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common ground

The Delta Endangered
Spring 1996, vol. 1(1)

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*  Native Voices

(photo) Young Indian girl.

"We explain to the kids why, from the beginning of time in our homeland, we had the mounds. You can feel it in the classroom. There's a sense of dignity and a sense of loss."

Glenda Galvan

by Penny Jessel

"The white raccoon is a rare animal. He doesn't look like the other. If you ever run into a white raccoon, you will return to where you come from." Addie George, an 84-year-old Yuchi woman, is telling a parable of hope and reclamation. It is a Yuchi parable, but it speaks of something that is common to those Native Americans who still feel the ancient spiritual pull of the Mississippi delta, their place of origin.

There is an Indian movement in progress, and its focus is reclaiming all that is Indian. Who are the descendants of the people who built the mounds on the rich alluvial soil that lines the Mississippi River? The answer is a journey across time, place, and memory.

In Louisiana, the Chitimacha are surrounded by reminders of their legacy. Roslynn McCoy, the tribe's director of cultural and historical research, says about the mounds, "There are thousands of them. Everywhere. They're everywhere around here. You can see them in the canefields. You can tell by the shells on the ground, too. Chip [Louisiana state archeologist Charles McGimsey] has taught us what to look for. . . about 25 miles from here there's this mound that's higher than our ceiling. Beautiful."

Working with the state of Louisiana and private firms, the Chitimacha are rediscovering their past. The tribe has applied for a historic preservation grant to identify all the archeological sites in its traditional homeland—part of south-central and all of southeastern Louisiana. Both cultural tradition and research indicate that the Chitimacha buried their dead on the mounds into the 1920s, and possibly as late as 1940.

McCoy says that traditional Chitimacha ways "are starting to come back. Prayers, burning tobacco and sage. It's acknowledging the ancestors. When we visit the mounds we make sure we do that."

The desire to reaffirm tribal identity is evident among many tribes with connections to the mounds. Says Bill Day, director of Tunica-Biloxi cultural and historic preservation, "The Tunica-Biloxi...built a replica of a temple (ceremonial) mound and a museum in anticipation of receiving items robbed from Tunica graves in the 1950s. The so-called "Tunica Treasure," thought to be the world's largest collection of Indian and European artifacts from the 17th century, were kept at Harvard for ten years. By the time the grave goods had been returned, they were nearly destroyed due to improper storage and lack of conservation. The tribe . . . was not in a financial position to undertake the restoration. So they purchased two salvaged refrigerated semi-trailers and solicited private funding and donated equipment. Professional conservators were brought in to teach tribal members how to [restore and care for the artifacts]. Now we do all of the conservatory work ourselves."

The only human remains returned to the Tunica-Biloxi, says Day, "were in a box about the size of a cigar box. Without the bodies and [with] no way to determine which remains went with which artifacts, the remains were buried within the mound with the museum on top of the graves. It is felt that the objects are all around those who are buried there. The museum and the artifacts that it houses are now an educational tool and a visual statement of Tunica affluence of the past."

When Glenda Galvan of the Chickasaw nation speaks to schoolchildren, she brings along a cutaway sketch of a mound. "We explain to the kids why, from the beginning of our time, in our homeland, why we had the mounds. You can feel it in the classroom. There's a sense of dignity and a sense of loss. They understand. When I'm gone, the teacher can pick up with a textbook and go on." What she tries to do, she says, is "tell what the textbook can't tell."

Addie George describes Yuchi history and the determination to preserve tradition. "The sacred fireplace and [herbs and coals] were all carried to Oklahoma when they walked the Trail of Tears. . . And they still carry on again with the thousand-year old fireplace. Old people worshipped in it. The children grow up in it and understand it. Those who go away to college, they have lost out, they don't know songs, language, and so on. I am 84 years old and have been here all these years and have seen all these changes. I do [teach children] and the grown-ups too, they come to me and ask me about the language and customs. I teach my grandchildren. I want my family to know all this."

