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From the Trail of Tears to Today: The Choctaw Journey in Mississippi

By Sandra Knispel | Published 14 Feb 2011 01:40pm | comments
The mound of Nanih Waiya is a sacred site to Choctaw Indians. It dates back at least 1,000 years.

Since pre-historic times, Choctaws and other Native Americans have lived in what is now Mississippi. Once on the brink of extinction, Choctaw Indians are now once again thriving in the Magnolia state. What it took to get there is the focus of a four-part series that starts today. MPB’s Sandra Knispel takes us on the journey of the Mississippi Choctaws.

In 1830, under considerable pressure from Congress and President Andrew Jackson, three Choctaw chiefs signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, agreeing to resettle the tribe some 550 miles to the west. They hoped that moving to the newly created Indian Territory – in what is now largely Oklahoma – would safeguard the tribe. Instead, the poorly planned governmental removal, the so-called Trail of Tears, spelt death for many hundreds of Indians on the way.

“The removal part here was a very disgracing time for our tribal members," said Wilma Simpson, a Choctaw tribal member.

Independence and solitude in the new territory was relatively short lived. A tiny minority, however, stubbornly refused to leave Mississippi, even in the face of incarceration and fines.

"The ones who remained here, they hid. They hid in the woods, they hid in the swamp area. And they had every intentions to remain here. To show that nobody could never remove them,” Simpson said.

What made them stay was a large, flat-top earth mound preserved to this day in Winston County in east-central Mississippi. It dates back well over a thousand years, possibly even 2,000.

“Personally, I pronounce it Nanih Waiya. Which means a place where things grow or a place of creation,” explained Harold Comby, Captain of Operations for the Choctaw Police Department.

“In our legend it says that our tribe was the last one to come out from the center of the earth," Comby said. "And they also talk about other tribes coming out before us, like Cherokees, Seminoles and the rest and we stayed in this area.”

Just a mile away lies its cave and depending on whom you ask, it was either from here or the mound that the tribe emerged, from the womb of mother earth. Its small entrance barely a yard wide, the cave faces the headwaters of the Pearl River, not much more than a trickle. Comby’s parents took him here every year, a pilgrimage of sorts. According to oral history, Nanih Waiya had also been used as a burial mound.

"My mom would tell us stories about the spirits’ singing songs at night, or babies crying and stuff like that. And then she also said that if our people ever left that site, this area, we would fail to exist as a tribe,” Comby said.

It was around this nucleus of tribal members who refused to leave, that the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians began to reconstitute itself at the end of World War II. Life was hard, abject poverty the norm, and education rudimentary. In a society strictly segregated between black and white, brown had no place in the spectrum. While a large majority has converted to Christianity, traditional beliefs continue to play a role.

“I do certain things like smudgin’, which means actually smoking, making smoke, burning sage or cedar," Comby explains. "That’s for prayers. I did it this morning inside the car. Just put it in a small container and let the smoke go out and …. It’s supposed to bless the area around you and purify.”

Today the Mississippi Band of Choctaw has risen from the ashes of Dancing Rabbit. From those roughly 1,000 who in the 1830s refused to leave, the number has grown to 10,000. Mason Farmer, a 17-year-old high school student, is proud to be Choctaw.

“You know we’re still here and all that after all those years," Farmer explained. "I like being brown for some reason. I couldn’t imagine myself being lighter or darker."

Tomorrow in part two, we look at the segregated Choctaw school system that has guaranteed the survival of native identity.

"We’re dealing with the preservation of a culture that is different than the culture around. So, I guess it becomes an argument against assimilation," said Dr. Greg Carlyle, principal of Choctaw Central High School.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News.

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The mound of Nanih Waiya is a sacred site to Choctaw Indians. It dates back at least 1,000 years.


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