Choctaw Traditions

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It is stated of the Papagoes,1 that an ancient tradition of their tribe proclaims the coming of a Messiah by the name “Moctezuma.” They affirm that, in the ancient past, he lived in Casa Grande, the famous prehistoric temple on the Gila River; that his own people rebelled against him and threatened to kill him, and he fled to Mexico. But before leaving them he told them that they would experience great afflictions for many years, but eventually, at the time of their greatest need, he would return to them from the east with the rising sun; that he would then cause the rain to fall again upon their arid country, and make it bloom as a garden, and make his people to become the greatest on earth. Therefore, when Montezuma arrives, that he may see all the doors open and none closed against him, this humble people, with a pathetic faith, make the only entrance to their houses toward the east and leave the door always standing open that their Messiah may enter when he comes. During the years 1891, 1892 and 1893, a three years drought had destroyed their crops, dried up their water, cut off their supply of seeds, and killed great numbers of their cattle. Truly it was the time of their greatest suffering, and surely Montezuma would now come to their rescue; and it was enough to move the heart of the most obdurate infidel, to see the people ascending just before sunrise to the top of the surrounding hills and look anxiously toward the rising sun for Montezuma, until disappointment usurped the place of hope, and one by one, each returned patiently to his house, but to hope on.

Christianity, it is said, dates back from the return of the Hellenist Jews and proselytes from “Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene,” who heard St. Peter preach on the day of Pentecost.

It is well known that, in the history of the early church, no city is more famous than Alexandria. From that city came Apollos; there, too, Mark, the evangelist, is said to have preached; and from it Pantemusas was sent as a missionary to India; in it also dwelt Clement, Athanasius and Origin. Carthage and Hippo have given to the world the names of Cyprian, Tertullian and Augustine. In the fifth century there were 560 Bishoprics in North Africa. The Coptic Church in Egypt, and its daughter church in Abyssinia which still survive, though in corrupted state, while of the ancient North African church, not a vestige, it is said, remains, being wholly swept away by Mohammedism in the seventh century.

May not the ancestors of the North American Indians have dwelt in some of those regions of country in which the gospel was preached by those ancient missionaries? and also have been among those of the early Christians who fled before the persecutions of the Turk and Tartar, and crossed over to this continent by way of Behring Strait, or the fabled sunken continent Atlantis (if it ever existed), bringing with them the many Asiatic characteristics they possess in their manners and customs and religious ceremonies, and their traditional knowledge of the flood? But alas! Upon this we can but conjecture, there we can but begin and there we have to end.

The belief of the ancient Choctaws in regard to the eclipses of the sun was not more inconsistent, than that of any portion of the human family, whose minds had never been enlightened by the rays of spiritual light from the gospel of the Son of God. The Romans the Celtics, the Asiatics, the Finns of Europe, and, doubt, Britons, too, all had their views in regard to eclipses as absurd as the Choctaws. The Choctaws, as before stated, attributed an eclipse of the sun to a black squirrel, whose eccentricities often led it into mischief, and, among other things, that of trying to eat up the sun at different intervals. When thus inclined, they believed, which was confirmed by long experience, that the only effective means to prevent so fearful a catastrophe befalling the world as the blotting out of that indispensable luminary, was to favor the little, black epicure with a first-class scare; therefore, whenever he manifested an inclination to indulge in a meal on the sun, every ingenuity was called into requisition to give him a genuine fright that he would be induced, at least, to postpone his meal on the sun at that particular time and seek a lunch elsewhere. As soon, there fore, as the sun began to draw its lunar veil over its face, the cry was heard from every mouth from the Dan to the Beersheba of their then wide extended territory, echoing from hill to dale, “Funi lusa hushi umpa! Funi lusa hushi umpa,” according to our phraseology, the black squirrel is eating the sun! Then and there was heard a sound of tumult by day in the Choctaw Nation for the space of an hour or two, far exceeding that said to have been heard by night in Belgium’s Capital, and sufficient in the conglomeration of discordant tones terrific, if heard by the distant, little, fastidious squirrel, to have made him lose forever afterward all relish for a mess of suns for an early or late dinner. The shouts of the women and children mingling with the ringing of discordant bells as the vociferous pounding and beating of ear-splitting tin pans and cups mingling in “wild confusion worse confounded,” yet in sweet unison with a first-class orchestra of yelping, howling, barking dogs gratuitously thrown in by the innumerable and highly excited curs, produced a din, which even a “Funi lusa,” had he heard it, could scarcely have endured even to have indulged in a nibble or two of the sun, though urged by the demands of a week’s fasting.