To some Native Americans in the delta, the fact that many mounds are on public land won't stop them from worshiping on them. "We'll go on public land," says one. "We don't ask anybody. We just do it. White people have been desecrating graves for years—even when there were laws that said they couldn't. They just went out and did it."

The early antiquarians who studied American indigenous people concluded that the marvelous race that constructed the mounds had simply disappeared, possibly to Central and South America. They believed that the American Indians filled the areas that the "Great Race of Mound Builders" had vacated. The expeditions of DeSoto, La Salle, and even Andrew Jackson's army were, in fact, looking at that race. It had been forced to vacate its lands—not for other Indians, but for Europeans.

By 1700, Georgia, the ancestral home of the Yuchi, was overrun by Anglo-American farmers. The Yuchi, along with many other affiliates of the Creek Confederacy, were forced to flee. The Yuchi found homes among the Creek and other southeastern tribes, but they ceased to exist as a tribal entity. The remaining Yuchi were one of the tribes that was forced to walk the Trail of Tears. This culturally distinct group was forcibly incorporated into the Creek Nation of Oklahoma by the U.S. Government.

"Yuchi were moundbuilders to begin with," says Addie George. "The sacred burial mounds and the mounds they lived on. I kind of figure children would be safe from animals up high like that. They would dig a grave right there where they live, bury the dead and continue living right there on top of it." With few of them left and their language fading quickly, the Yuchi display an astonishing tenacity to retain their identity. Valerie Harjo George claims, "We are under the Creek Nation and have filed a petition for federal recognition, but it was denied because we are already in a federally recognized tribe [Creek]. So we are going to file again."

"The Choctaw carried the bones of their dead with them," says E.T., a Choctaw elder, relating a creation tale. "They said the bones were the treasures of their people. They had many heavy bags of bones with them, since they had been traveling for a long time. . . The Choctaw decided to stay and settle down and bury all those bones, and the place they buried them was a great mound, our Mother Mound, Nanih Waiya."

"The Mississippi Band of Choctaw may actually have been made up of a remnant population of several of the Mississippi tribes who were despoiled during the 16th and 17th centuries," says tribal archeologist Ken Carleton. "There are two creation stories, one of tunneling through the Mother Mound to arrive in this place, and the other of arriving by a migration." The importance of Choctaw cultural preservation is made poignant as Carleton states that the Choctaw consider PanIndian Powwows and other events that suggest a generic "Indianness" "cultural pollution to [their] traditional ways. Eighty percent of the people speak Choctaw. English has always been taught as a second language in the Choctaw schools because children spoke Choctaw at home. As sharecroppers and the victims of discrimination in the community, they were segregated from the general society. This segregation acted as a preserver of the language.

"A recent problem is that the children at age five are coming to school speaking English rather than Choctaw . . . The tribe has . . . received a language preservation grant to teach reading and writing Choctaw in the high school."

The conflict between living among the dominant society and the desire to remain Indian has its costs. Asked about his tribe's connection to the mounds, one Native American says, "I don't hear anything about mounds around here. I know they had mounds, but I don't know what for or what's the meaning." And at a Poarch Creek powwow, a tobacco-chewing good old boy was overheard saying, "I ain't never seen such a big bunch of nothing in my life." For all the native cultural renaissance, there is a good share of heartache and loss. Some of the mounds in Chitimacha country are very accessible, according to Roslynn McCoy. "They're off levy roads, and they're plundered, brutalized. Kids go up on them and party."

On a trip to a mound in what she describes as "a very old [part of the] Chickasaw homeland," Glenda Galvan recalls the tearful reaction of an elder woman as they prepared to rebury ancestral remains they had brought with them. "Everywhere we stepped," she says, "we found pieces of bone. We gathered as many as we could and buried them where we thought they were appropriate." Nearby were two men in a Blazer. With their shovels and buckets stored in the back, they were waiting for the Chickasaw to leave.

