Social Development

Bishinik November 1980 Page 6, 7 & 8

Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends

By Len Green

(EDITORS NOTE: This is the twelfth in a continuing series of Bishinik features tracing the origin legends and developing society of the people who called themselves “Okla” or “the people,” who would later become known as the Chahta, Tchata or Choctaw Indians.)

Part Twelve

Social Development

After the first Nahullo, the giants from the north were defeated and fled back to their own lands, the children of Chahta were destined to enjoy several hundred years of peace and prosperity. Naturally, there were occasional skirmishes between Okla and the tribes which would later become known as the Creeks and the Chickasaw. But generally, these squabbles were settled on the playing fields, which will be treated at length in a future episode.

Since winters in Okla country, which is now the state of Mississippi and parts of Alabama and Georgia, were on the mild side there was no reason for constructing elaborate houses. Houses were built usually in a circular shape, from bamboo cane stalks which had been sharpened and were driven into the ground. The walls of most homes featured double rows of the bamboo stalks, which kept out the blowing rains as effectively as the whiteman’s log or clapboard would In future years. The roof of the house was generally constructed from plantain leaves laid over a sloping framework. The weather could be kept outside effectively by replacing the leaves on the roof about once a year.

Since the houses were used only for sleeping and storage, a bed would be constructed inside for each member of the family as it could become unpleasant to try to sleep on the soft moist earth, and battle the insects. The beds, built around the walls consisted of four stakes driven into the ground, with a framework tied to the top of the stakes 2 1/2 to 3 feet above the ground. Vines laced about this framework served as a “bedspring” and for bedding animal hides were used.

Since all cooking was done outside, the man generally provided materials allowing the womenfolk to construct themselves a brush arbor type shelter under which they could cook or sit on skins to enjoy the easterly breezes as they went about their work. While the women did most of the construction work, it was the task of the men to provide the materials for the construction. It might be noted that the man was considered the “taker of life” and the woman considered “the giver of life.” Thus, while the woman could pick berries, gather nuts or tend the family crops to sustain her family, it was the job of the man to chop down the cane, strip the plantains of leaves or the trees of bark because were not the “earth people” (trees and plants) living things, too?

Generally, the Oklan family would also construct fences about their houses. These served a double purpose. Visitors stopped at the gateway to inquire if they would be welcome to visit, and the fences served to keep larger animals away from house and kitchen area during the hours of darkness.

Each man had, in addition to his few household duties, his avocation. He might be a hunter, a warrior, a tool carrier, a club man (later light horseman) or even a bonepicker. The woman, around whom the family and Oklan culture centered, was the family sustainer. She grew the family crops, gathered wild foods in season, preserved the meat brought in by the hunters and kept her home a happy place for her husband and children. Some of the crops, such as squash and melon were seasonal and had to be consumed soon after ripening, but other crops such as corn and beans could be dried and stored and potatoes could be held for many months. Okla built their corn cribs on stilts high above the ground. Why? The people hated snakes and feared them, and they knew that when hibernation time approached a filled corn crib made an attractive winter home for serpents. But, built several feet above the ground, the corn cribs remained free of snakes.

To store their potatoes, most of the Oklans built cairns. Sand, which would rapidly drain away any moisture that might fall onto the potatoes and cause them to rot or sprout, would be carried from the river and piled in the yard near the house. Then after the potato crop had been dug, the potatoes were placed on a floor of stones placed atop the sand and were then covered with a mound of stones to protect them from the rain and cold drying winds.

Meat was preserved by smoking it and drying it with hickory smoke. Once well smoked and dry on the outside, the meat chunks could be hung inside of the houses to provide winter food for the family should hunting prove impossible and while the earth was sleeping and not providing berries, fruits and vegetables.

