Bishinik July 1980 Page 6 & 7
Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends
By Len Green
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the ninth in a continuing series designed to coordinate and delineate the ancient legends of the prehistory of the people who called themselves Okla, and who would later be called Choctaw by the white man. A portion of the following section contains information used in an earlier Bishinik effort, entitled “Oklatibishi and the Oka Faluma.” It is repeated again here with additional information in order to show its correlation with the Okla legend.)
There came a day when Okla turned its face away from Hastahli, the great sun father. While they still paid lip service to their God, they ignored the sacred commands and the traditions which had been handed down through the generations. Even the solemn Festival of Mourning for the Dead each year was turned into a drunken party. They became drunk upon the fermented juice of the corn or the boiled juice of the fishberry, they gambled, they caroused and they consorted with the yellow-clad women or even worse consorted man with man or woman with woman. The fires burned all night, and too seldom did hunting parties go out to bring meat to the villages while the women and girls spent their time in pursuit of men and drink rather than in the garden or at the stream.
There was, at that time, one man who became disenchanted with life in the villages and withdrew himself from the company of fellow Oklans, building himself a hut near a spring high on a mountainside. He was called Oklatibishi, which means “one who holds himself apart from people.” Oklatibishi spent his days hunting, fishing or gathering corn, fruit and nuts. What he did not need to eat, he dried or smoked and stored away against the long cold days of winter. Since he was still a young man, he was not yet hungry for the companionship of a woman.
One day while hunting near the top of the mountain, Oklatibishi paused to seat himself beneath a tree on the mountaintop to partake of his lunch and get a few moments of rest. Suddenly a bright light, which was the brightest he had ever seen yet did not hurt his eyes, shone all around him. And, from out of the light, a powerful but gentle voice spoke:
“Oklatibishi, I shall give you a command, which I expect you to follow to the letter, without question. “You will cut and trim the large sassafras trees on that bluff, and fetching lianas and vines from the river valley below, you will lash these sassafras trees into a raft. You will equip this raft with a shelter, large enough to give yourself a sleeping space where you will be protected from the weather and also large enough to accommodate enough food to sustain you for three moons (84 days). You will seal the roof of your hutment and storage room with pitch to keep out the rain. Aboard the raft with you, you will take a cage holding a pair of gray doves and one white dove. You must begin this task immediately, and work from light until dark until it is completed. When your raft is completed and stocked, you will wait until the light from the north turns bright, and then you will board the raft,” the voice told Oklatibishi.
Certain that he had indeed heard the voice of Hashtahli, Oklatibishi rose from his noon rest, rushed to his hunt, got his axe and began the task of felling and trimming the large sassafras trees indicated by his vision. He fetched lianas from the river bottom and the marshes and lashed his huge raft together and then began building the shelter for his supplies and himself as he had been directed by the voice of the Sun Father. As his work was nearing completion, a group of hunters perchance climbed Oklatibishi’s mountain and there they saw the young Choctaw busily at work on his project.
“Hey, Hey,” they cried,” and what is this great thing that you are making?”
“It is a raft,” replied oklatibishi.
“You are crazy, Oklatibishi,” the hunters said, “Why would you build such a huge raft? it is a thousand paces or more to the river and you will never get it there. Even if you did, it would be too big to float in the river.”
Oklatibishi, recalling the words of Hashtahli, did not answer them, but quietly continued about his work, heating pitch from the black spot near the river to soften it so he could weatherproof the roof of his raft shelter. When the hunters saw that Oklatibishi would not answer them, they called him “crazy one” and went back to the village to tell everyone about the insane man who was building a giant raft way up on the mountain.
As Oklatibishi’s task was nearing its end, there came a time when the sun did not shine at all, with the day being as dark as the night. The cooking fires burned constantly, and there was a heavy, depressed feeling in the air. Yet, even then, Okla did not mend its ways. They continued to drink, to gamble and to consort with the yellow-clad women. As it was too dark to hunt or for the corn to grow, the people developed the habit of stealing f food from anyone else who had some. After many days of darkness, Okla was startled by a strange light glowing from the northern skies. But they soon began to cry, “It is only the sun returning. All will be well. ” Sensing that some climax was near, Oklatibishi finished loading his supply of corn, dried fruits, nuts and salt aboard his raft, and also took there the cages containing the two gray doves and the one white dove.
Daily the white light grew larger and larger, and soon it became laced with flashes of lightning. Sensing that perhaps this was the signal described to him by the Sun Father, Oklatibishi gathered up the last of his belongings and made his way to the raft for the final time. As he stepped aboard the raft, a great rain began to fall, a giant wind rose up from the north and the lightning bolts danced and crackled across all of the lands of Okla. The rain fell, and fell, and fell, and fell and fell. Each morning came gray and soggy as, true to his word, Hastahli continued to hide his face from his chosen people. And each day the rain continued to fall.
