Swamp & Fire

Bishinik January 1980 Page 6 & 7

Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends

By Len Green

This is the fourth in a series designed to retell and correlate origin legends of the Choctaw people, who called themselves Okla. In the first three episodes, we learned how Hatakni (First Born Man) found the Sacred Stick, designated Chahta and Chiksa as Chiefs and started his people on the long march eastward to the land promised them by Hashtahli, the Sun Father. We saw how death came to Okla, and how the Sun Father decreed respect for the bones of our ancestors.

Part Four

Swamp and Fire

For days and weeks, which grew into years, led by their Chiefs, Chahta and Chiksa, and the Sun Father’s Advocate, Hatakni, Okla pressed on eastward led by the Sacred Stick. Each night the Sacred Stick would be stuck into the ground in front of Hatakni’s sleeping place, and each morning it would be pointing the direction in which Okla, the people, should march on that day. Sometimes, Okla would travel only a mile in a day, or might halt at one site or another for several days, weeks or months to weather a storm or to find protection during the cold months. The Sacred Stick served them well, having them pause in a protected place near a spot where game abounded so that they could live through the cold moons in health and plenty.

But, when the green season arrived, once again the Sacred Stick would dance and quiver, again demanding that Okla once more move out onto the trail. And always, the trail led them eastward, toward the place where Hashtahli, the Great One and the Sun Father, first opened his eye upon Okla each morning. After crossing the great mountains, the people moved slowly across a vast wasteland (Mojave Desert?), where the eye of Hashtahli burned them by day and the Moon Mother chilled their bones by night. After many days, the supplies of food carried by Okla began to grow scarce, and the water skins held but few drops of the precious life sustaining liquid. In the night, as children slept fretfully and parents clutched at hungry stomachs and mumbled prayers through dried lips, Hatakni again took himself apart from Okla, and although Hashtahli was out of sight, he called out. On his call, he was surprised that suddenly the glowing eye of Hashtahli smote him as if it were noonday, and he heard again the voice of the Sun Father:

“Your people thirst? At the end of each day, you will find a large red rock. And upon this stone, you will tap four times with the head of the Sacred Stick. Your people hunger? In the wasteland, you will see many cactus plants. The tall ones with two arms that stand up like a giant man you will find to be edible once you have cut away the thorns and green thick hides. And the small round cacti growing close to the ground will provide fruit for you to eat. ”

Having heard Hashtahli, Hatakni returned to his people, who were still moaning and complaining because they were both thirsty and hungry. Hatakni, remembering the words of the Sun Father found a large red stone, and tapped it four times with the Sacred Stick. With the fourth tap, a stream of pure, cool water gushed forth, enough to fill all the water skins and give Okla a refreshing drink. At Hatakni’s direction, the men chopped into the giant cacti, removing the pulpy white insides. When tasted, this pulp proved to be edible and all had a meal. For a dessert, the young women and girls gathered the fruit of the small cacti, which has become known as Prickly Pear. With fresh water from a red stone each night and meals of cactus pulp and prickly pear, Okla slowly made its way across the great wasteland.

As time passed, Okla moved through grasslands, rich with buffalo, rabbit and other fine game and through other country that found them gathering lizards and horned toads to be made into stew to feed their families. Occasionally, when they would find a nice river or stream with trees, fish and game, the people would cry out to Chahta and Hatakni, saying “Why can’t we pause and dwell here?” And sometimes Hatakni and Chahta were tempted to halt the exodus of Okla and allow the people to settle in one of the more pleasant stops along the trail. But, when Hatakni entertained such thoughts, the Sacred Stick would dance and jerk in his hand, and in the morning it would again be pointing the way eastward. However, when the people entered an area of rolling hills, rich with pine and hardwood trees and fat with game and growing foodstuffs, Chahta would find it difficult to get them moving again.

