Bishinik October 1979 Page 8 & 9
Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends
By Len Green
The Sacred Stick
There are two sets of legends tracing the origin of Okla (the People), who later became known to history as the Choctaws. One is a comparatively simple legend while the other is much more elaborate and detailed.
The simpler legend goes like this:
On the morning of creation, Hashtahli, the Sun Father, opened Nanih Waiya and from the soil inside the sacred mound grew Okla (the people). As they emerged from the ground, they lay themselves in the sunlight on the sides of Nanih Waiya to dry.
The first who came out were poorly formed, some short and squatty and others too lean and hungry looking. When they had dried out, this group traveled south and east away from Nanih Waiya and became known as the Creeks. The second group coming out of the sacred mound were better formed, but Hashtahli had not quite yet perfected his art. These people, when they were dry traveled north and east from Nanih Waiya and became the Chickasaws. The last group were perfectly formed, clean of limb, beautiful of face and blessed with strength and intelligence. They chose to reside in the area surrounding the sacred mound and would become the people called Choctaw.
Strangely, a reason for certain Choctaws to believe this legend is explained in the second and much longer, set of legends tracing the beginning of Okla (the people). Therefore this series of articles will dwell on the other set of legends in considerable detail.
Some of the legends were recorded by John R. Swanton in his definitive work A Social and Ceremonial Customs of the Choctaws.” Others have been garnered from stories and songs. Of great help in tracing the legends of the Choctaw have been the writings of H.B. Cushman, H.H. Halbert, John Claiborne, George Catlin, Angie Debo and R.S. Cotterill. Your writer is also indebted to numerous Choctaw citizens who have agreed to share the songs and stories of their childhood to contribute to the of retelling of these Choctaw legends. Your writer has taken the liberty of trying to arrange the legends into a form that will give them continuity, has attempted to bridge gaps in the legends in his own words and has tried to retell each legend in more modern language. Your comments are always welcomed.
The Sacred Stick
On the morning of creation, just as Hashtahli (said to be from the words “hashi” which means sun and “tahli” which means to complete the action), the Sun Father, first opened his eye upon the land, the waters parted, and from beneath the great waters came Okla, his chosen people. Emerging from the bright waters, they spread themselves about the sandy beaches to dry out under the watchful eye of Hashtahli as he started to walk his daily path across the sky. Under the brightness of the Sun Father’s eye, the people began slowly to dry out, turning themselves occasionally as the parts touched by Hashtahli’s gaze became dry.
First to dry out and struggle shakily to his feet was a true example of the handiwork of the Sun Father. Tall was be, but strong, as lithe and supple as the willow, and as he took his first few faltering steps the rippling muscles underneath his bronze skin showed him to be as tough as the seasoned Bois D’Arc. As he strolled about the beach gazing upon this new world Hashtahli had given his people, some force unknown to him kept bringing his eye back to a ragged rock spire which towered high like a finger point skyward above the bleak, smooth sands of the beach. Still not knowing why, he moved first with faltering steps and then with more confident stride toward that black finger of rock that seemed to be pointing upward directly toward the path traveled by Hashtahli. With each step he gained strength and confidence until his stride lengthened, muscles rippled beneath his skin and he stood tall and straight in the very shadow of the tall black rock.
He stood at the base of the tall spire, letting his eyes travel upward across the hard, sharp stones until, as his eyes focused on the top of the spire his head far back and his arms spread in the position that would become the traditional stance of the Choctaw for prayer. And it was then that a voice spoke from inside of him, He did not doubt that it was, indeed, the voice of Hashtahli, the Sun Father, as it came at once from inside him, from outside him, from everywhere and from nowhere.
“You must climb the spire,” the voice said.