Also stored against winter hungers were nuts. Most common were hickory and scalybarks but also popular were black walnuts, pecans and chestnuts. The hickory, scalybark, pecan and walnuts nuts lasted well as harvested, but the chestnuts, a favorite, presented some problems. The thin-shelled chestnuts, if left untreated, would soon be invaded by worms and insects and thus be rendered inedible. So the chestnuts were lightly smoked with hickory smoke and then gathered into clusters and covered with mud, which was allowed to dry forming a mud ball which apparently was of no interest to the otherwise voracious insects. Thus even a year later, an Okla father or child could crack open a mudball and enjoy the tastiness of crisp smoked chestnuts tasting as fresh as the day they were harvested.

In addition to keeping the family fed, the mother and her daughters also kept the family clothed, utilizing the skins of the deer, the bear and other game animals. After a skin had been stretched and dried, using a knife made from the outer skin of the bamboo cane, the hide was scraped clean on both sides, and then chewed until it had become as soft and pliant as today’s modern fabrics. Thus, the softness and comfort of a man’s clothing became the criteria for judging whether he had chosen a good wife who loved him well or one who cared little for his comfort.

During the warmer months, men and boys affected little clothing, wearing only their loin-covers and bands tied about their heads to hold back their hair and keep perspiration from running down Into their eyes. Often, women, girls and smaller boys wore nothing at all during the height of summer.

For ceremonial occasions and during the winter months, men and boys wore open fronted breeches over their loin-covers, shirts decorated with bear claws or dyed fish scales or colorful wrap-around utilized instead of the shirt. For ceremonial occasions, the body garments were topped off with a wide, colorful sash, died in bright colors or decorated in a manner to show the man’s avocation and his exploits. The headband was replaced by a turban, which was decorated with shells from the streambed, bear claws, captured stone arrowheads or feathers. (incidentally, more than one feather used in turban decoration was considered ostentatious, and only a minko or one had earned high honors dared to use more than one feather on a headdress. Generally, those using feathers chose one in keeping with his avocation or his experiences. For example, a hunter might choose the feather of a Bishinik, the patron bird of the hunt, the weather predictor might wear the feather of the rain dove or the conjurer might wear the feather of the hated birds the owl or the crow.)

Originally, the woman’s dress was fashioned from the skin of one animal … deer or bear. The dress dropped as far down as the animal’s skin allowed and one breast was left bared. This signified that the woman was ready always to suckle her young, or if she were yet unmarried gave notice that she was preparing to become a bearer of children for man of future.

The people had a fondness for bright colors and soon learned to create such colors for their clothing. In fact, each clan had its own adopted color (the writer has often thought that his ancestors must have come from the Turtle Clan because of his love for the color blue, especially the light, sky blue which was the color of that clan). Like all primitive people, the colors used by Okla for clothing and baskets came from nature. Pokeberry juice produced a deep reddish-purple, boiled Indigo produced a royal blue, Pucoon roots produced a bright yellow and hickory bark produced brown. The Okla women soon learned, too, that by mixing equal parts of Indigo and pucoon they could produce a bright green or that they could brighten and change colors by mixing their various dying compounds. For example, two parts of pokeberry juice and one part pucoon produced the color which became known later as “Choctaw Red,” which was far and away the favorite color of the People.

Like most of the other nations on the continent which would become known as America, the men of the tribe affected facial paints, but not to the extent known among some of the so-called Plains Tribes. Among Okla, the men used facial paints only when going into war or on ceremonial occasions, and the women used facial paints only during ceremonies or when in mourning. For facial painting, vegetable dyes were not used, but rather the various colors were secured by finding patches of rock or earth of the color desired, and rendering said colored earth into a very fine powder. This powder could then be mixed with animal fat, stirred and applied to the skin. The most popular “face” remembered for the Choctaw was the face for a war in which the warriors had pledged to take life to pay for a lost life. On these occasions, the entire face was painted, with one-hall of it red and the other half black. The red signifies the willingness of the warrior to draw the blood of the enemy and the black cried out his desire to place that enemy into the hands of the soul-eater.

