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

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*  Nanih Waiya: Mother Mound of the Choctaw

(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 Ken Carleton

When they emerged from the mound, the first Choctaw were still damp from the Underworld. Aba iki, the Father Above, who had brought them forth, laid them out along the ramp of the mound to dry. The scene unfolded ages ago, according to one origin story, deep in a Mississippi wood. In other versions, the Choctaw and Chickasaw entered the world from a cave near the mound. Yet another variation tells of a prophet arriving from the west followed by an entire people. The mound, he divined, was meant to be their new home. They settled and later broke up into different groups. One followed a man called Chata, and became the Choctaw. Others followed Chicasa, his brother, and became the Chickasaw. Some say the Creek and Cherokee originated there as well.

Nanih Waiya, "Mother Mound" (Inholitopa iski) of the Choctaw Indians, has been venerated for centuries. The mound—focal point of their origin stories and the figurative heart of the Choctaw homeland—is today in a state park in Winston County, Mississippi. The archeological history of the site is little known, with no substantial excavations having been conducted there. From surface artifacts it is known that the first occupation of the site was in the Middle Woodland period (ca. 0-300 AD), which is most likely when the mound was built. Its pyramidal shape is similar to others from that period, such as Igomar Mound in Mississippi and Pinson Mounds in Tennessee.

Occupation continued into the Late Woodland period, lasting until about 700 AD. Though the site is often referred to as Mississippian (1000 AD-1550 AD), there does not appear to have been any occupation during that time.

Variously translated as "stooping hill" or "place of creation," Nanih Waiya measures 25 feet high, 140 feet wide, and 218 feet long. At one time, it was surrounded on three sides by a circular earthwork that was 10 feet high and encompassed about one square mile. A visitor to the site in 1854 reported the barely visible remnants of several smaller mounds nearby, which by that time had been all but obliterated by plowing. Portions of a smaller mound to the north of Nanih Waiya are still visible today.

From the 17th century on, the site was a place of homage, revered by the Choctaw as the central location of their origin stories. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, offerings were taken to the mound and placed in a large hole at the top. The small mounds that were noticed in 1854 may have been constructed by the Choctaw for their dead. There is the possibility that the mounds were Proto-historic (1550-1700) or perhaps even Woodland, but all clues have been lost to the plow.

The Choctaw appear to have made only limited ceremonial use of Nanih Waiya. Their traditional religion is very private, and they conduct few public rituals. Unlike almost every other group in the southeast, the Choctaw apparently did not have a Green Corn ceremony, the annual "first fruits" and renewal festival. The only well-documented public religious activities have to do with the burial and veneration of the dead.

Their traditional religion is one of communion with spirit guides, human-like animals who appear in many southeastern stories and impart knowledge and abilities characteristic of particular animals. Choctaw traditional beliefs are structured by the tales elders tell to the young, and that include, among others, the origin stories. So Nanih Waiya was probably never the center of any major religious activities. It was simply there, a fundamental part of Choctaw identity and worldview since before sustained European contact.

"It is said," recalls a Choctaw elder, "that the Choctaw would have council meetings on top of the mound a long time ago. Maybe the council met up there because the mound is sacred." In the 1840s, the Choctaw Claims Commission investigated U.S. non-compliance with the provisions of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (the 1830 Removal Treaty). Many of the older Choctaw, when asked where they were born, responded that they had come from the Mother Mound, Nanih Waiya. Writing years later of the incident, J.F.H. Claiborne said, "Many of the Choctaws examined . . . regard this mound as the mother, or birth-place of the tribe, and more than one claimant declared that he would not quit the country as long as [Nanih Waiya] remained."

Pressure from the U.S. government eventually caused the Choctaw nation to relinquish much of its ancestral land. Today, elders regard Nanih Waiya with a mixture of nostalgia and resignation. According to one, modern Choctaw see the mound more as a historical site than something sacred. Its incorporation into a Mississippi state park, she says, has a lot to do with it. "It is not ours," she says. "Our Mother Mound is not even ours. It has been given away. I would encourage the state of Mississippi to give it back to the Choctaws. The mound was sacred. The mound was Mother Earth . . . Maybe one day we will go back to the old ways for Choctaws and we'll have Nanih Waiya again."

Ken Carleton is Tribal Archeologist with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He can be reached at P.O. Box 6257, Philadelphia, MS 39350, (601) 656-5251, fax 656-0218.