As the years passed, Okla moved slowly across the land, through hills and valleys. Their march was slowed as more and more ancestral bones had to be carried each month. Slowly the rolling hills gave way to flatlands, and it came to pass that one day shortly after Hashtahli had reached his zenith that the main body caught up with the advance party, led by Chiksa. Chiksa and his people were stopped at the edge of a great swamp, awaiting a signal from Chahta or Hatakni as to what they should do next. To the north and south the edge of the morass stretched as far as the eye could see, blocking the eastward journey that was demanded of Okla by the Sacred Stick. Chiksa reported to Chahta and Hatakni that he had sent a runner to the north and a runner to the south. Each had run for one full day in his assigned direction before turning back, and each reported that he could not find an end to the great swamp which blocked the way. Chiksa also reported that a team of brave young men had attempted to cross the swamp, but only a few of them returned, reporting alligators, leeches and poisonous snakes. Some of the men had been lost in the living mud (quicksand).

For three days, the two parties of Okla rested an the swamp’s edge, feasting, renewing old acquaintances and waiting for a decision on what to do from Chahta, Chiksa and Hatakni. And each morning, the Sacred Stick would be bent a little farther eastward, demanding that the people move on toward the land promised them so long ago by Hashtahli. A high council between Chahta, Chiksa and Hatakni and their sub-chiefs was held on a hillock overlooking the great swamp to try to determine a course of action. After much discussion, it was determined that Chiksa and his people would march northward and try to circle the great swamp, while Chahta would take his people south in a similar effort. After circling the swamp, each chief was to march back up (or down) the eastern edge of the swamp for as many days as it took to reach the end of the swamp and there set up camp and wait for the other portion of the people to join them.

The following morning, Chiksa led his people off to the north, while Chahta led Okla southward, following behind Hatakni, who bore the Sacred Stick, and Lopina, with his team carrying the sacred Sun Symbol. For many days, the main body of Okla, marching behind Chahta, moved to the south before they found an end to the giant swamp, circled it and started back northward along its eastern edge. On the second morning, the eye of Hashtahli was dimmed by a great storm with rains that soaked the people and great flashes of lightning and blasts of rolling thunder. After a time, the storm passed and again the eye of Hashtahli shone forth, but despite the clearness of the skies the Sun Father’s gaze seemed strange and hazy as it gazed down upon Okla. Hatakni felt that this must be a bad sign, and bade Chahta to place guardsmen to keep watch in all directions.

Within a few hours, the eye of Hashtahli was so dim that it could hardly be seen, and the air took on a strange and pungent smell. Suddenly, without being summoned by Hatakni, the voice of the Sun Father was heard, saying “Take your children into the swamp.” Without question, Chahta and Hatakni turned the people into the swamp despite the fear of the snakes, the alligators and the living mud which swallowed people up. They had barely reached the swamp, when they heard a rumbling noise, and turned to marvel at the sight of buffalo, deer, antelope and other animals running northward as rapidly as they could move. They looked back into the swamp to discover that the alligators and snakes were also in flight, paying scant attention to the wading people. Then behind the stampeding animals, Okla heard a roar and through the smoke could see the dancing orange light of flames. Only then did they realize that a mighty fire, probably started by the lightning, was sweeping down on them. The water and mud of the swamp protected Okla as the giant fire swept by them, crackling and roaring as it moved northward up the edge of the swamp.

Through the remainder of the day, the people stayed in the swamp because the ground at the edge of the morass was too hot for them to walk upon. However, they did find means to catch or capture catfish and eels, and on small islets in the swamp found several clear springs to provide them with drinking water. By the end of the day, the earth had cooled and the people emerged from the swamp, just as the snakes and alligators began to drift back into the area. Thus did Hashtahli protect his chosen people. Living off the swamp, Okla was again organized by Chahta and began the march northward to the spot where Chiksa’s party should be waiting for them.

After many days, they approached the spot where they had assumed that Chiksa and his party would be waiting for them. But Chiksa and his people were not there, and the raging fire which had swept ahead of Chahta and his people had erased any sign of anyone ever having been there. For the prescribed three days they waited, but Chiksa and his party did not appear. It was later believed that Chiksa and his people, fleeing from the fire, had pressed on northeastward from the swamp and found refuge in some caves to save themselves from the flames. Without the Sacred Stick to guide them and believing Chahta and the rest of Okla lost, Chiksa had led his people on north and east, across the great river to a spot where game was plentiful and waters sweet and there decided to settle.

