Bishinik September 1980
Pages 6 ,7
Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends
By Len Green
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 11th in a continuing series of special Bishinik features designed to correlate and delineate ancient legends concerning the origins. the pre-history and cultural practices of the people who called themselves Okla… the people … and who would later be called by the white man, Choctaw.
Shakchi and Other Imps
Apparently, after the long sojourn in the caverns underneath Nanih Waiya and Okla’s successful war against the original Nahullo, the light skinned giants from the north, the people enjoyed many years of peace and prosperity Yet from that period comes numerous tales which have been passed down through the generations of story tellers that should be repeated in a series of this type.
One such story is the tale of the Shakchi.
Any person conversant with the Choctaw language today knows that the word “Shakchi” means crayfish or crawdad. But, according to legend, this was not always true. The original Sakchi was a people. They were not tall and fair like Okla. Instead, they were short, squattily built, with long arms and with hair upon their faces and bodies. Okla did not know where Shakchi lived. But, Shakchi would come from beneath the mud and sand in the river during the hours of darkness and would kidnap and steal away young Okla maidens, who would never again be seen. When observed and pursued, Shakchi would race to the river, dig himself down into the sand and mud and disappear, sometimes pulling along with him a screaming, protesting young lady.
Finally, a group of young Choctaw men decided that they must stop Shakchi from the raids on the Oklan villages and save the maidens being stolen away by this enemy. The group decided that it would split its forces, with one group near the river watching for Shakchi, and the other group poised to give pursuit if the crawfish men appeared. When he appeared, the group near the water would prevent Shakchi from getting back to the river and the other group would chase him down and force him to reveal what was happening to the fair damsels spirited away in the night raids.
After several nights of watching, a lone Shakchi appeared and began to creep toward the villages. As he neared the village, the pursuit group jumped from cover and started toward him. The Shakchi, seeing the trap, tried to race back to the river only to find his way cut off so that he could not get back into the sand and the mud. Turning, Shakchi fled away across the land, with the whooping Okla youths in hot pursuit. But after hours of running, Shakchi had lost all of the Oklan pursuers with one exception. Still racing after the crawfish man was a young man called Iyichali (literally “fast foot”), who was said by his friends to have the speed of Issi, the deer, and the stamina of Nita, the bear. After still many more hours of running, Shakehi had circled about, and the pursuing Iyichali observed the crawfish man entering a cave in the foot of a hill. Iyichali raced back to his village, gathered his companions and taking weapons and torches they made their way to the cave and entered to seek out their enemies. Many paces inside the cave, the Okla hunters came to a large room noting that homes had been carved out in the walls around the room and that each home was occupied by a Shakchi family.
One strong-looking Shakchi, who appeared to be the leader, came forward and with him came one of the Okla maidens, who had disappeared two years before. carrying in her arms a small baby. “Greetings Oklans, you have found us out”, the Shakchi said in a guttural, but understandable language. “Please hear me before you decide our fate. There are only a few of my people left, only those you see here. Once we were a plentiful people, but there came a terrible disease, which took the lives of many of us. Then came the Nahullo, those terrible big, fair-skinned, horned demons from the north and they killed many more of our people. Some of us fled before them for many days and many miles, finally taking refuge in these caves. However, all that was left of our people were as many as you can count on the fingers of your hand and the toes of your feet. And, all of us were warriors.. there was not a woman among us. We discovered an opening in the riverbed not too far from your villages. We knew it was wrong, but we needed wives. So, one of us would raid your villages at night and carry away a maiden. When she was brought back to our cave, she was wooed by all of the warriors who did not have a wife, and she was allowed to pick which of us she desired as a husband. As our sons and daughters grew, there were still more males than females, so we continued the practice. Of all the people we have seen, the women of Okla are the most beautiful on the whole of the earth,” the Shakchi concluded.
Incensed by the story, Iyichali raised his axe to smash the enemy leader. But, immediately, the beautiful Okla woman bearing her babe in her arms stepped forward and spoke. “This Shakchi is my husband. I was not forced to marry him, but he won my love through wooing me with his kindness and his courtesy. He has made a good husband and has always provided food, clothing and shelter for me and for his child. I love him dearly. Can he not be spared?”, she cried.The Okla warriors studied the Shakchi village and soon learned that the maidens who had been stolen away were happily married to the remnant warriors of the Shakchi clan.
