The story of Mississippi’s Native Americans is inextricable from that of the state itself, beginning with the river that gives the state its name.
Mississippi is derived from the Objibwe for “big river,” and the names of many towns and counties reflect the Choctaw and Chickasaw presence: Panola (cotton), Tchula (fox), and Neshoba (wolf). Other place-names—Natchez, Pascagoula, and Biloxi—are reminders of tribes that no longer exist in the state. The influence of Mississippi’s Native Americans has been and remains multifaceted. Before Europeans came to the part of the earth now known as Mississippi, Native Americans made it their home, naming the animal and plant life that sustained them; developing the religion, economy, and infrastructure that characterizes society; and ultimately leaving a record of their presence in the form of earthen mounds, place-names, and stories. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians still maintains a presence in the state, influencing its economic and cultural life as strongly as their ancestors did before Removal.
The physical evidence of the Mississippian tribes is scattered throughout the state, most notably in the form of the mounds they built. Some, like the Parr and Bynum sites near Tupelo, were burial mounds, yielding artifacts that provide a window into the customs and lives of those buried there. In addition to human remains, these archeological sites have yielded various ceremonial artifacts, including copper spools and other copper objects; decorated ceramic vessels; lumps of galena, a shiny lead ore; a sheet of mica; and a greenstone platform pipe. The fact that copper, galena, mica, and greenstone are not naturally found in Mississippi points to a trade network that predated European contact.
Across the state in Natchez is Emerald Mound, one of the largest remaining Indian mounds in North America. Built by the ancestors of the Natchez Indians between AD 1250 and1600, the mound was a ceremonial site until the latter part of the seventeenth century, when the Natchez abandoned it for the newly built Grand Village some twelve miles to the southwest, nearer the river. This site served as both a political and religious center for the Natchez, according to French colonists who recorded their observations of events there.
Nanih Waiya, a mound located near the Choctaw community of Bogue Chitto, holds particular significance for Mississippi Choctaw. It is central to their creation legends. In one version, each of the southeastern tribes emerged from the mound, newly brought to life by the Creator. Each tribe lingered at the mound for a while and then departed, each in a different direction. Last to emerge, the Choctaw rested on the slopes of Nanih Waiya and remained near the mound. Another version has wandering brothers Chata and Chickasa leading their people from the west in search of a place with fertile soil and abundant game. Each night, the travelers would plant a pole in the ground, taking care that it was standing erect. In the morning the pole would be leaning, pointing the direction they were to take on that day’s journey. When they arrived at Nanih Waiya, they camped at the base of the mound, with Chickasa and some of the party moving on across the creek. In the morning, the pole stood straight, an indication that they had found the place they were to call home. Chata and the others who had remained tried to catch up with Chickasa’s group but failed to locate them. Those who had departed went on to become the Chickasaw tribe, while the Choctaw established a homeland in the shadow of Nanih Waiya.
Such stories are not limited to Nanih Waiya. Folklore connected with Mississippi’s Native Americans is associated with many of the state’s communities. The Pascagoula River, for example, is known as the Singing River not only for the characteristic humming sound of its current but for a tale that seeks to explain the phenomenon. According to the version on the City of Pascagoula’s website, the Pascagoula were peaceful people whose idyllic existence was threatened by the more warlike Biloxi. Rather than face enslavement, the Pascagoula joined hands and walked into the river, chanting until the last voice was silenced by the waters.
The falls on the Strong River at D’Lo are said to be the site of an annual Choctaw ritual described on the website for the water park there as “an initiation to manhood for Choctaw boys of puberty age that involved unknown rituals but lasted for the four days leading up to the full moon of October.” These and other examples of community lore exemplify the place that Native Americans hold in Mississippi’s collective imagination.
Native Americans played a conspicuous role in Mississippi’s political and economic history as well. The tribe now known as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw was particularly active in trade, first taking part in what anthropologist John Peterson called a “complex of aboriginal trade linking the shell of the coastal areas with stone and related products of the interior” and later trading deer hides and other items to the French and British in exchange for European goods. The Mississippi Band has become a major player in the state’s twenty-first-century economy, resuming the role it was forced to abandon when most of the tribe left the state following the final cession of tribal lands through the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.
In 1699 the French established a settlement where the city of Biloxi is now located. The Choctaw established trade relations with the Europeans, acquiring guns and other goods and over time enlisting the French as allies against the Natchez and Chickasaw. Nearly forty years later Choctaw in the western division of the tribe began to trade with the British. The factionalism created by this trade rivalry led to a situation tantamount to civil war. Choctaw from the eastern division, along with their French allies, attacked several western division towns, burning them to the ground. Hundreds of Choctaw were killed in this conflict, and when it ended, tribal leaders worked to unite their people more closely.
After the intertribal warfare was resolved, some Choctaw continued to seek trade with Great Britain, while others maintained their trade relationships with France. This gave the tribe a certain advantage in relations with the two countries, enabling them to play one nation against another. The French and Indian War broke out in 1750, effectively ending trade with France. The Choctaw continued trading with the British until the American Revolution forced them to seek new partners. By the end of the eighteenth century the United States had become the only major source of trade for the Choctaw.