This is the way the Choctaws explain the existence of their sister tribe, the Chickasaws, pointing out that this tribe derives its name from Chiksa, just as Okla would come to be called after Chahta (Choctaw) after the coming of the white man.

The people called themselves Okla, which means simply “the people.” When approached by the white man, who asked the tribe’s name, they would answer, “We are the people.”

“We know you are people,” the white men would reply, “But what people are you? ”

Attempting to explain, the people would reply, “We are the children of Chahta” Thus was Okla stuck with a new name.

After determining that Chiksa was lost, after runners had been sent out in all directions to return with reports that they could find no sign of Chiksa and his people, the children of Chahta determined to move on. After several days of marching, they passed out of the area that had been burned over by the fire, and game again became plentiful and there were plenty of growing things to feed Okla. Slowly then, Okla pressed on eastward. After several changes by the Moon Mother, Okla approached a great river, so wide that it could not be seen across with the eye.

“We must stop here,” cried the people, “We can never cross this mighty river, which we shall call the Mississippi. But the Sacred Stick danced, twitched, jiggled and continued to point to the eastward, insistent and persistent. So, once again, Hatakni took up the Sacred Stick and found a place away from the eye of the people so that he might again appear to Hashtahli for advice. Finding a secluded glade away from the eyes of Okla, Hatakni assumed his prayer stance, raised his arms and pointed the Sacred Stick toward Hashtahli, crying, “Oh, Achafa Chito (great one), again Okla seeks your advice.”

And Hashtahli spoke to Hatakni, saying, “On the hillsides above your campsite, you will find many large sassafras trees. These must be felled and stripped of limbs. Then because the women are the givers of life, these sassafras logs must be lashed together into rafts by the women using vines of lashings. When the rafts are completed, they must be placed into the river at a point where you will find a finger of land, covered with weeping willow trees, reaching out into the waters of the river. When all of my children are loaded upon the raft, I will send currents that will carry Okla safely across the great river and deposit them safely upon the other shore.”

Having heard the words of Hashtahli, Hatakni returned to his people, telling Chahta the words spoken to him by the Sun Father. Chahta organized Okla, designating hunting parties to seek a continuing supply of food and putting all other men to the task of felling the large sassafras trees designated by Hashtahli.

As the days passed, the sassafras trees were felled, stripped of stripped of limbs and dragged to the river’s edge where they were arranged into the shape of rafts. The young women and girls were sent forth to gather the young, green pliant vines, and the women and mothers used the vines to lash up enough rafts to carry all of Okla. As they were completed, the rafts were pushed into the great river, where, despite currents, they cleaved quietly to the river’s bank awaiting their loads of humanity. And, when enough rafts were completed to accommodate all of the people, Okla loaded onto the rafts to await the will of Hashtahli. As the last person stepped aboard the last raft, these rafts began to move in a stately line out into the river, where they were caught by the current and swept downstream. Frightened, the people at first began to wail and mourn, but then noted that while the rafts seemed to be controlled by the current they remained in the original formation. And, while being tugged downstream by the current, the rafts were slowly but surely working their way across the current away from the western bank of the river and toward the eastern bank. Then a cry went up, and an excited youngster pointed to where the treetops and high ground of the eastern bank of the river could now be seen in the distance, as the western bank seemed to dim slowly behind them. Thus on a long angle down the stream, currents sent by Hashtahli guided Okla to a safe landing on the eastern bank of the Mississippi.

The cries of “We shall die” changed to happy calls of “We have overcome”, as the people climbed from the rafts onto shores teeming with game and alive with growing things which could be eaten. For three days the Sacred Stick remained quiet while the people rested from their raft building toil and the mighty ordeal of crossing the great river. But on the morning of the fourth day, the Sacred Stick again bent to point to the eastward, and again the people took up their burdens and moved out onto the trail.

NEXT: Nanih Waiya