“You will remove from this cave and return with us to the golden land of Okla”, Shakchi was told, “You will build homes in our villages, dwell among our people and never again steal from Okla.” And, indeed they did. After a time, the Shakchi, though he was shorter and more stockily built than the Okla, began to pluck the extra hairs from his face and body and became ashamed that he had ever been Shakchi.. Thus, the Shakchi became a part of the people of Okla. Yet for centuries thereafter, one of the worst insults that could be thrown teasingly or in anger was for one Choctaw to call another “Shakchi.”
Like every other primitive peoples, the Oklans or Choctaws had a full blown set of beliefs and superstitions.
As previously noted, the primitive Oklans were sun worshipers, and they originally referred to their deity as Hashtahli. However after the generations spent in the cave, their God was diversified and seen in every living thing. Thereafter, the most common name used for their God was Achafa Chito (which means “great one”). Among the writings included in this study, we find six other names used in reference to the ancient Choctaw deity. These included Nanopesa (director or judge), Uba Piski (our father), Shilup Chito Osh (great spirit), Chitokaka (the great one), Ishtahullo Chito and Nanishta Hullo Chito.
In the original Oklan belief, the sun was the god and the father of all. The moon was his wife and the stars his children. The fire was the sun’s envoy on earth in the hours of darkness while the sun slept. Thus the fire was respected, because if one of the people did a bad thing during the hours of darkness he would be seen by the fire and the fire would report him to Hashtahli. However, the fire was considered a good gift from the Sun Father, as it brought light against the darkness, warmth if the air was chilled and cooked the food for the sun’s children to eat.
The ancient Choctaws had a counterpart to Satan or the Devil of the Christian faith, but his activities and his scope of powers were not the great marplot of Christianity. Oklans called their devil Na Lusa Chito or “big black thing or being.” Na Lusa Chito was a soul eater. And if the soul eater managed to make a meal of your soul you then could not travel to the Happy Land to enjoy life after death. Thus it became a practice that, after an Oklan had died his name was never again mentioned aloud by any member of his family or any of his friends for fear that the soul eater might discover that he was dead and devour his soul. Also, for this reason and to protect him from other supernatural beings, a wife never referred to her husband by name. In conversation, he was “My Husband,” and perhaps later would become “My Son’s Father.”
In addition to the royal family and the soul eater there were several other supernatural beings in the menage of the people.
One of the more popular of these, and the one that seems to have lasted longer in Choctaw beliefs, is Bohpoli (the thrower), who is also known as Kowi Anukasha (the little one who stays in the woods). No one ever saw Bohpoli, because he was very shy. But sometimes when you were alone in the woods you could feel his eyes watching you from the shadows or occasionally he would toss a stick or make a noise to let you know that he was watching you. If Bohpoli liked you, he could be very kind, leading you to where you could locate the most plentiful and fattest game or showing you where to find the sweetest berries, the fattest fruits or the most heavily laden nut trees. Occasionally, a witchman or a conjurer would claim that he had talked with Bohpoli, and would sometimes put on an elaborate show of talking to someone you could not see stating that he was being advised by the little man of the woods.
Other beings which peopled the shadow world of the people of Okla included:
Kashehotapolo – A combination of man and deer, who would sometimes dash madly by to startle a solitary hunter when he was alone in the deep forest. The being ran so fast that he was but a blur to even the sharpest-eyed huntsman.
Okwa Naholo or Oka Nahulle – “The white people of the water,” who lived invisibly in the deep clear pools of the rivers and streams. They sometimes stole children away from their mothers and turned them into beings like themselves.
Hoklo Noteshe – A bad spirit which can assume any shape it desires and has the ability to read men’s thoughts. On occasion, Hoklo Noteshe may appear as a trusted friend or loved one attempting to lure you into doing bad things.
Nalusa Falaya, – A “long black being” which resembles a man except that it has very tiny eyes and long pointed ears. Like Kashehotapolo, he often startles hunters when they are alone in the woods or tries to lure them away from their campfires and into the darkness.
Hashok Okwa Hulga or grass water drop – This is the being known today as “will-of-the-wisp,” “swamp fire” or “jack-o-lantern.” At night, only the heart of the being was visible and if one looked directly at this heart, he would be led astray.
Another of the mythical (perhaps) beings from ancient Choctaw history is one called simply “hattak chito” or “big man.” In other American cultures, he seems to be known as “Sasquatch” or “Manbeast. Hattak Chito is said to be a huge manlike beast which lives in the swamps or tangled creek bottoms. The being is covered with coarse gray or brown hair, with long arms and a stooped walk which appears shambling but is deceptively speedy. Even today, we still receive reports that one or more of these beasts still live in what is known as the Boklawa (many waters) area in Little River bottoms between the mouths of Yashau Creek and Mountain Fork River, in what is now McCurtain County.