Though we are jumping far in time, it might be well to mention here the origin of the animal which came to be known in history as the Choctaw pony. Since much of the lands east of the Mississippi, especially in the southern climes, was heavily timbered lands with many small creeks and streams, it was easier for the Spanish explorers to travel these areas on foot. But, to carry their guns and equipment, the explorers chose pack horses which were small in stature but hardy enough to travel for days down hard trails loaded with gear and camping equipment. When the People first saw the animal, they had no name for it. So, because it slightly resembled the deer, “Issi”, they called it “Issoba”or “like a deer.” Later this name was shortened to “Soba.” In their battles with the Spanish explorers and in the loss of such explorers to the strange land, the People soon acquired a stock of the small animals and the horses flourished so that by the time other white men came, the People were utilizing the small horses or “Choctaw Ponies.” The People used the horse in much the same way as it was used by the Spanish explorers, as a pack animal. It was not until the late 18th century (1700s) that the Choctaws became horsemen to any marked degree, although as children at play most young Oklans had jumped upon Soba’s back to demonstrate their lack of fear to their companions.

While the basic unit of Okla life was the family, it is obvious that no one family could be totally self sustaining. Thus developed the second basic unit of Okla society. This was called the “Iksa”, which we might interpret into modern language as the clan. An Iksa in its simplest form would probably consist of two or three hunting families, one or two warrior families, a tool carrying family, a clubman family, a watcher family and one runner family. With this type of set-up, the Iksa could perform all of the functions necessary for the maintenance of life and order. As time went by, the Iksas became more complex. But at all times the balance was maintained. There were enough hunters to supply all with meat, enough warriors to protect the group and enough tool carriers, watchers and others to care for every need that the clan members might have. Occasionally, several Iksas might band together in a loose social group for the purposes of defense, of geography or because they had developed friendship for each other over a period of time. This group was called a moiety. As time passed and more and more moieties were created among the People, the groups tightened and to describe the group the People coined the word “Tamaha,” which has come to mean “town.” Please bear in mind that this does not describe the type of community we currently think of as a town. Rather, it designated a group of clans or moieties living and working together in an area defined by geography or by proximity to lands claimed by other tribes.

Each family had its spokesman, who was called “Minko.” Later as the clans grew, there would be designated a Minko for the Clan, and still later a Minko who spoke for the moiety. In every case, the Minko, rather than being a chief, was a spokesman for the will of the people whom he represented. The will of the people was transmitted to the Minko through councils. In the early days, all members of the family or the Iksa sat in the council. But, as the population of Okla grew, the family Minko was authorized to speak for his family or could designate someone else… perhaps the Minko of his Iksa… to speak for him in general councils. Councils were held only when necessary, such as in times of war, times of natural disasters or to lay plans for special hunts or special events of the Iksa or the Moiety.

It was not until the European introduced his vertical form of government with kings and princes and dictators that the People abandoned the horizontal form of government which stressed not only the rights, but the power, of the individual. Only at one time during their lives would Okla surrender its individuality to the absolute power of a leader. This was in time of war. Should war threaten, the one chosen as “Hopaii” or war chief was given full control of the Iksa and every person in it. This was done because every Oklan stood ready to expend every effort to defend his home and defeat his enemy. And, victory depended upon the planning and the cunning of the warrior designated as Hopaii.

Slowly, over the years, the lands claimed as those promised them so many years before by Hashtahli developed into three districts, each with its own Minko, or spokesman. These districts became known as Ahi Apet Okla, Okla Hannalli and Okla Falaya.

Okla Falaya means “long people.” Some say that the region drew that name because the people were taller. Others say that they won given that title because the people preferred to wear their hair longer than did their neighbors in the two other districts. Still others point out that Okla Falaya lay in a long strip, bounded on the west by the mighty Mississippi River and on the east by the other Oklan districts. Thus, with fewer worries about invasion by unfriendly tribes (which neighbored the two other districts) the Okla Falayans could feel free to live farther apart, thus creating the name.

Okla Hannalli means “six people.” Many historians have identified this district as “six towns.” This is an error. We have already pointed out that Okla did not recognize “town”in the sense that the word is currently used. Thus it is more likely that the “six people” mean six moieties or six Iksas rather than the name foisted upon us by historians, who are principally of European stock and have no basic understanding of the Indian mind. Okla Hannali was the southeastern most of the three districts, bordered on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, on the east by the Creek or Muskogean Nation and on the north by the Pearl and Tombigbee Rivers and the third district.