But during the wild scene the men were not idle spectators, or indifferent listeners. Each stood a few paces in front of his cabin door, with no outward manifestation of excitement whatever so characteristic of the Indian warrior but with his trusty rifle in hand, which so oft had proved a friend sincere in many hours of trial, which he loaded and fired in rapid succession at the distant, devastating squirrel, with the same coolness and calm deliberation that he did when shooting at his game. More than once have I witnessed the fearful yet novel scene? When it happened to be the time of a total eclipse of the sun, a sufficient evidence that the little, black epicure meant business in regard to having a square meal, though it took the whole sun to furnish it, then indeed there were sounds of revelry and tumult unsurpassed by any ever heard before, either in “Belgium” or elsewhere. Then the women shrieked and redoubled their efforts upon the tin pans, which, under the desperate blows, strained every vocal organ to do its utmost and whole duty in loud response, while the excited children screamed and beat their tin cups, and the sympathetic dogs (whose name was legion) barked and howled all seemingly deter mined not to fall the one behind other in their duty since the occasion demanded it; while the warriors still stood, in profound and meditative silence, but firm and undaunted, as they quickly loaded and fired their rifles, each time taking deliberative aim, if perchance the last shot might prove the successful one; then, as the moon s shadow began to move from the disk of the sun, the joyful shout was heard above the mighty din Funi-lusa-osh mahlatah! The black squirrel is frightened. But the din remained unabated until the sun again appeared in its usual splendor, and all nature again assumed its harmonious course; then quiet below again assumed its sway, while contentment and happiness resumed their accustomed place in the hearts of the grateful Choctaws grateful to the Great Spirit who had given them the victory. But the scene of a total eclipse of the sun in the Choctaw Nation in those ancient years must be witnessed to be justly comprehended by the lover of the romantic, and heard by the highly sensitive ear to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.

On the road leading from St. Stephens then a little town in Alabama, near which was the home of the renowned Choctaw Chief Apushamatahahubi in 1812, to the city of Jackson, Mississippi, stood the mound Nunih Waiyah erected by the Choctaws in commemoration of their migration, as has been previously stated, from a country far to the west to their homes east of the Mississippi River, where they were first known to the Europeans. I read an article published some years ago in a newspaper, which stated that an ancient tradition of the Choctaws affirmed that they derived their origin from Nunih Waiyah, their ancestors swarming from the hole on the top as bees swarming from the hive in summer, and thus was that part of the world peopled with Choctaws. The Choctaws did not so state their origin to the early missionaries of 1818. They always have claimed their origin from a country far to the West, and the above mentioned tradition with all its absurdities, so numerous in the writings of the majority of those of the present age, who, having nothing more, clothe their nominal Indian in myths and hide him in impenetrable fogs, had its origin in” the prolific brain of the writer, who assumes to be gifted with a vivid imagination, even as his congenial fellow writers of the present day when getting up a “send-off” upon the Indians; and who imagine themselves wiser than even seven men who can render a reason, though they have advanced no further in Indian lore than the widely circulated hearsay & elementary spelling-book; and, having learned all there is to-be known in that branch of historical information, they feel themselves incapable of receiving any further instruction in regard to the North American Indian characteristics, from any source whatever, yet they are lacking in one very essential thing; i. e. Not to know how little they do know. But nothing better could be expected from such “Worldly Wisemen,” whose heads have been stuffed with naught else but tales of “Indian devils and Indian ghosts; Indian fairies and Indian elves; Indian tomahawks and Indian scalps;” and with ears full of such hobgoblins, they fell in love, as soon as they grew to manhood, with the desire to anathematize that unfortunate race as naturally as a bird sings; yet blinded as effectually to the amenity and atrocity of the wrongs and in juries done to the helpless Indians, as that drunkenness of “heart which follows up long, continued success, creating utter insensibility and remorselessness of conscience, but establishing the fact, that morally the Indians are immeasurably superior to any and all such oppressing, plundering and. defaming specimens of humanity.

