Choctaws and their Beliefs about the Great Flood
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The Choctaws, at the time of their earliest acquaintance with the European races, possessed, in conjunction with all their race of the North American Continent, a vague, but to a great extent, correct knowledge of the Oka Falama, “The returning waters,” as they termed it The Flood.
The Rev. Cyrus Byington related a little incident, as one out of many interesting and pleasing ones that frequently occurred when traveling through their country from one point to another in the discharge of his ministerial duties, over seventy years ago. At one time he found night fast approaching without any visible prospect of finding a place of shelter for the night, safe from the denizens of the wilderness through which his devious path was leading him. Then and there roads were unknown and paths alone led the traveler from place to place. Soon, however, he discovered a humble cabin a few hundred yards distant, directly to which the little path was leading him, and which he readily recognized as the home of a Choctaw hunter. Several little children were engaged in their juvenile sports near the house, who upon seeing the white stranger approaching, made a precipitate retreat into the house. The mother hastened to the door to learn, the cause of the alarm saw, gazed a moment, and then as suddenly disappeared. As Mr. Byington rode up, he observed an Indian man sitting before the door, whose appearance betokened his experience in the vicissitudes of life to have reached four score years or more, who cheerfully extended the hospitality of his humble home to the solitary and wayworn stranger.
But nothing strange in this, for who ever heard of an American Indian refusing the hospitality of his cabin, how ever so humble, to a passing stranger? Soon Mr. Byington was also seated before the cabin door near the aged Choctaw, and very naturally took a survey of the surroundings. It was a cloudless eve in May 1825. The calm beautiful day was just drawing to a close and the slanting sunbeam fell in a dreamy sort of indolent beauty upon the delicate shrubbery Beneath the majestic trees that towered above in stately grandeur dangling with their branches in a careless radiance and throwing upon them such gorgeous tints, as they alone can bestow at the last moment of their departing glory. Far away before the admiring gaze of the humble missionary, stretched a gently undulating plain, which seemed to extend beyond the sunbeams into the gray twilight of the distant east. Here and there dense masses of foliage on the north, south and west, deepening and darkening into increasing depths of shade, blended so imperceptibly with the out stretching shadows which they cast, that it was difficult to tell where the reality ceased and the shadow began.
Various kinds of birds were now flocking from the open plain into the recesses of the dark foliage of the surrounding trees, and, with noisy twittering seemed disputing for the occupancy of their favorite roosting place upon some selected twig; lovely flowers of variegated hue filled the air with sweetest perfume, rendering it a luxury to breathe; while here and there little groups of cattle and horses lazily cropped the new and tender grass or idly lay upon its soft carpet, which now covered the ground with living green. The aged warrior, true to his nature, had sought his cabin door that, undisturbed, he might look upon the scene that stretched in a wild panorama of beauty before his appreciative and admiring gaze. Romantic and lovely indeed were all the surroundings of that forest home, so truly characteristic of the Indian in the selection of his abode. The old warrior and hunter, ere his meditations were disturbed by the coming stranger, was, no doubt, silently and attentively listening to the voice of memory calling him from afar off, back to the sunny days of early youth, while his ears caught other cadences that whispered of man-hood s strength, when, untrammeled by the weight of years, he roamed over his native land, and, with eagle-eye and, nimble-foot, pursued his game, or, with stealthy step, followed the war-path in its dubious windings through the distant country of his foes. But to the cultivated mind of the man of God, who now sat by his side and also viewed the glories of the scene, how different the emotions awakened! His thoughts arose from, Natures beauties to the sublimities and glories of Natures God. For it was the place and hour to enter Nature s sacred temple and there commune with her in her own mystic language; to see the beautiful where others see it not; to hear anthems that whisper to man of hope and joy in the diapason of the gentle zepyrs, making the appreciative heart thankful to be alive; while pitying the dwellers in crowded cities who never see or enjoy aught like this.
After an exchange of a few words, and the aged man had learned who his guest was, for he had heard of the good missionaries, mutual confidence was at once established between the two; especially as the stranger was conversant, to some extent, in his native Choctaw tongue. During the conversation of the evening, the good missionary, true to his trust, narrated to his aged host the story of the Cross, with all its interesting bearings, and in conclusion set forth, with much eloquence, the importance and necessity of his hosts immediate attention to the things that appertained to his interests beyond the sphere of time; to all of which the old man listened in profound silence, and with the deepest interest and attention; then rising from his seat and taking Mr. Byington by the hand and leading him to the corner of the little cabin where the setting sun could be seen in full view, he pointed to it and said: “Your talk is, no doubt, true and good, but it is strange and dark to me. See yonder is the sun. (If my life; it but lingers upon the western sky. It is now too late for me to follow your new and strange words. Let me continue in the path I long have walked, and in which, my fathers before me trod; the Great Spirit tells me, it will, lead me to the happy hunting grounds of the Indian, and that is sufficient for me.” And who can say it was not? With unshaken faith he believed the Great Spirit would take him at the hour of death to the happy hunting ground the heaven of the Indian, the only one of which he had ever heard. Then pointing to his children and grand, he continued: “Tell your new talk to them and to my young- people. They have time to consider it. If it is a better way to the happy hunting grounds than the Indian’s, teach them to walk In it, but persuade me not to now forsake my long-known path, for one unknown and so strange to me.” Mr. Byington, deeply interested in his aged friend, related, in connection with other Bible truths, the account of the flood. Instantly the old veterans countenance brightened up, and with a smile of self-confidence said: “You no longer talk mysteries. I know now of what you speak. My father told me when a boy of the Oka Falama.” Mr. Byington then asked him, if he knew how long since it occurred. The old veteran, with an air of injured innocence, by the doubt ex pressed in the question of his veracity for truth, stooping, filled both hands with sand, then, with an expression of triumphal confidence, said: “As many seasons of snow ago, as I hold grains of sand in my hand. ”
During the fall of 1887, I was boarding at a Choctaw friends in the territory, a man of noble characteristics, and one day related to him the above incident. I was struck with his remark. As I closed, he said in a slow and mournful tone of voice; “Ever thinking of the good of their people, the young and rising generations coming after them.” I asked a more explicit explanation. He replied; “The aged men of my people always expressed more concern for the welfare of the young than they did for themselves. That old Choctaw, of whom you have just spoken, seemed to realize that it was too late for him to be benefited by the teachings of the good white man, but still was anxious for him to do all the good he could for the young and rising generation of his Nation. Why is the Indian so traduced by the white man? Has my race no redeeming traits?” Shame for my own race hushed me to silence, and I made no reply, as he arose and quietly left my room and me to my unpleasant reflections.
