Rising a majestic 25 feet out of the Mississippi earth is an enormous mound measuring 218 feet by 140 feet that has been celebrated for centuries as a legendary birthplace of Choctaw civilization. Located near Louisville in Winston County, Nanih Waiya is among the most mysterious and enticing Native American sites in the southeastern United States. The site actually encompasses two mounds: the main (or temple) mound and the nearby Nanih Waiya Cave, which may be the setting for the Choctaw emergence myth. At one time the site was enclosed by an earthen embankment and moat, though only a short segment remains.
The emergence myth describes the birth of several southeastern tribes. When humans were first created, they were too weak to survive in the elements and remained protected inside the Mother Mound until they grew stronger. The first to emerge were the Creek, who dried themselves on the side of the mound and began to make their way toward the east.
The next to emerge were the Cherokee, who looked to find the trail left by the Creek. The Creek, however, had been careless while smoking tobacco and caused a fire that destroyed their path. The Cherokee decided to turn north and settle. They were followed by the Chickasaw, who also chose the northern path. Finally came the Choctaw, who chose not to migrate but to remain near the mound.
Archeological evidence indicates that the mound was first built in the Middle Woodland period (approximately AD 0–300) and remained occupied until about AD 700. Historical data suggest that the modern Choctaw tribe moved to the Mississippi area in the late 1500s or early 1600s. By the eighteenth century the Choctaw began to venerate the site as an earth mother. However, Choctaw tradition also included another legend that described the Choctaw as immigrants to the area. Historical evidence tends to support the immigrant theory: the Choctaw were most likely a confederacy of groups that survived the diseases brought to Mississippi by Europeans.
Although the immigration legend remained a part of Choctaw tradition, Nanih Waiya was still regarded as Choctaw sacred ground. In 1828 Choctaw leader Greenwood LeFlore called a tribal assembly at Nanih Waiya to discuss the threat posed by growing numbers of white settlers. However, LeFlore’s efforts to maintain Choctaw control of the site failed. The 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which provided for the Removal of the Choctaw, and subsequent US government pressure eventually coerced the Choctaw to give up their Mother Mound.
The antebellum period ushered in an influx of white settlers as well as a dependence on agriculture. This new industry began slowly to erode the Nanih Waiya site, and an 1854 visitor noted that plows had leveled areas of the mound.
Nanih Waiya received a new lease on life when twentieth-century preservationists organized movements focused on native sites. In 1959 the Luke family sold the site to the Mississippi State Park Commission. The site opened to visitors in 1962 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places nine years later. In 2006, the Mississippi legislature returned control of the site to the Luke family, and T. W. Luke deeded it to the state on the condition that it be maintained as a park. In 2008, the Luke Family deeded control to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
As the mound enters its third millennium, its future once again is in jeopardy. In an age of government budget cuts, the conservation of Nanih Waiya remains uncertain. Yet despite its many trials, the old mound still greets the Mississippi morning as it has for the past two thousand years.
- Kenneth H. Carleton, Common Ground Magazine 1 (Spring 1996)
- Kenneth H. Carleton, Mississippi Archaeology 34 (1999)
- Heather Jackson, Winston County Journal (23 December 2004)
- George E. Lankford, ed., Native American Legends (1987)
- Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians website, www.choctaw.org
- National Park Service website, www.cr.nps.gov
- National Register of Historic Places website, www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com