The Choctaws lived around their honored, memento of the past for many successive generations, and some, even in large excavations made in its sides. And when interrogated by the whites with the question “Whence came they?” alluding to the origin of their race, the Choctaws, thinking their interrogator wished to learn from what part of their nation they came, replied: “From the Mound;” while those who dwelt in the excavations made in its sides, answered: “From out the Mound,” meaning they lived in the mound. No Choctaw was such a fool as to believe, or even assert, their ancestors jumped out of the hole on the top of Nunih Waiyah full fledged warriors, as they of fabled renown who spring from the dragon s teeth sown in the earth. And when speaking to them of this tradition, with seeming emotions of pity mingled with contempt, they have replied: “That fellow did not know what he was talking about;” a self-evident truth to all who know anything about the Choctaw people. True, they held Nunih Waiyah in great reverence; but not as the author of the tradition would make believe, that, in their degraded ignorance, they cherished it as the place of their origin which sent them forth in numbers “as swarming bees,” but as an ancient relic handed down to them through a long line of honored ancestry; and even as the great pyramid, Cheops, of the arid desert, points the Egyptian back to the cycles of ages past, so too did Nunih Waiyah remind the Choctaw of his long line of descent as he proudly gazed upon its hoary and weather beaten sides.

As an evidence of their admiration and veneration for this ancestral memento, the Choctaws, when passing, would ascend it and drop into the hole at its top various trinkets, and sometimes a venison ham, or dressed turkey, as a kind of sacrificial offering” to the memory of its ancient builders, who only appeared to them through the mists of ages past; and as the highest evidence of their veneration for this relic of their past history, it was sometimes spoken of by the more enthusiastic as their Iholitopa Ishki, (beloved mother).

In 1810, the United States Agent, George S. Gaines, was one day riding along the road that leads near Nunih Waiyah, and to satisfy his curiosity turned and rode to its base, then dismounted and walked to its top. While there, he noticed a large band of Choctaw warriors passing along the road; and being desirous of their company, he hastily descended, mounted his horse and soon overtook them. As he rode up, and the usual salutations had been exchanged, the chief, who was no less than the renowned Apushamatahaubih, with a significant smile in which fun and innocent mischief were most prominent, said: “Well, friend Gaines, I see you have been up to pay your compliments to our good mother.” “Yes, I concluded to pay her a visit as I was passing,” re plied Mr. Gaines. “Well, what did she say to you?” asked the great chief. “She said,” responded Mr. Gaines, “that her Choctaw children had become too numerous to longer be prosperous, contented and happy in their present country, therefore, she thought it best for them to exchange their old country and lands for a new country and lands west of the Mississippi river, where the game was much more abundant, and the hunting grounds far more extensive.” With a loud laugh in which his warriors also heartily joined, Apushamatahah then exclaimed “Holobih! holubit ish nohowa nih! (It s a lie.) Do not go about telling lies. Our good old mother never could have spoken such words to you.” After the laugh of the joke was over, Apushamatahahubih expressed himself freely with. Mr. Gaines upon various subjects relative to his people as they rode along together; among many things that were mentioned, that of their origin was brought up; and to the inquiry of Mr. Gaines, “Whence they came to the country then occupied by them,” the chief replied: “Our ancestors came from a country far to the west many suns and moons ago. And this was the invariable reply made by all the Choctaws when asked concerning their traditional origin.

Consult Further:

Footnotes

  1. known as the short-haired Indians of the Southwest 



MLA Source Citation:

Cushman, Horatio Bardwell. History Of The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, Texas: Headlight Printing House. 1899 AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 31 August 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/choctaw-traditions.htm - Last updated on Jun 9th, 2014

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