Unquestioningly, the man began to climb up the ragged face of the black rock. The sharp stones tore at his hands, his feet and his body, until the gushing blood slicked his limbs and chest making his terrible task even more difficult. But still he fought grimly upward, inch by tearing inch, moving slowly upward toward the top of the spire as the voice had commanded him. The blood pouring from his body, hands, arms, legs and feet left him weak, and his breath came in ragged gasps from the terrible effort, but still he inched slowly upward. Finally, in what may well have been his last possible effort, he pulled his body up and onto the flat, smooth top of the spire, falling supine upon the rock, perspiring and gasping from his effort. But he was atop the spire as the voice had commanded. Slowly, ever so slowly, he struggled upward first to his knees and then to his feet until he stood atop the high black finger of rock.
Below him, along the beach, he could see his people looking small like ants, lying on the sands drying with a few slowly beginning to struggle to their feet and taking faltering first steps. Slowly the man looked all around from his vantage point atop the finger of rock. In the distance, away from the beach, he could see trees and occasionally a larger animal moving about. “Food is there,” he thought. Slowly he turned his face skyward to find himself staring directly into the giant burning eye of Hashtahli himself, who had while the man climbed reached the midpoint of his daily path across the face of the land. The man felt that he had to but raise his hand above his head to actually touch the face of the Sun Father. The man listened carefully. But the Sun Father did not speak. Only then did the man look about the flat, smooth top of the spire to which he had climbed, and as he looked his body ached from the terrible task and the cuts and scrapes on his body, hands and feet burned and throbbed. The top of the spire was black, smooth rock stretching unbroken in a circle about him. There was nothing.
But no! Wait! There was something else on the rock with him. Wiping the sweat and blood from his eyes, he crept closer to see what was lying on the smooth black rock. It was only a stick. Tired, hurt and disappointed, the man slowly let himself sink to his knees and then to a sitting position on the ground, cross-legged and totally deflated, as he reflected that perhaps his labor had been for naught. Sitting, with head bowed, his eye again fell upon the stick which lay a few feet in front of him and slowly his tired eyes whispered a message to his benumbed brain.
Finally, it crept slowly into his weary mind that he was not looking at an ordinary stick. It was a perfectly straight stick, smooth, peeled and about twice as long as the man himself. And, there were other strange and remarkable things about the stick, he noted. Suddenly he realized that not only was the stick perfectly straight, it was so smooth that he could see no marks where smaller branches or leaves had been cut or stripped away. And the ends of the stick were smooth as the stick itself. There were absolutely no sign that the ends had been cut or broken. In fact there were no signs that the stick had ever been even attached to a tree.
The man leaned forward and slowly extended one hand until the tips of his fingers touched the stick. It trembled slightly under his touch and he could feel a strange life surging within the stick. The man closed his hand about the stick and lifted it from its place on the rock. As he did, he lost any final doubt he may have had that this was indeed a Sacred Stick of Hashtahli, the Sun Father. Because, as he grasped the stick, all of the cuts, bruises and abrasions he had gotten climbing up the spire closed and disappeared without the faintest sign of scars and he felt all of his expended energy and strength flowing back into him.
He stood up in one flowing motion and grasping the stick in both hands he thrust it upward to show Hashtahli that he had discovered the secret and again turned his face toward the eye of the Sun Father. Then the voice which came at once from nowhere and everywhere spoke to him once again, saying, “If you will be my voice, you first, without question, must leap from this spire.”
If the man had any doubts, he did not show them, even though there was a great distance from the top of the spire to the flat, sandy beach below him. Without hesitation, the man walked to the edge of the spire and still holding the Sacred Stick aloft he hurtled off the tall finger of rock into space. But like a bird with wings spread wide, the man floated gently and slowly down until his feet touched upon the sands and he again stood at the base of the rock almost in the same spot from where he had started to climb.