One morning, Oklatibishi was awakened by a great and mournful wailing which seemed to be coming from far away. He crept out into the rain and to the edge of his raft nearest the bluff where he could look down into the valley below. In the flashing of the lightning, Oklatibishi could see the waters boiling as they rose. And he could see that the wailing came from the throats of many of the people who were being eaten by the flood waters. In one lightning flash, he saw some of the hunters who had taunted him about his raft trying to make their way up the mountain to him with the waters lapping at their heels. At the next lightning flash, Oklatibishi strained his eyes to see if any of the hunters were left, but the rising waters had swallowed them to the last man. When Oklatibishi could no longer hear the wailing and could no longer see people of Okla in the rising, lashing, white-capped waters, he crept back to his sleeping place, dried himself off and soon fell asleep.
Oklatibishi awakened to a strange rocking sensation which he could not understand, and quickly slid out from his sleeping place to see what was causing his raft to rock. When he got outside the shelter he noted that the rain had ceased and standing he realized that the strange sensations he felt were because the raft was afloat. In fact, all about him Oklatibishi could see only water … not the slightest hint of land. At that moment, Hashtahli opened his great eye upon the world for the first time in many days, and as his light spread across the area, Oklatibishi could see nothing but waters stretching to the horizon in every direction. With nothing but water about him, and only three doves to keep him company upon the raft, the long days grew wearying and monotonous to Oklatibishi. He soon lost count of the days that passed.
He would sleep, eat, walk about the raft, look at the water, feed the doves, feed himself and then sleep again. To relieve the monotony, he stripped and braided a thin liana to create a fishing line and using bits of food caught fish from the water. He had provided himself with a stone cooking pot, and using empty food baskets as fuel would oftentime cook the fish he caught as a special meal for himself and the doves.
Then, after many days, Oklatibishi developed a habit of sending one of the doves out each morning to fly around the area and search for land. And each day, the dove would return from a long flight, tired and weary with nothing to show Oklatibishi. He would give the dove making the flight that day extra food as a special reward, and the next day he would dispatch one of the other doves to help him seek land. After many days, Oklatibishi was startled one morning to hear a strange raucous noise as he emerged from his sleeping place. He looked quickly upward to see a large black bird approaching him and his raft. Crying, “Caw, Caw, Caw!,” the black bird circled about Oklatibishi’s head one time and then flew away, still calling as if mocking and laughing at the lone Oklan.
His hands trembling, Oklatibishi quickly fed the doves, chose the one he thought to be the strongest and sent it forth along the path taken by the flight of the great black bird. This time, the dove was not gone for a long time, returning before the eye of Hashtahli had moved even one full hand span up into the heavens. The dove alighted on Oklatibishi’s shoulder, and from its beak dropped into his hand a twig containing two green hickory leaves.
The great raft shuddered and began drifting in the direction that the dove had flown. And, at that very moment, the eye of Hashtahli seemed to brighten and the reflection of the sun on the water seemed to mark a path that was guiding Oklatibishi. Later in the day, as the eye of Hashtahli had reached its highest point in the heavens, Oklatibishi spied across the water gleaming green treetops and even the crest of a seemingly small mountain. A short while later, the raft breached upon the island and for the first time in many days Oklatibishi was able to walk again upon solid, dry ground. He rejoiced. Releasing the doves, Oklatibishi set forth to explore the island, to discover that his island was peopled with every kind of animal in abundance so plentiful that in his lifetime the last Okla would not want for game of any sort.
The trees were heavy with nuts and fruits, and in the distance down the trail, Oklatibishi espied a corn patch in which the stalks stooped with the weight of juicy green roasting ears.. And there, at the foot of a hill, stood a house waiting for Oklatibishi to occupy it. As he approached the house, he noted a food storage house and a corn crib built nearby to store his food for the coming winter. Not far from the door, a spring of sparking fresh water bubbled up from beneath the ground, forming a small stream that murmured its way merrily toward the larger waters. As Oklatibishi raised his eyes to the hill behind his cabin, he suddenly realized that in his wisdom Hashtahli had sat him down and given him a new home right in the shadow of Nanih Waiya, Okla’s symbol of the promised land.
The waters receded rapidly, and Oklatibishi again found himself in the world he had known from childhood. With one exception … there were no other people.
Oklatibishi went about his work, killing and smoking game, gathering nuts, gathering and drying fruits and harvesting his corn to be placed in the crib against winter. But as he walked, hunted and worked in the fields and woodlands he could not help notice that the land was alive with birds and animals at work and at play. As he walked about, Oklatibishi was saddened. Each of the animals he saw had mates and each was beginning to raise families to replenish the earth. All except Oklatibishi. He was the only living human!
In all of his wisdom and strength, had the Sun Father, Hashtahli, forgotten to provide a means whereby Oklatibishi would be the very last of the chosen people? With these sad thoughts churning through his head, Oklatibishi slowly made his way back toward the beautiful house the Sun Father had prepared for him, with his head down and his footsteps dragging. But, as he approached the house he became suddenly aware of the sound of a beautiful voice singing. It was the voice of a Choctaw woman!