"Our history is not written down," says Valerie Harjo George. "[It] is not being taught to our children." Says Addie George, "Every year we lose four, five, or six people. Now there are only four elders. Two are over one hundred years old."

Dr. Richard Grounds of the University of Tulsa, is working to preserve the Yuchi language before it disappears. "There are 12 speakers of the Yuchi language left. I have taken this semester to record and document as much of the language as I can. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any grant to assist, so I'm working with no salary. But you can understand why it is important that I do it now."

It is Thanksgiving Day, the annual powwow of the Poarch Creek. The event is held in the spirit of Indianness and old ways, but the modern world crowds around, unbidden. Booths offer dream-catchers, brand-name moccasins, and war bonnets for children. There are hot pink and blue-colored feathers.

Under a sign saying, "Mother Earth Herbs and Cures" is a white man in a long black wig, headband, and leather tunic. Another booth is selling colorful plastic Mardi-Gras-style plastic trinket jewelry and roach clips with feathers attached.

The Poarch Creek are descendants of some of the "Friendly Creek Indians" who were living in southwestern Alabama at the close of the Creek War of 1813-14. The majority of the Creek people were removed to Oklahoma in 1836, but some remained in Alabama as interpreters. Over the years, through separation and acculturation, these interpreters lost the ability to speak the Creek language. However, through decades of discrimination and depredation that enhanced solidarity, the remembrance of Indianness that bound them together held strong. Patiently, painstakingly, they began to develop and reclaim the heritage they had lost. They work toward that end still.

In a small square, roped off with heavy twine, is Gail Thrower, tribal historian. There, she exhibits food sources of the historic Creek Indians such as indigenous grains and herbs. She patiently explains to passers-by tribal history or uses of different plant life. J.A. Paredes, professor of anthropology at Florida State University, has spent some 20 years with the Poarch Creek Indians. With pride in his voice, he states, "The Poarch Creek struggled for a long time, but finally received federal recognition in August of 1984." Their efforts are geared to reclamation of what was denied them for a very long time: their right to their Creek heritage.

The collective consciousness of American Indians is directed toward reclamation—not only of artifacts and ancestral remains, but of all things Indian: the Yuchi seeking independence; the Poarch Creek learning-relearning their cultural traditions; a Shawnee woman mourning her inability to speak her language; the Tunica-Biloxi sheltering their ancestors and their children from non-Indians by conducting their own works; the Mississippi Choctaw insistence upon teaching their language and traditions to their children; the Chickasaw searching out their ancient grounds.

Nearing the end of his life, a 96-year-old Yuchi chief took his two daughters and went to see where the Yuchi used to live. As Addie George tells the story, "They stopped in Sele, Alabama . . . The service [station] attendant said, `You look like Indians.'

`We are Indians! We are the Yuchi, and I am the chief of the Yuchi Indians!'

"The people there treated them real good. They got them a nice hotel room, free meals, the red carpet . . . They took [the chief] to a cafe. When they entered, he spotted the white raccoon on display. It was stuffed. He was so excited because it was prophesied that if you see him, this white raccoon, you will return to where you come from."

Exploring the Mississippi in the early 18th century, the French had the rare privilege of seeing the last of the true mound-builders. They were the Natchez in their waning days, disappearing into the vast darkness of time. In Sacred Geography of the American Mound Builders, Maureen Korp says, "These thousands of mounds dotting the landscape attesting to the powerful presence of ancient Americans are rather like a giant page of braille, now damaged by plow and progress, whose code there is not even hope of ever fully deciphering. Yet, some of the marks, some of the signs, are so potent they whisper still of ancient meanings." That whispering is in an old language, one whose sound crosses time to a new world. It is often faint, but Native Americans listen still, and hear.

Penny Jessel is senior associate at the Gray Group of Tallahassee, Florida, which provides consulting services for the development of affordable housing for low-income families. She has also worked with Indian Housing Authorities throughout the country. Ms. Jessel is of Shawnee ancestry and is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She is currently a graduate student in anthropology at Florida State Univeristy.

MJB/EJL