dyson explained to the museum audience the origins of several names of places and geographic features. For example, he said the Chickasaw word rendered in the Latin alphabet as TALI means stone or metal. The Chickasaw word written as NACHCHI means a slow-moving river. Thus TALI-NACHCHI presages the word we know as Tallahatchie.
He believes the rocks referred to are ones in the river within the New Albany city limits which create small waterfalls or riffles in the water as the water splashes over the rocks. One such rock bottom and its resulting riffles in the otherwise slowly moving, smooth-surfaced Tallahatchie is visible immediately downstream of the Interstate 22 bridges over the Tallahatchie River. He said the rocks at Rocky Ford near the Union/Lafayette County line are another example of a rock bottom in the Tallahatchie.
Dr. Dyson received the Chickasaw Nation’s Heritage Preservation award in 2006 for his article “Chickasaw Village Names Contact to Removal,” which was published in Mississippi Archaeology Magazine. Dyson is also a published poet.
The modern Chickasaw Nation is headquartered in Ada, Oklahoma.
For more information about John Payne Dyson and his work to restore and preserve the Chickasaw language, see this link on the Chickasaw Nation’s website.