Bishinik February 1980 Page 6 & 7
Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends
By Len Green
This is the fifth in a series designed to correlate and retell the origin legends of the Choctaw people, who called themselves Okla, which means the people. In the first four episodes, we learned how Hatakni (first born man) found the Sacred Stick, designated Chahta and Chiksa as Chiefs and launched the people on a long March south and east toward 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. The people crossed desert, wasteland, swamp and a mighty river, which they named Mississippi, meaning the father of waters.
After crossing the great river, Okla, the people, pressed on southeastward, guided by their Sacred Stick, held by Hatakni, and led by their chief, Chahta, whom they now called “Minko” (leader). It was summer, and the march was now becoming easier and more pleasant as the people moved through a rich land of rolling hills, green trees and many trees and bushes bearing ripe fruits and berries. After a few weeks of marching, Okla approached an area marked by the coming together of three rivers, which were bounded by ravines and hillocks in such a way as to offer an area of several square miles which appeared easy to defend, yet rife with game, fruit and nut trees and plenty of soft, pure water. Marking almost the geographic center spot between where the two smaller streams flowed into the larger was a strange mound or hill, about 300 to 400 feet long and standing 80 to 90 feet above the tops of the trees.
Around the top of the mound a ring of natural rock formed a natural fortress with only two openings for access or egress, and at one end of the mound was the opening of a natural cave. As the height of the peak varied enough and in such a manner as to make the hill look as if it leaned slightly toward the largest stream (Pearl River now in Winston County, Miss.) the people called it “Nanih Waiya,” which means “leaning hill. ” Later the mound, which became sacred to the Choctaws for reasons you will learn later, would also be called “Nanih Waya,” which roughly translated means “producing hill.” The reasoning behind this more religious name will become apparent in a forthcoming episode.
Scouts, preceding the march, had reported that the area was rich with many springs and small streams and that game including buffalo, deer, elk and nice fat bears, a favorite of the Choctaw, abounded. Chahta and Hatakni noted also that the area was rich in trees bearing fruit, berries and nuts, that the soil was rich and that there was a plentiful supply of pine, cypress, cane, palmettos and lianas for the construction of shelters. Almost in the shadow of Nanih Waiya, Chahta and Hatakni pitched their sleeping tents of animal skins and prepared sleeping places for a night of rest.
As the Sun Father, Hashtahli, opened his eye upon the world the following morning, Chahta rushed to Hatakni’s sleeping place to receive the daily message from the Sacred Stick. As the sun rose, the Sacred Stick danced and seemed to drive itself deeper into the earth while the tip of the stick pointed straight upward without a waver in any direction.
“Summer is almost over, and this place might be a good one for our people to rest and gather foodstuffs for another winter,” Chahta said.
“Yes,” replied Hatakni, “This is certainly a more handsome place for Okla to spend the winter than any we have found in several years past. So, until the Sacred Stick tells us otherwise, here let us pause. ”
It was several days before many of the people arrived at Nanih Waiya, because there were still those so laden with the bones of their ancestors that they were forced to relay their loads, double-tracking every inch of the trail they traveled. As each family arrived, it was told to construct a family shelter at a pleasant site with a water supply and to begin gathering and storing food against the winter months. Shelters were built by driving pine poles into the ground at the corners, making walls and rafters of thick cane stalks, lashed with lianas and with roofs of palmetto leaves. An opening was left in each end of the roof’s gable to let in cooling breezes at night during the summer months and to let out smoke from small warming fires during the cold months. A small circular fire place, floored and surrounded with stones, marked the center of the hut. These would contain warming fires when the cold north winds of winter swept down. Beds consisted of frameworks of smaller pine posts lashed together with lianas, three or four feet off the floor (to provide protection from insects) and webbed with lacings of cord made from animal tendons and hides or pliant liana vines.
Outside the hut, a cooking place was prepared, featuring a larger version of the circular fire place, marked with a rude arch of cypress so that pots might be hung over the fire. Open shelters made with pine poles and roofed with palmetto leaves furnished the woman of the house and the cooking fire some shelter from the noonday sun or from the rains which occasionally danced across the land.
After the houses had been constructed, the best hunters organized hunting parties and fared forth to kill bear, deer, elk, buffalo and panther for the winter food supply. And the woman and girls set about gathering supplies of acorns, hickory nuts, black walnuts, scaly barks and chestnuts from the heavily laden trees of the area. And the woman of the house cleared off a small plot of ground and planted late crops of beans, squash, melons, pumpkins and turnips which would “make” before frost.