The Choctaw entered a period of prosperity as well as great wariness. They expanded their interests from the deerskin trade to the same kinds of enterprises that supported their non-Indian neighbors: agriculture, livestock, operating inns and ferries, and selling baskets and foodstuffs. They sought out education in English, mathematics, and agriculture, welcoming Protestant missionaries who established schools in the Choctaw Nation and helped the tribe develop a written constitution and representative form of government. In the midst of this prosperity, the Choctaw remained mindful of the growing pressure for westward expansion and the eagerness of state and federal governments to acquire ever-growing amounts of Choctaw territory.
Despite their efforts to support the United States in the Creek War and the War of 1812, the Choctaw ceded more than twenty-three million acres of their territory to the United States in a series of agreements signed between 1801 and 1830, when the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek outlined the terms of Choctaw removal to the West. When the treaty was signed, Mississippi had more than nineteen thousand Choctaw, approximately thirteen thousand of whom were removed between 1831 and 1833.
Some Choctaw remained in Mississippi, where they had been promised allotments of land in exchange for renouncing their status as tribal members and registering with the government. Within a short time, however, most of the remaining Choctaw had sold their land to survive. Some assimilated into non-Indian society, while others subsisted as sharecroppers, living for decades as a shadow nation within the state.
At the turn of the twentieth century only 1,253 Choctaw remained in Mississippi. They had minimal access to health care, education, and employment other than sharecropping. A congressional hearing held in Union in 1916 resulted in the establishment of the Choctaw Indian Agency in Philadelphia two years later. The Bureau of Indian Affairs initially built schools and a hospital, laying the groundwork for the establishment of a tribal government. This milestone came after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, legislation that reversed five decades of expectation that the Choctaw would acculturate into the surrounding Anglo society.
The remainder of the century saw incredible change. Nearly forty years after the first tribal council was seated, Calvin Isaac won election as the first tribal chief. In 1979 Phillip Martin took over that post and instituted an aggressive program of economic development that began with the opening of manufacturing plants on the reservation. A decade later the tribe had developed a diversified economy that included manufacturing, retail, service, and government jobs. After the 1988 passage of the National Indian Gaming Act, the Choctaw negotiated an agreement with the state of Mississippi that enabled them to open the Silver Star Resort and Casino in 1994. A second casino, golf courses, and a water park followed, creating jobs on the Choctaw reservation and surrounding communities. In 2001 a Mississippi State University study of the tribe’s economic impact indicated that the tribal government and its business enterprises had created more than fourteen thousand jobs and payroll in excess of $356.8 million. By 2010, the Choctaw businesses employed seven thousand people and generated $180 million per year in wages alone, while the reservation’s 4 percent unemployment rate was less than half the national rate. In addition, a scholarship fund pays full tuition for all tribe members who are accepted to college. Between 1985 and 2000, life expectancy for members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw rose by two decades.
Throughout this period of economic growth, Mississippi Choctaw have not lost sight of the cultural traditions that define them as a people. In particular, the Choctaw language remains an essential element of tribal identity. In the past, most tribal elders spoke Choctaw as a first language and learned English only when they began to attend school. With an increase in the number of Choctaw homes in which English is spoken, the Mississippi Band has created a program to promote the use of the Choctaw language, which is still heard in tribal schools and administrative offices. And the language remains deeply rooted in Choctaw communities and homes—most Choctaw parents not only encourage their children to hone their communications skills in English but also make sure that their sons and daughters speak Choctaw.
Other aspects of traditional life coexist with and complement the reservation’s thriving economy. The ancient tradition of swamp cane basketry is thriving and adapting. The traditional forms that once held farm produce are now found in collections around the country. Traditional clothing is still worn for special occasions, the old tribal dances are taught in the schools, and stickball is played by more than a dozen community teams, using sticks and balls that differ little from the ones used before Removal. These and other traditions are showcased each summer at the Choctaw Indian Fair, an event that combines a celebration of traditional culture with the midway rides and musical performances found at county fairs. A highlight is a tournament in which stickball teams from around the reservation compete in what is billed as the World Series of Stickball. Choctaw baskets and beadwork are offered for sale, as is the work of craftspeople from other tribes, such as turquoise and silver jewelry from the Southwest, quillwork from midwestern tribes, and items such as dream catchers and beadwork that represent a growing “pan-Indian” aesthetic that is also evident in the Plains-style dancing and drumming that also take place at the fairground. This style of Native American dance is also found at various powwow gatherings around Mississippi. The Natchez Powwow held annually at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians is probably the oldest event of this kind in the state. Others include the Native American Indian Intertribal Council Powwow held at D’Iberville; the annual Southern Miss Golden Eagle Intertribal Society Powwow, held on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi; and the Veterans Day Powwow sponsored by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
The popularity of gatherings such as the Choctaw Fair and the Natchez Powwow are evidence of a strong appreciation for the culture and traditions of Mississippi’s Native Americans. The success of the state’s only remaining Native American tribe is a tribute to both the tenacity of the Choctaw people and their willingness to remain deeply involved in Mississippi’s economic and cultural life.
- James Taylor Carson, Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal (1999)
- H. B. Cushman, History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez Indians, ed. Angie Debo (1884; abridged ed., 1961)
- Robbie Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World (2010)
- Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, 1500–1700 (1996)
- Dennis Hevesi, New York Times (15 February 2010); Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- National Park Service, Indian Mounds of Mississippi website, www.nps.gov/nr/travel/mounds
- Greg O’Brien, Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750–1830 (1996)
- Katherine M. B. Osburn, Choctaw Resurgence in Mississippi: Race, Class, and Nation Building in the Jim Crow South, 1830–1977 (2014)
- John Reed Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (1931)