The other district was Ahi Apet Okla, which means “potato eating people.” How this district came by that name will be explained shortly, but first the writer feels a need to again digress. Again, numerous historians have insisted upon giving this district the name “Okla Tannip” which they explain means upper towns.” This is again an error. Upper towns? Upper from what? With Okla, you could go up a mountain. You could climb up a tree. But you did not go “up” north, or “down” south. Remember, the Indians did not have the compass. Because the compass points to magnetic north, the Europeans developed the language that referred to “up” north… not the Indians. With Okla, the prime direction was East. This went back to the time when Hashtahli first opened his one great eye in the eastern sky. The coolest and most pleasant breezes of the summer came from the east. So, with the people, the most blessed of directions was east… not the north of the whiteman. No doubt, the title “Okla Tannip” or upper towns was first applied to the Ahi Apet Okla district by white men who were compass oriented. For example, a resident of Okla Hannalli would not say he was going “up to Ahi Apet Okla.” He would have said that he was going “over” to Ahi Apet Okla.

And no doubt the residents of this district were proud of their special name because it recognized them for a special practice apparently not utilized by residents of other Okla districts or the neighboring Chickasaws or Cherokees. Instead of storing their potato crop in the rock cairns previously described, the Ahi Apet Oklans had developed a special way for preserving their potatoes. When harvested, the potatoes were washed and then sliced into thin slices. These potato slices were lightly smoked with hickory smoke and then allowed to dehydrate in the sun. Once the potato slices were dry, they could be placed into bags of animal skins and hanged inside the home until time for use. A few of the slices tossed into the cooking pot soon took on moisture and could be cooked with meats just as one would other potatoes. Or the slices of potato could be taken dry and chewed with a bit of dried meat to give the meat flavor and the Oklan strength. You might say that the Ahi Apet Oklans invented the potato chip hundreds of years before the Buffalo, N.Y., baker unveiled the first modern potato chip at the 1896 world’s fair. The potato chip is not the only popular food that the white man and America has borrowed from Okla… or the Choctaw.

Before they had corn, Okla women removed the bitterness from acorns by dripping a light lye mixture made from hickory ashes over the acorn nuts before washing and boiling them. With the coming of corn, the women continued to apply the hickory ash lye to dried corn, thus creating the dish now known as “hominy” and its cousin, “grits,” which are regularly served with many southern breakfasts and which television’s “Flo” often invites her enemies to kiss.

Okla could also possibly claim credit for inventing the first cold breakfast cereal, as well. However, with the ancient Choctaw, it was not considered a breakfast food. It was called “Cold Corn,” and with strips of dried meat (generally panther or bobcat) was the hunter’s and the warrior’s “trail food.” Often, Okla messengers or those on faraway assignments where stealth was necessary would travel hundreds of miles through the wilderness, subsisting on a bag of “cold corn,” and a few strips of dried meat.

To prepare “cold corn,” the woman waited until the corn had dried, shelled it from the cob and cracked the kernels. The cracked corn kernels were then smoked over a low fire of hickory wood. This smoking kept the corn from becoming infested with insects and preserved it for the long days on a trail. In fact, should the trailman find a location where he had utensils for cooking and could build a fire, the cold corn boiled with some of the dried meat made a very tasty hot dish as well. Naturally, the Choctaw never thought of eating his “cold corn” with sweetening and milk. After all, milk was for babies and not for the consumption of full grown persons.

However, “cold corn” emerged into its own as breakfast food late in the 1700s when a French diarist who had visited among the People noted in his published works. “The Tchatas have a food which they call Cold Corn. It is made by cracking kernels of corn and somehow treating them with a smoky flavor. I found that by placing them in milk and sweetening them with a bit of honey, the cold corn made a pleasant and potable breakfast.” Thus we see that the Choctaw’s “Cold Corn” was acknowledged as a breakfast food some 100 years before C.W. Post, crushed corn , rolled it into flakes baked it and announced that he had invented “Post Toasties.”

NEXT: Sporting Blood