Oklatibishi hurried toward the house to see a beautiful young Oklan maiden busying herself in the dooryard washing his clothing and preparing him a meal of corn and pork. Oklatibishi suddenly realized that to fill his son’s needs, the great Sun Father had turned the white dove into a beautiful Indian Maiden to provide a wife. He realized that was why Hashtahli has specified that a single white, female dove should be included among the passengers upon the great raft of sassafras which had borne Oklatibishi through the returned waters. And that is why, until this very day, when a Choctaw man is particularly pleased with his woman or admires her beauty, he may be heard to call her “Pachi yoshoba chipota,” which means “my little dove.” Oklatibishi’s dove bride gave him many sons and daughters and through the fruitful years that followed the race of Okla again grew straight, tall and strong upon the earth.
However, Oklatibishi was not the only creature upon the earth that was to be affected by the great flood. And the legends told by our ancestors include the story of four of these creatures. One was the gray dove which was a passenger on Oklatibishi’s raft, and the others were three other birds, Biskinik (or Bishinik) (yellow crested flicker), Fitukhak (Filichik) (scissor-tail fly catcher) and Bakbak (red headed woodpecker).
As the rains started and the waters began to rise, these three birds told each other that they did not wish to be eaten up by the waters and vowed that they would do their best to survive.
In the meantime, aboard the raft with Oklatibishi, a problem was beginning to grow for still another member of the bird family. This was the gray dove. Since Oklatibishi used the dove as a messenger to help him seek land, he would reward her with a bit of salt on her extra food when she returned to the raft after a flight. Though enjoying the salt given her by Oklatibishi, the dove soon developed a taste for salt which remained with her long after the raft had reached land and she had returned to all of her other bird ways. Therefore, each day after eating her fill of insects and grass seeds, she would fly to the nearest salt lick and eat a bit of salt to aid her digestion. And thus it was when the dove had a hatching of offspring in the spring that she would bring each of her children a bit of salt along with the worms, bugs and other goodies she found for them. The children grew up also liking salt and depending upon their mother to provide them with it each day.
Then one day, for reasons lost in antiquity, the gray dove offended Hashtahli, the Sun Father, and he decreed that never again would the dove or any of her children be allowed to partake of their beloved salt. When she carried food to the nest for her baby doves, the children cried for salt, but she could not give it to them because it had been forbidden by the Sun Father. And that is why, until this day the cry of the dove is a lonesome “Cooo” as they continue to cry and mourn for the salt which they will never again be permitted to eat.
And, now, what of Bishinik, Filichik and Bakbak, the birds we left flying about above the waters and fleeing to the mountaintops to escape the surging returned waters? And, when the mountaintops were covered with water, the three birds continued to fly about, even through the night, while watching other birds tire or just give up and plunge themselves into the boiling waters below. Bishinik, Filichik and Bakbak continued to fly until their wings grew heavy with fatigue and felt as if they were going to drop from their bodies at the next flap. Finally, in a desperation move, the three birds flew as high as they could and turning themselves upside down they alighted on the sky itself, hanging upside down with their claws firmly imbedded in the sky. The waters finally ceased to rise, but the birds hanging downward were drenched and smacked by the spray from the surging waters below. The buffeting of the waves caused the ends of these birds’ tails to become separated and notched.
And Hashtahli, the Sun Father, decreed that these bird’s children and that their children’s children would forever bear the forked or split tails as a symbol of the determination of Bishinik, Filichik and Bakbak. The Sun Father punished them by making all of their children display split tails, the Sun Father also rewarded them by making them special guardian birds of Okla, his chosen people. From the days of the flood forward, these three birds, especially Bishinik, always accompanied the Choctaw hunting party or the Choctaw war party as it fared forth from village or camp. The little bird would notify his hunting friends of the approach of bigger game, and would tap on trees to warn Okla of something approaching their camp in the night. And, during war, the guardian birds would help Okla scout, leading him to the enemy’s encampments or warning him should the enemy be approaching his position. In fact, it was considered a sign of high good luck for a Choctaw stickball team if one of the three birds visited their training area. If a team member saw a Bishinik on the day of a game, he was assured that his team would emerge as victor. Now some story tellers will tell you that all of the birds clung to the sky during the great flood. But only Bishinik, Filichi and Bakbak have the tails to prove that they alone accomplished this feat.
Other storytellers will have it that Oklatibishi received his first news that the flood waters had receded from the crow or raven. This cannot be true, as from time immemorial the Choctaw has considered the raven or crow as the “bird of the evil one.” In fact, in the ancient Choctaw language, the crow is called “Fullah Chito” which literally means “big evil.” Only Opah and Hoyopa, the big horned and screech owls, are considered more evil than the raven.
NEXT: The Great War