This particular manbeast was supposedly brought to the new land by a witchman who called himself Ohoyotubbi (literally “woman killer”) as a slave who had to do the conjurer’s bidding. Reportedly, Ohoyotubbi could not order the manbeast to kill, but could make the animal tear up buildings and fences or to terrorize a family which had roused the ire of the witchman. On one occasion, Ohoyotubbi became angry with the father of a family living not far from his home on Little River and sent the manbeast to kill the farmer’s cattle and frighten his family. In retaliation, the farmer and his sons crept up to Ohoyotubbi’s home in the darkness, surrounded the house and set it afire, destroying the witchman and freeing the manbeast. Since that time, the manbeast has continued to live in the Boklawa area. He tries to avoid people, but is sometimes seen from a distance. Reports have been received of his being seen as late as 1979. It is said in legend that should you meet the manbeast, if you are frightened he will run away from you. But, if you meet him and are not frightened by him, he will become your slave serving you as he once served Ohoyotubbi.
In addition to the supernatural beings, the ancient Choctaws held to some beliefs of extraordinary powers held by some of the birds, fish and snakes that peopled their world.
The owl and the crow were believed to possess powers that were unfriendly to mankind, while the scissor-tailed bird species and chickens were possessors of more benign powers.
Okla did not consider the owl a “wise old bird” as do their white friends. Ishkitini, the great “horned owl,” was believed to prowl at night and would attack or kill men or animals should it be allowed an opportunity to do so. If Ofunlo (or Hoyopa), the “screech owl,” cried in your yard during the hours of darkness, you could expect that the youngest child of your family would be dead soon. If Opah, the common owl, hooted too near your house, you had received a warning that some member of your family or a close relative would die before the next change of the moon.
We have already covered the activities of Bishinik, the Okla news bird, Filichik and Bakbak.
The Chicken was considered both a news bird and a watch dog as well as a supplier of eggs and meat for the family table. If a rooster crowed at an unusual time, it meant that bad weather was coming. If he crowed on your doorstep or in your gallery (Or dog trot), you would soon receive important news. If a rooster crowed after flying up to his roost at night, it portended trouble in the family, and if a hen crowed, it meant that there would soon be a falling out among the women of the neighborhood.
Among the fish population in the streams about Nanih Waiya, the Eel was probably the water creature viewed with the most awe by Okla. The Eel was considered to be the universal male of the fish world. If the Eel mated with a Mud Catfish, the offspring would be the Blue Catfish, and if an Eel mated with a bass, perch or other scaled fish, that child would be a Channel Catfish. The ancient Choctaws also believed that the different species of fish in their rivers and streams were created by intermarriages between various types of fish.
The most hated of creatures in the ancient Okla word was the snake. Poisonous snakes in the area included the Rattler, the Copperhead and the Coral and there was a wide variety of non-poisonous snakes. Okla believed that, while not poisonous, the Blacksnake would lock its fangs into its own tail and try to scare you by rolling down a hill toward you like a big hoop. (This belief is thought to be the basis for the many stories told about the mythical “Hoopsnake” which carried over into white beliefs during frontier days.) The ancient Choctaws also believed that the Coachwhip Snake would wrap itself around you and try to beat you to death with its tail should you startle it or attack it. The Choctaws were so repulsed by snakes that they built their corn cribs on stilts high above the ground to keep the critters out when cold weather set in and hibernating time arrived.
Naturally, the Oklans had explanations for such natural phenomena as thunder, lightning, comets and solar eclipses.
Thunder and lightning were two great birds, Heloka and Melatha. Heloka was the female. And not being too bright a bird, when it came for her to lay an egg, she simply lighted upon the nearest cloud and let the egg drop. Naturally, the egg would roll bumpily down the cloud mountains to reach the lowest spot and the rolling of this great egg across the bumpy clouds could be heard by the people. Melatha (lightning), her mate, was the male bird of the family and he, too, was not as smart as Okla. He possessed only speed. When Heloka laid an egg, Melatha would dash across the sky so fast that sparks would fly from his feathers. He would be streaking across the sky so fast that he would be unable to turn and crash into anything that was in his way, shattering great trees or causing great rocks to tumble down from the hilltops. As a result of these beliefs, most Choctaw children did not fear thunder and lightning, but rather lay in their beds and giggled at the imagined sight of Heloka laying her huge egg and Melatha racing madly across the sky to collide with a hill or tree.