And, now the voice of the Sun Father spoke to him again: “Your name shall be Hatakni.” (Thought to be from the Choctaw words “hattak” meaning man, and “akni” meaning first born. Thus his name would be “first born man.”) As the holder of the Sacred Stick, you shall lead my people to the land I have prepared for you. You must trust the Sacred Stick to show you the way, and you must always obey the signals I relay to you through the stick you hold in your hand. It will not be an easy journey. Your days will be long. Many troubles will beset you. Many of my people will die along the way before you reach the land that shall be yours. You will suffer many hardships, see days of hunger, nights of fear and years of travel. But only in this way can you be tried, tested and proven worthy to become my chosen people,” the Sun Father continued. “Here on these beaches you will find shellfish and tender greens enough to sustain your people long enough for you to organize them and prepare for your long march. By the time I have completed three journeys along my path you must be ready to move my people away from this place, following always the direction of the Sacred Stick. First, you must establish the families, with the woman as the giver of life and the family sustainer and the man as the taker of life and the provider of meat. Each child will aid its parent as sex and inclination dictate,” commanded Hashtahli.
“You will choose two chiefs, and they shall be the leaders of my people. One shall march before marking the way my people will tread, and one shall march behind leading the majority of my people. Once you have chosen these two chiefs, you shall trust to them all of the leadership of my people. Thereafter, you shall be the advisor and the custodian of the Sacred Stick. As another evidence of my covenant with Okla (the people), I have left you for you a golden symbol. When it is found, you will name a custodian and in your march it must travel before my people but behind the Sacred Stick as an eternal sign of my promise to you. When you must speak with me again, you will seek a place apart from the eyes of your people, look upward and raise your arms up to me and call my name. Then I shall come and speak with you.” The voice of Hashtahli, the Sun Father, became silent.
For a long moment, Hatakni stood still fixing in his mind all of the commands and directions he had received from the Sun Father. Then straight and strong, grasping the Sacred Stick like a staff, Hatakni strode confidently back to the beach where his people were waiting.
In the meantime, most of the people had become dry and were beginning to search about the beach and edges of the woodland for shellfish, berries, nuts and edible roots to take the edge from their appetites. A few moments after Hatakni had returned to the beach and was walking among his people, pondering his directives from Hashtahli, he was startled by a cry from the edge of the wood. He raced in the direction of cry to observe a man crying excitedly and pointing downward at something glinting in the sand. Seeing the glitter of the object reflecting the light from the eye of the Sun Father, Hatakni could see the rounded edge of some bright object lying hidden beneath the sand.
“Help me, help me!” cried the excited man attacking the sand and digging it away from the object.
Shortly, the object was uncovered. It was a large golden disk, about as large in diameter as two men with one standing atop the other. The disk was emblazoned with a sunburst.
“It is Hashtahli’s symbol telling us that we are indeed Okla, his chosen people,” Hatakni said, And then, turning to the man who had been crying out, Hatakni asked “How did you come to find it?”
“I was digging for some edible roots to help feed my mother, my father, my brothers, my sisters and myself,” gasped the man. “I thought I saw a good place to dig just there, but as I started for the spot I stubbed my toe upon this object. It is so beautiful with the eye of the Sun Father glinting from it,” the man continued. “I wish it were mine.”
Hatakni smiled, “It is Hashtahli’s symbol to all the people and must belong equally to each of us. However, if it is your wish, you may be close to it all of your life.”
“Oh, yes, it is my wish,” said the man.
“Then,” said Hatakni, “Henceforth your name shall be Lopina.” (The name Lopina is thought to be derived from the Choctaw words “lopa” which means roots and the word “pinak” which means provisions for a trip, thus “provider of roots.”) You shall have a crew of eight strong men. Together you will build a litter of strong branches which will bear Hashtahli’s golden sun symbol in an upright manner. And, when we march from this place toward the land promised us by the Sun Father, you and your crew, carrying this sun symbol; shall march before the people led only by the Sacred Stick as a sign to all that we are Okla, the chosen people of Hashtahli, the Sun Father,” Hatakni told Lopina.
Having spoken, Hatakni, joined by Lopina, then went forth to seek food to sustain their bodies and to begin organizing the people for the mighty tasks that lay ahead of them.
NEXT MONTH: Chahta and Chicksa.