Most of the nuts gathered could be stored as they were to keep through the cold months, except for the chestnuts, which were a great favorite of Okla. If not protected, the chestnuts would be attacked and rendered inedible by worms. So fires of hickory were built and the chestnuts were smoked thoroughly, which give the nutmeats a smoky flavor and hardened the shells. Then the chestnuts were gathered into clusters and firmly packed away into a coating of mud which was then formed into a mudball, much as the muddauber protects its young and food for that child. Once dried inside the mudball, the chestnut would keep indefinitely, and by cracking or soaking open one of the mudballs, a Choctaw could enjoy a taste treat of hickory smoked chestnuts.
Many of the young people would be sent forth to gather fallen and dried hickory sticks, which were kept separate from the other wood gathered to maintain the cooking fires. The hickory sticks would be stored in a special place for use in preparing the favorite dish of the people during the coming winter months. At this point in time, acorns and bear meat, cooked together, was the favorite dish of Okla (This was no doubt, a forerunner to tanche labona, also called hoshponi or pashofa, which is corn and pork cooked together and is still the favorite dish of many Choctaws). However, most of the acorns, while nutritious and plentiful, had a sharp bitter taste which rendered them almost inedible in their native state.
That’s where the hickory came in. The women and girls would clean off a spot atop a large stone or in another protected area and using only hickory wood would make a small fire and burn the hickory to ashes. When the hickory had all burned, the ashes would be gathered and saved. The acorns would then be peeled and split into halves or quarters and placed in a large loosely woven basket. A second basket, containing the hickory ashes, would then be suspended above the basket containing the peeled acorns. Water would then be dripped slowly through the basket of hickory ashes, allowing the water to drip through the base of the upper basket and down into the basket containing the acorns. The action of the water and hickory ashes would create a mild form of lye which would blanch, expand and remove completely the bitter taste from the acorns. The lye water would then be thoroughly washed off the now changed acorns, and they would be boiled in a large pot with cubes of bear meat, making a nutritious and tasty one-dish meal.
Later, the process of lye making was “refined” by building drip troughs with the lye water made in advance and stored in airtight containers for later use. (This did not become a practice until the white man brought glass containers to the Choctaws. Prior to that, lye water would eventually “eat up” a cane basket.) Later the lye water treatment would be used on dried corn to create the unique Choctaw originated dish known as “hominy.”
Because of the natural richness of the area around Nanih Waiya, the hunters were experiencing huge successes with their hunting efforts, bringing in good kills of buffalo, deer, elk and many nice fat bears. Because of the nature of its flesh, the bear meat was generally cooked right away, as it did not preserve well. Otherwise, meat for the summer and early fall months would be squirrel or rabbits. The buffalo, deer, elk and panther meat could be preserved for use during the coming winter months. To preserve the meat for use during the winter, the women and girls cut the meat into thin strips, smoked each strip thoroughly over a slow fire and then laid the strips out on a flat surface beneath the eye of the Sun Father to dry. When the meat strips were dried, they were taken into the houses, where they were strung to strips of animal hide or liana and hung from the rafters of the house for use during the winter. During the winter months, the dried meat could be eaten as it was or boiled with blanched acorns to make a not-quite-so-tasty cousin to the always popular bear and acorn dish.
Strangely, one of the game animals, the panther or bobcat, was never eaten as fresh meat, because Okla did not like the strong gamy taste. However, smoked and dried, the cat meat seemed to have more flavor and more popularity. It was the one dried meat that never saw a cookpot. While the hunters brought in the game, the women who cooked and preserved were not the only females among the people who were having a busy time. Another group of women and girls, using fire and scrapers made from sharp stones or the outer skin of the bamboo cane, were busily scraping the shards of remaining flesh from the skins of the various animals and curing them out with hot sand and sassafras bark.
With the hair still in place, the buffalo hides became mattresses and bedcovers. The hair was removed from the hides of the bear, deer, elk and big cat. These would become clothing for the people. The tough bear hide was ideal for creating moccasins and hunting breeches for the menfolk, and the softer elk, deer and cat hides became shirts for the men and dresses for the women and girls. To further soften the skins for shirts and dresses, the hides were soaked in a liquid made by boiling green elm bark and were then often chewed to extra softness by the women. In boasting, the man might often say, “See for yourself how much my woman values me. Just feel the softness of my shirt!”