The Choctaw hunter was famous as a strategist when hunting alone in the woods; and was such an expert in the art of exactly imitating the cries of the various animals of the forests, that he would deceive the ear of the most experienced. They made a very ingeniously constructed instrument for calling deer to them, in the use of which they were very expert; and in connection with this, they used a decoy made by cutting the skin clear round the neck, about ten inches from the head of a slain buck having huge horns, and then stuffing the skin in one entire section up to the head and cutting off the neck where it joins the head. The skin, thus made hollow from the head back, is kept in its natural position by inserting upright sticks; the skin is then pulled upwards from the nose to the horns and all the flesh and brains removed; then the skin is repelled to its natural place and laid away to dry. In a year it has become dry; hard and inoffensive, and fit for use. All the upright sticks are then taken out except the one next to the head, which is left as a hand hold. Thus the hunter, with his deer-caller and head decoy, easily enticed his game within the range of his deadly rifle; for, secreting himself in the woods, he commenced to Imitate the bleating of a deer; if within hearing distance, one soon responds; but, perhaps, catching the scent of the hunter, stops and begins to look around. The hunter now inserts his arm into the cavity of the decoy and taking hold of the upright stick within, easily held it up to view- and attracted the attention of the doubting deer by rubbing it against the bushes or a tree; seeing which, the then no longer suspicious deer advanced, and only learned its mistake by the sharp crack of the rifle and the deadly bullet.
The antlers of some of the bucks grew to a wonderful size, which were shed off every February, or rather pushed off by the forthcoming new horns, a singularly strange freak of nature, yet no less true. There was also a strange and ancient tradition among the Choctaw and Chickasaw hunters, before their exodus to their present place of abode that, as soon the horns dropped off, the buck at once Pawed; hole in the ground with his feet (it being (always soft during the season of shedding, from the frequent rains) into which he pushed the fallen horns and carefully covered them up This may seem fabulous, yet there are good grounds upon which to establish, at least a probability, if not its truth, have heard of white hunters who had been attracted by the appearance of something .being freshly covered up, with the tracks of deer alone at and around the spot, and, upon digging down, have found the horns of a deer. In many hunts in the forest of Mississippi, during many years, where the deer almost filled the woods, I have never seen a deer horn except those attached to a skull left in the woods by the hunter, or those of a buck that had died a natural death. The forests were burnt off the latter part of every March, and thus the ground, was entirely naked and a deer’s horn, if above ground, could have been seen a hundred yards distant, but they were not seen. The fires of the forest were not hot enough to burn them. Now what became of them if not buried by the bucks, as hundreds were shed yearly?
The Choctaw warrior was equally as expert in deceiving his enemy as he was in that of the wild denizens of his native forests. When upon the war-path the Choctaws always went in small bands, which was the universal custom of their entire race, traveling one behind the other in a straight line; and, if in the enemy s territory each one stepped exactly in the tracks of the one who walked before him, while the one in the extreme rear defaced, as much as possible, their tracks, that no evidence of their number, or whereabouts might be made known to the enemy. In these war excursions, the most profound silence was observed; their communications being carried on by reconverted and well understood signs made by the hand or head; if necessary to be audible, then by a low imitative cry of some particular wild animal.
The dignity of chieftainship was bestowed upon him who had proved himself worthy by his skill and daring deeds in war; and to preserve the valiant character of their chief, it was considered a disgrace for him to be surpassed in daring deeds by any of his warriors; at the same time, it was also regarded as dishonorable for the warriors to be surpassed by their chief. Thus there were great motives for both to perform desperate deeds of valor, which they did; nor did they wait for opportunities for the display of heroism, but sought perils and toils by which they might distinguish themselves. These war parties, gliding noiselessly like Spectres through the dense forests, painted in the most fantastic manner conceivable, presented a wild and fearful appearance, more calculated to strike terror to the heart of the beholder than admiration. Though they advanced in small bodies and detached parties, yet in their retreats they scattered like frightened partridges, each for himself, but to unite again at a pre-arranged place miles to the rear. No gaudy display was ever made in their war excursions to their enemy’s country. They meant business, not display, epending on the success of their expedition in their silent and unexpected approach, patient watching, and artful strata gems. To fight a pitched battle in an open field giving the enemy an equal chance was to the Choctaws the best evidence of a want of military skill. But unlike most of their race, they seldom invaded an enemy s territory from choice; but woe to the enemy, who attributing this to cowardice, should have the presumption to invade their country; like enraged bears robbed of their young, they would find the Choctaw warriors, to a man, ready to repel them with the most desperate and fearless bravery ever exhibited by any race of men. Yet, to them, no less than to the whites, strategy was commendable, and to outwit an enemy and thus gain an advantage over him, was evidence of great and praise worthy skill.