Bishinik June 1979 Page 10 & Page 11
That Old Time Choctaw Religion Was Quite Different From Today
By Len Green
Have you ever wondered what your Choctaw forefathers believed and how they worshiped in the days before they embraced Christianity and become followers of Jesus Christ? Probably the best source of information available today on the social and religious customs of the ancient Choctaws can be found in the scholarly works of the late John R. Swanton, who conducted a number of studies of Indian tribes for the United States Government.
According to Swanton, the Choctaws were originally worshipers of the Sun. If this is correct, it places the Choctaws into a possible racial relationship with the Mayans, Toltecs, Incas, Aztecs, Polynesians, Japanese and lost peoples of the Easter Island area. All of these people were or are Sun worshipers, believing that the Sun is the deity or the eye of the deity.
This also raises the question that perhaps the Choctaws were among those people escaping from the purportedly lost continent of Lemuria or Mu when that land was swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean, much as Atlantis sank into the Atlantic. One of the legends of Choctaw origin begins “The people came out of the water and spread themselves upon the warm sands and rocks to dry out… .”, and the same legends detail a 43 year movement eastward from some unknown point to the Choctaw homeland around Nanih Waiya, the sacred mound in what is now the state of Mississippi. Hopefully, these legends can be retold in future issues of Bishinik.
The holy number of the ancient Choctaw religion was four, much as three in the holy number of Christianity. Why four? For the Choctaw all things come in fours. Did not the basic government unit … the family . . . come in fours . . . the mother, the father, the sons and the daughters? There were four elements. . the earth, the water, the sky and the living things (animals and plants), four seasons … winter, spring, summer and fall, and four directions, north, east, south and west.
The most popular and predominate word used for the ancient Choctaw deity as “Hashtahli,” which Swanton says was derived from the word “hashi” which means sun and “tahli,” which meant “to complete the action.” Other words used by our forefathers when speaking of their God were Achafa Chito (great one), Chictokaka (might one), Hashi Ikba (sun father) and two terms, lshtahullo Chito and Nanishto Hullo Chito (meaning in English doubtful). In later years, as the original religion of the Choctaws waned and as Christianity crept in, the terms Uba Pike or Uba Pisku (our father) and Shilup Chitoh Osh (the great spirit) become more popular and began to make appearances in Choctaw stories or writings.
The moon was called “Hashi Ninak Anya” (little sun that shines at night), and was considered the wife of Hashtahli. The stars were their children, and fire was a blessing bestowed by Hashtahli upon his earthbound children. But it was a mixed blessing, as the fire would report any transgressions to Hashtahli even though it cooked their food and warmed them on cool nights. Once each month, the sun’s wife would send the children out to play and begin cleaning house. The full moon was a clean house. And then the children would dirty it up again until (when the last quarter moon arrived) mother again started her monthly cleanup.
The ancient Choctaws recognized evil in the world, but rather than a full blown Satan or Devil such as is known to Christianity, evil and frightening things were invested in a number of lesser beings or spirits. Among these were:
Na Lusa Chito – A big black being which would pounce on and eat any person it found alone in the forest, particularly women and children.
Impashilup – The “soul eater,” which if you allowed him through evil thoughts or depression, would creep inside you and eat your soul.
Bohpoli – “The thrower,” a small man who lived alone in the woods and who would never let himself be seen by man. Bohpoli, also known as Kowi Anukasha (one who stays in the woods) was more mischievous than evil. He would make sudden noises to startle you or toss a stick or stone at you when your head was turned.
Kashehotopolo – A combination of man and deer, noted for great speed and agility. If you angered Kashehotopolo, he would race ahead of you and warn the game or the enemy of your approach.
Okwo Naholo or Oka Nahullo – The “white people of the water,” who were almost transparent and invisible when swimming below the surface. These beings reportedly sometimes kidnapped children and turned them into beings like themselves.
Koklo Noteshi – A bad spirit which was able to assume any shape it desired and which had the ability to read men’s thoughts.
Naluso Falaya – The “long black being,” which resembled a man but had small eyes, long pointed ears and preferred to approach man sliding on his stomach like a snake. His powers were similar to those of Na Lusa Chito.
Hashok Okwa Huiga – “Grass water drop,” a being connected with the will-o-the-wisp. Only its heart is visible at night, and if you looked directly at that heart you would become addled and your mind would be led astray.
Thunder and lightning was two great birds. The female, Heloha (thunder) would lay her giant eggs in the clouds and they would rumble as they rolled around atop the clouds. Despite his size, her mate Melatha (lighting) was extremely fast and left a trail of sparks as he streaked across the sky.
