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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Lauren Grizzard
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 Wilson Seawright to the blog!
Lauren: Wilson, welcome to the Junior Curators blog. We are excited to hear from you today. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Wilson: Chokma, hello, my name is Wilson Seawright, and I am the archivist at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
This is an undecorated bottle believed to be made and used by Mississippian Indians as a water bottle. Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Lauren: The Chickasaw trace their origins back to the Mississippian people and culture in prehistoric times. Who were the Mississippian people and how do the Chickasaw view the Mississippian people today?
Wilson: “Mississippian people” is a term used for people who originally lived in the Mississippi Valley and the areas of the rivers and creeks that flowed into the Mississippi River. This group is considered perhaps the earliest people to live in villages with a structured government (chiefdoms). Their communities were built around the mounds, which were ceremonial in nature and built hundreds of years earlier along the Mississippi River.
Today, we Chickasaws view this as a pivotal time in our history. This was a time prior to being recorded by European historians as “Spartans of the Lower Mississippi Valley.” Research is continuing through archeological studies to learn more about our ancestors during this time.
A map of Tennessee around 1796, the year Tennessee became a state. Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Lauren: Tennessee students learn a lot about treaties between the Chickasaw and the United States (like the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek). What should students know about how these treaties were negotiated? How did the Chickasaw view them at the time?
Wilson: The Chickasaw Nation signed the first known treaty in 1783 with the State of Virginia and the last treaty with the United States and the Choctaw Nation in 1866. Chickasaw leaders negotiated and signed these treaties as equals with foreign governments. As with any agreement, each side negotiated in the best interests of protecting their citizens. The Chickasaws knew the boundaries of their nation and sought to protect their lands from outsiders. The Chickasaw Nation would determine who had a right to be on their land and who did not.
In negotiating the Treaty with the Chickasaw and U.S. of 1832 (also known as the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek), the Chickasaw leaders sought to maintain their self-determination against outside forces. The pressure by the State of Mississippi and the United States to remove to lands west of the Mississippi was immense. These leaders knew that they would need to negotiate to get the best for their people. These skilled negotiators, like Ishtehotopa, Tishominko and George Colbert, tried to ensure that the Chickasaw people would be able to sell their lands in order to set up a new life in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). In an effort to remain in their Homeland for as long as possible, one of the stipulations of the treaty was that the Chickasaws did not have to move until “suitable land” west of the Mississippi could be found. Five years later, the Chickasaws used money from the sale of their lands to purchase an interest in the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory.
Even with the skilled leadership negotiating for the best possible outcome, the decision to remove was hard as was the journey to the new lands. Under the dedicated and forward-thinking leadership, the Chickasaws were united as a tribe in removing west of the Mississippi River. Chickasaw leaders are known to put the best interests of their people first even if the decision is hard. Chickasaws had learned valuable lessons from previous treaties, when others were likely too quick to trust the federal government and had no reason to believe they would fail to comply with treaty stipulations.
Lauren: Who is your favorite figure in Chickasaw history and why?
Wilson: I have many favorites for different reasons, and they include Chickasaws who lived at different times.
Piominko, George Colbert, Cyrus Harris, Peter Maytubby, Douglas Johnston, Charles Carter and Jesse “Cab” Rennick are all Chickasaws I admire. Piominko and George Colbert would be close to this time.
Piominko statue (Chickasaw Hall of Fame: https://hof.chickasaw.net/Members/2010/Piominko.aspx).
Piominko was an admired warrior and had proven himself as a protector of our Homeland. He was also a man who wanted the best for his people, and his friendship with George Washington became an asset as he went to great lengths to protect the Chickasaw people.
George Colbert was also an admired warrior. He was also a man ahead of his time in the business world. As previously stated, he was one of the prime negotiators in the 1832 Treaty of Pontotoc Creek. George operated a ferry, trading posts and a large farming operation. He also represented the Chickasaw people as leaders in the early 1800s.
Present Day Chickasaw Nation (Google Maps).
Lauren: For students who might not know, what is the Chickasaw Nation and what is their role today?
Wilson: Chickasaws were removed to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) beginning in 1837 and continued through the 1890s. The Chickasaw Nation occupies an area (which includes all or parts of 13 counties) in south-central Oklahoma. We are a sovereign nation within another nation, the United States of America. Chickasaws are citizens of their county, state, and the United States, as well as the Chickasaw Nation. The Chickasaw Nation has its own government consisting of three departments— the executive, judicial and legislative. We operate a variety of businesses such as convenience stores, hotels, radio stations, banks, healthcare systems, a state-of-the-art cultural center, gaming operations and many others.
We strive to educate the world about our unique Chickasaw history, language, and culture. Additionally, we seek to be good neighbors and partners to all who live within the boundaries of the Chickasaw Nation.
Lauren: In your opinion, what does it mean to be Chickasaw today?
Wilson: Being Chickasaw today means I am part of a nation with a unique and noble history — one of strength, endurance, and perseverance. We are a progressive nation working on projects that benefit not only Chickasaws, but the communities we live in.
Lauren: To close, what’s one thing you would like for Tennessee students to know about the Chickasaw?
Wilson: The one thing I would like for Tennessee students to know is that Chickasaws once occupied most of western Tennessee (including parts of northern Mississippi, northwestern Alabama, and southwestern Kentucky). We have a shared history. We want to do our part to educate people about our history and reestablish a presence in Tennessee so future generations can be proud of the diverse history of the great state of Tennessee.
Yakoke, thank you.
Ancestors - People that someone is descended from who came before them. Relatives usually older than grandparents.
Stipulation – Required by an agreement.
Mississippian people originally lived in what area?
How do you think the Chickasaw felt about the United States breaking treaties and promises made to them? How would you feel?
The Chickasaw said that they would not move until “suitable land” was found west of the Mississippi. What do you think they would look for to make sure the land was “suitable”?
What was the message Wilson wanted students to remember? We have a _____________ history.
If you haven’t read our interviews in part one and two of the Chickasaws and Tennessee, check them out here:
Part One - https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/the-chickasaw-and-tennessee-part-1
Part Two - https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/the-chickasaw-and-tennessee-part-2
Take a virtual tour of the Chickasaw Cultural Center where our guest, Wilson Seawright, works: https://www.chickasawculturalcenter.com/videos
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.
Lauren Grizzard is the Scheduling Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.