Saturday Art: Beginnings of the Chickasaw/Choctaw Nation
The Chickasaw Cultural Centre in Sulphur, OK, has many of the traditional stories that are part of tribal history. The beginnings of the tribe in its present location is the legend of the White Dog, and talks about the long trek that led them there.
The tribe came from a place near the Great Lakes, where they had a number of wars with neighboring tribes. Their wise men sought guidance from the deity, and received a long pole that was given the power to guide them to a new home.
Each evening on their journey it was put into the earth, and would give a direction to be followed for the next day’s travel. This was initiated, and the journey went on for many days.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. And then one day, just as the sun was setting, the two parties of Indians came upon a scene beyond their imagination. It was a great river, the likes of which they had never seen before, and the unexpected sight overwhelmed them.
For a long time the astonished people stood on the riverbank and stared in awe at the mighty watercourse. They called the giant river misha sipokoni (beyond all age); today, that great river is known far and wide as the Mississippi.
That night the families sat around their campfires and talked joyfully to one another. Many of the people believed the promised land had been reached and felt certain the sacred long pole would confirm their belief at daybreak.
But at sun up the next day, the homeless people saw that the kohta falaya still leaned toward the east, and they knew that “home” was somewhere on the other side of the wide, wide river before them.
The tribesmen hurriedly set about constructing rafts, and soon the crossing was underway. Almost immediately a serious mishap occurred which left the Indians very sad. The raft carrying their beloved white dog came to pieces in the middle of the river, and though all the people were quickly rescued, the big dog, which managed to climb onto a piece of broken timber, could not be reached. The people could only watch helplessly as he was swept downstream and out of sight. That was the last the Indians ever saw of their faithful guard and scout.
Many days were required to ferry all the people and their belongings to the opposite side, but, in time, the difficult crossing was completed.
The families rested by the river several days, then packed up and continued their eastward march. Some weeks later they camped at a certain place, which later became known as Nanih Waya, in what is now Winston County, Mississippi. At daylight the following morning, the people found the kohta falaya wobbling around crazily, leaning first in one direction and then another.
The migrants became somewhat excited–and uneasy, too–for they had never before seen the sacred long pole behave in such a strange manner. At last the kohta falaya grew very still and stood perfectly straight.
At this point, the two brothers–Chief Chickasaw and Chief Choctaw–had their first difference of opinion. Chief Choctaw, as well as some of the prophets, was quite satisfied that the perfectly erect pole was the divine sign from Ubabeneli that their new home had been reached. Chief Chickasaw on the other hand, was not at all pleased with the way the sacred pole had wobbled around, and he felt certain the promised land lay farther toward the rising sun.
Discussions on the matter were held by the two chiefs and the prophets, but at the end of several hours, opinions remained unchanged. Seeing that talking was getting them no place, Chief Chickasaw pulled the sacred long pole from the ground and commanded all those who believed the promised land lay farther to the east to pick up their packs and follow him.
That was the beginning of the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indian Nations. From that day on Chief Chickasaw’s followers, who were relatively few compared to the great number who remained in camp, were referred to as Chickasaws, and those who stayed with Chief Choctaw were called Choctaws.
After leading the Chickasaws farther eastward to various parts of what are now states of Alabama and Georgia, the kohta falaya reversed its direction and guided the people westward to a place in the vicinity of the present-day towns of Pontotoc and Tupelo, Mississippi; and there, less than a hundred miles north of where the Choctaws had settled, the sacred long pole stood straight as an arrow. The Chickasaw people then knew with certainty that at last they had found their new homeland and that their long journey was at an end.
The pole is often represented in their art, and a replica is situated outside the Chickasaw Cultural Center, with a plaque below giving a short account of the legend connected with it.