The sight of a comet was a portent of great troubles, sometimes signifying the start of a war.
At least two writers of history who visited the Choctaws offered reports on the actions of the people during a solar eclipse (with one writer claiming that he observed this a number of times. This is doubtful because there are not that many visible eclipses). But, both writers told similar stories.
The first visible beginning of a solar eclipse would cause a cry to be raised, “Fini lusa hushi umpa” or A black squirrel is eating the sun. Upon this cry, every available Choctaw, young or old, would abandon whatever else they were doing and spring into action. The women and children would scream, yell and taking sticks would beat upon cooking pots, drums, hollow trees or anything that would create a large amount of noise to help scare the black squirrel away from the sun. In the meantime, the men would grab their guns or bows and arrows and systematically continue to load and fire, taking deliberate aim, until the black squirrel was killed or frightened away from the sun, and Hashi emerged again in all his bright glory.
A lunar eclipse was viewed with much less panic. It was simply said that the moon mother is cleansing herself much in the same manner as she cleaned her house to signal the start of each new month.
Individually, each Choctaw male had his own totem or medicine bag, which he kept upon his person at all times to keep him strong in battle and safe from his enemies. This totem was generally buried with him, without any of his family ever knowing what was inside his little leather bag. Each totem was different, as an individual’s bag might contain a bit of special stone, the claw of the first bear or panther he killed, a tuft of his wife’s hair or any item he felt might bring him good fortune. Should a visiting white man have had the indescretion to ask a Choctaw what was in the little bag hanging around his neck, the answer would probably have been “You would not be any wiser thereby.”
Each Choctaw had a soul or inner shadow called Shilup. and another soul or outer shadow called Shilombish. (In modern Choctaw, Shilombish has come to mean soul and Shilup has come to mean ghost.) When the Choctaw died, his Shilup or inner shadow generally left immediately on the long journey to theHappy Land while the outer shadow remained near the place of his abode or the spot where he died. The Shilombish or outer shadow watched over its body and family through the final burial feast or funeral cry. Sometimes at night, the Shilombish would be heard to issue pitiful moans or to take the form of a fox or owl. The Choctaw family would know if the Shilombish was about. When a real fox barked or a real owl called, another fox or another owl would answer the cry. However, if a Shilombish barked or hooted, no answer could be heard.
Unless the Choctaw had died by violence or had been murdered, the Shilombish would slowly fade away after the final funeral feast if all remained well with its family and dwelling place. In the meantime, the Shilup, or inner shadow was on its way to the Happy Land.
(It might be well at this point to note that the terms happy hunting ground and great spirit were not used by the Choctaws, but were popularized in novels and movies written by whites. Some of the plains Indian tribes did and still use these two terms, but none of the Muskhogean tribes did.) In earlier writings about the Choctaws, the Happy Land was described as lying a “long journey to the west.” All Shilups could enter except those of murderers or those who failed to negotiate the bridge. However, the souls of murderers and other sinners, while they could not enter the Happy Land, could look into it and see the happy Shilups enjoying themselves, while the lost souls suffered great hardships.
Later writers, particularly Cushman and Catlin, record much more detailed and elaborate stories concerning the Happy Land. To enter the Happy Land, the Shilup had to cross a footlog across a deep canyon. Either peeled pine (Catlin) or Sweetgum (Cushman), the log was slippery and guardians of the Happy Land tossed stones at the soul as it tried to walk across the canyon on the log. If the soul were brave and good, it managed to avoid the tossed stones and get across into a land where there was one continuous day, trees were always green and bore fruit and nuts eternally, the sky had no clouds, where there were fine and continual cooling breezes. Feasting, dancing and rejoicing went on always, there was no pain, no troubles and people never grew old but remained forever young, enjoying all of the youthful pleasures.
However, the bad souls became afraid, were hit with the stones and slipped from the footlog, plunging down into the deepness of the canyon. Water which is dashing over rocks and is stinking with dead fish and animals, where the souls are carried around and brought back to the same place in whirlpools, where the trees are all dead and leafless and the waters full of toads, lizards and snakes. The dead are always hungry but have nothing to eat, they are always sick but cannot die, the sun never shines and they are always in darkness. From this place, the dead may look upon the beautiful country, the place of the happy, but can never climb up the slippery, sharp and cutting rocks to reach it.