by Matthew Gailani
Hello Junior Curators and welcome to the latest blog post! This year, 2021, marks the 225th year of Tennessee statehood. That means it has been over two centuries since Tennessee became the 16th state in the United States of America on June 1, 1796. However, while this is an important point in Tennessee’s history, there were groups of people living here long before statehood in 1796. These groups were known as Southeastern Indians. Their histories, languages, and cultures are much older than statehood itself. In fact, before the U.S. became a country, Southeastern Indians were living across what is now Tennessee in groups known as tribes. One of the historic tribes who lived in Tennessee are the Chickasaw. In the 1700s, the Chickasaw lived in parts of modern-day Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Today, the Chickasaw Nation is in the state of Oklahoma. But who are the Chickasaw? Where did they live in Tennessee? Why did they move to Oklahoma? To answer these questions and more we are going to ask a member of the Chickasaw Nation to tell the story of their history and culture. Please help me welcome Chenae Lippard to the blog!
Matthew: Thank you so much for joining the Junior Curators’ blog today and sharing your history and culture with us. Let’s start from the beginning! Can you tell me about the Chickasaws’ Migration Story and the Chickasaws’ native homeland?
Chenae: Hi Matthew. I am so happy to join you and the Junior Curators today for this exciting interview about the history and culture of the Chickasaw people.
Our Migration Story says, “Long ago there came a time when the Chickasaw People needed to move from the West. After praying to our Creator, Aba' Binni'li', it was revealed to the hopayi’, or prophets, in a vision that the two brothers, Chiksa' and Chahta, were to lead our ancestors on a journey to the East. Within the vision of the hopayi', Aba' Binni'li', revealed that the brothers would gain direction from Itti' Fabassa' Holitto'pa', a sacred pole. The pole was to be planted in the middle of camp each night and whichever way the pole leaned the following morning, they were to continue their journey in that direction. When the pole stood straight, our ancestors would know that they found their Homeland.
And so the journey began in this way. Aba' Binni'li' sent an animal guide, Ofi Tohbi' Ishto, a large white dog, to assist and protect them. The dog would travel ahead – scouting for any potential threats and healing the physical wounds of the injured. After a long time, they encountered the mighty watercourse. Today that great river is known as the Mississippi.
The people hurriedly set about constructing rafts, and soon the crossing was underway. After the crossing, Ofi Tohbi' Ishto, their animal guide, would not be seen again, but would forever become part of the story of this journey. When they reached the other side of the river, the brothers planted the pole and rested. In the morning, they woke up to a strange sight. The pole was gyrating around in the ground – moving in all directions. Chahta believed the pole to be standing straight – signaling that they had reached the Homeland. Chiksa' believed the pole continued to lean eastward. After this journey, the people who followed Chiksa' were known as Chickasaws, and those who stayed with Chahta were called Choctaws.”
Our historic Homeland includes parts of present-day southwestern Kentucky, western Tennessee, northern Mississippi, and northwestern Alabama; however, our ancestors lived there many years before our Homeland became those states. We loved the land made up of forests, mountains, and prairies; we used the major waterways around us as our source of water, food, and transportation. We fished for food, transported goods, and floated our canoes on the waterways to get from one place to another quicker.
Manufactured by unknown Chickasaw artisans, the bead work on the cuffs is especially delicate and demonstrates the craftsmanship of the Chickasaws. Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Matthew: When did the Chickasaw first encounter European explorers and settlers? What were these encounters like?
Chenae: Our first encounter was in December of 1540 with the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his army somewhere along the Tombigbee River. Our ancestors stood on the banks and watched them as they approached and fired arrows towards the army to discourage them from crossing the river. That worked for a little while, but de Soto sent his men up the river where they crossed over on a raft and later the rest of the army was allowed to cross over without our warriors attacking.
Our ancestors did not trust the Spaniards, but they supplied them with food and shelter in order to keep the Spanish from attacking and raiding their camps. The Spaniards began stealing clothing and blankets and after one dispute, they even executed some Chickasaws and cut off the hands of others. Finally, in the spring of 1541, the Spaniards decided they would move on, but not before they demanded our Minko (leader) supply them with our Chickasaw men and women to carry their items and travel with them. Our Minko requested time to think about the request and select those people but instead he worked with the warriors to develop a surprise attack on the Spaniards.
For several nights, they beat drums and made war cries to frighten the Spanish, but they did not attack. The Spanish were now used to our warriors doing this each night and they were not as frightened. You could say they had let their guard down. Then one night our Chickasaw warriors began launching flaming arrows at the houses and ran in with their bows and arrows and war clubs. In battle, our warriors would strike quick and then retreat so that many lives were not lost. Our warriors wanted to make sure de Soto and his men understood that they were not welcome, and they were not taking any of our people with them. The Spanish fled to another abandoned village, but our warriors continued to harass them until they finally left. It was 150 years before our ancestors would encounter Europeans again.
Manufactured by unknown Chickasaw artisans, this beaded bag was a gift during a meeting between leaders of settlers and Chickasaws. Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Culture - The customs, arts, beliefs, languages, and more shared by a group of people.
Ancestors - People that someone is descended from who came before them. Relatives usually older than grandparents.
Encounter - An unexpected or surprise meeting. In this example, the first surprise meeting between two groups of people.
Conquistador - A Spanish leader and explorer. Also known for conquering and fighting.
According to the Chickasaw Migration Story, what river did the Chickasaws’ ancestors cross?
Where is the Chickasaw native homeland?
Which Spanish Conquistador did the Chickasaw encounter in the 1500s?
Keep an eye on the Junior Curators blog for the next part in this series coming soon.
5.28- Identify the pre-colonial American Indian tribes residing in Tennessee (e.g., Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Shawnee), and analyze their various customs and traditions.
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.