The women also learned to use the plants about them in the forests to create colors to brighten the clothing of their menfolk. Skins boiled with puccoon roots created a bright yellow, wild indigo, gathered from the banks of the Pearl River translated to blue, and a deep, purplish could be achieved from berries of the poke weed. The Okla women soon learned that two parts of poke berries and one part of puccoon root boiled with a skin produced that distinctive shade that has become known to history as “Choctaw Red.” The modern day “Choctaw Red” is ‘still a favorite among the Choctaw people. Although it was adopted as the official “color” of the far-flung Wolf Clan, it remained popular with all clans and is probably the universally most popular Choctaw color.
Before you start arguing, the light blue (one part indigo and one part puccoon root) which is the base color of the Great Seal of the Choctaw Nation and the Oklahoma State Flag was the official “color” of the even more widespread Turtle Clan and comes in as a very close second to Choctaw Red.
When all of the houses were filled with dried meats, the acorns, nuts and hickory wood stored, Chahta once again bade the hunters to go forth one more time and to return with a mighty kill of bear. While the men were bear hunting, the women and girls prepared many baskets of acorns, and using hickory nut meats, honey and fall berries shaped and baked many huge sweet breads.
When the men returned from the hunt with many bears, great pots of bear and acorn were cooked and for three days the people feasted, danced, sang and gave thanks to Hashtahli, the Sun Father, for the bountiful harvest. (This was no doubt a forerunner to the annual Green Corn Dance, which became one of the two major festivals observed each year by the Choctaws. The other national holiday was the “Festival of Mourning for the Dead.” These festivals will be described in later episodes).
The winter that followed was perhaps the happiest that the people had known since they had started their eastward journey from the great waters to the west so many years before (some say the journey lasted 43 years) The climate was pleasant, food was plentiful, even the months which had become known as “Little Famine” and “Big Famine” posed no hardships so the people were happy and content.
The women and girls even discovered that by peeling and soaking the outer skin of the bamboo cane that they could weave the strands into beautiful and practical baskets. A good weaver could create a basket so tightly woven that it would hold water without leaking or so loose and open that it could serve as a sunshade or a hat. They also learned that by soaking the materials in their various dyes that they could create baskets of bright colors or weave patterns of several colors into one basket.
With only a few days of the winter months actually cold, huntsmen were able to fare forth and find game, while the tool carriers and the builders could use the mild days to improve the houses or build storehouses or other needs. Thus as spring approached, Okla appeared more and more “taken” with the land where they had wintered, and the braver among them would hint to Chahta or Hatakni that they did not wish to continue the march.
As spring approached, both Hatakni and Chahta would come forth from their houses at sunrise each day to check the Sacred Stick, but always it continued to point contentedly skyward. After several weeks of pleasant weather, Hatakni determined that he would see if he could ascertain the wishes of the Sun Father, Hashtahli. Thus one morning, before the Sun Father had opened his eye upon the world, Hatakni took up the Sacred Stick and made his way through the darkness to the topmost point of Nanih Waiya. As the sun rose, Hatakni faced the eye of the Sun Father and raising the Sacred Stick in the prayer stance he had learned from Hashtahli so many years before, he prayed.
“Sun Father,” said Hatakni, “Is this our promised land? Has our long journey ended at last? The people press us to know and we would have an answer to tell them.
The quiet voice of the Sun Father, coming from everywhere and from nowhere at the same time spoke to Hatakni, saying, “Tell Okla to plant their gardens and prepare to remain in this place for the time. “Keep the Sacred Stick by you, for should there become a need for you to consult me again, you will be notified by the Sacred Stick,” the sun Father concluded.
Hatakni returned the Sacred Stick to its honored spot in front of his hut and then meeting with Chahta relayed to him the message he had received from Hashtahli, the Sun Father. The Minko called the people together at Nanih Waiya, and when all had assembled, he addressed them, saying: “It is the wish of the Sun Father that we remain in this place for a time. I will name six sub-chiefs, and each of these chiefs will be leader of one town. Each family will choose which town with which it will be associated and each town group will live and work together for its common good, it’s common defense and for the defense of all Okla. The six towns will be separated from each other, but will share with each other the common brotherhood of Okla. The towns will be formed in a circle about Nanih Waiya, so that our sacred mound can be defended at all times. The people of each town, while bearing closest allegiance to their own, will come always to the defense of the people of another town or to all of Okla at first call. Now go forth, form your towns, build permanent homes, plant crops, hunt game, find fun and grow strong and healthy under the always watchful eye of our Sun Father, Hashtahli.”
NEXT: Them Bones Again