To protect himself from evil spirits and assure success in battle, each Choctaw male, upon reaching his manhood, created for himself a totem or medicine bag, which he carried upon his person at all times. Each medicine bag was different, being made, up of items the individual felt would word off evil or bring good fortune … such as a claw from his first bear kill, a bit of earth from his house, etc. The warrior would never reveal to another the contents of his medicine bag, and if asked what the bag contained, he would probably, answer “You would not be any wiser thereby.” If a Choctaw’s medicine bag were ever,stolen, destroyed or lost, his effectiveness as a warrior, a hunter, a digger, a builder or whatever his profession was gone and he could not operate until he had found or built himself a new totem.
Religiously and politically, the ancient Choctaw Nation was a benign matriarchy. Upon marriage the husband lived with his wife’s clan and their children were members of her clan, although the husband was never admitted to full clan membership but remained a member of his own (or his mother’s) clan. Woman was considered “the giver of life.” Did she not birth the children, cause the corn to grow, cause the vegetables to grow and prepare life giving food for her husband and children.
Conversely, the man was the “taker of life.” Did he not kill the game for the family table, fight the enemy of his family and people and stand protectively between his family and the world? When a Choctaw, particularly of the hunting and warring iksas, made his first kill he was allowed to add the word “abi” (killer and pronounced ubbi) to his name. Thus you know when you meet a Choctaw whose surname ends in “obi” or “ubbi” that you are speaking of the descendant of a once mighty Choctaw warrior or hunter who earned the right to have “killer” added to his name.
The family unit was the basis of both political and religious life among the ancient Choctaws. Several families, one of which was hunters, one warriors, one builders, etc., would band together in an “iksa” or clan. The clan adopted a symbol, usually a bird or animal, and a clan color which was worn proudly as each Choctaw was proud of his or her clan. For mutual protection, several “iksas” (or clans) would band together to create a “moiety” (or town). Several moieties might then band together under a popular spokesman (or Minko) to become a nation, tribe or district. In this manner was created the three historic Choctaw districts: Ahi Apet Okla (potato eating people), Okla Hanalli (six people or six towns) and Okla Falaya (long people).
The ancient Choctaw did not possess a “soul” in the strictest Christian sense of the term. Instead he possessed an inner shadow or spirit, “Shilup” (which now means ghost), and an outer spirit, “Shilombish” (which now means soul). Upon the death of a Choctaw, the Shilup or inner shadow immediately began its long trip to the west toward the “Happy Land.” And the Shilombish or outer shadow remained about the place of its abode in life for a more or less indefinite period of time. The Shilombish generally remained around the home until funeral ceremonies had been completed, and then if all were well with its family it would slowly fade away.
However, if the body to whom the Shilombish belonged had been troubled in life or was murdered, the outer shadow would remain around the family until the problem was solved. In this event, the Shilombish would let the family know at night that it was still about by issuing pitiful moans or barking like a fox or hooting like an owl near the house. How did you know that a Shilombish was about your house? When a fox barks or an owl calls, another will answer from a distance away. However, when a Shilombish cries, there is no answer from another fox or another owl.
In the meantime, the Shilup or inner shadow has made the long journey westward toward the “Happy Land.” It has felt neither hunger nor thirst nor the need for sleep pressing on westward for days and days until it reached the gateway to the Happy Land. However, to enter the Happy Land, the Shilup had to cross a deep, dark canyon by means of a freshly-peeled and therefore slick “footlog.” (This footlog was peeled pine according to what Peter P. Pitchlynn told George Catlin or peeled sweetgum according to Isaac Folsom.) As the Shilup attempted to walk across the slick log, it was bombarded with sticks and stones, thrown by the guardians of the gateway to the Happy Land. If the Shilup was brave and ignored the guardians, it reached the other side of the canyon.
Here was the Happy Land, where existed one continual day and a world where trees are always green and bear fruit and nuts eternally, where the sky has no clouds and where there are fine and continually cooling breezes. Feasting, dancing and rejoicing go on always, there is no pain or trouble and people never grow old but live forever young, enjoying all of the peaceful pleasures throughout eternity.
However, if you were a bad Shilup or were fearful of the guardians of the gateway to the Happy Land and tried to dodge the stones and sticks tossed at you, you would fall off the log into the canyon below. Here you would land in water “which is dashing over rocks and is stinking with dead fish and animals. There you are carried around and brought back to the same place again and again by whirlpools. The trees are all dead and bare and the waters are full of toads, lizards and snakes. The dead in the water are always hungry, but have nothing to eat; are always sick, but cannot die; are always in the dark smelly waters where the sun never shines. From this place, the dead may look into the beautiful country which makes up the Happy Land, see the sunshine from afar and hear the laughter and singing of the souls who reached there, but can never reach it themselves.”
Students of religion have called the concepts of the ancient Choctaw “brilliantly conceived and encompassing every detail of existence to form a basic religion worthy of a civilized people.” Comparison indicates that it was but a short step for the Choctaws from their ancient religion to Christianity, as there are no major basic differences. In fact, certain concepts of the ancient Choctaw religion . . . particularly in the area of the roles of men and women in society . . . may be superior to the male-rule concepts of Christianity.