The state of Mississippi is known for a lot of things: breeding musicians, creating writers and even its picturesque magnolia trees. One of the state’s most important assets often gets overlooked, though.
The history of the Mississippi Indians begins before Mississippi was even a concept. The land’s native tribes have influenced many aspects of the state’s culture and history, according to historian James F. Barnett, author of “Mississippi’s American Indians.”
“It’s impossible to say where the state would be without the tribal history,” he said. “Of course, only one of Mississippi’s tribes is still resident here and that’s the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. All the other tribes, including the Chickasaws, the Natchez, the Yazoo and all of those other groups left the state due to pressure of one kind or another. We only have this one small group to represent all of the tribal groups that once lived here.”
While the Choctaws are the only tribe still thriving in Mississippi, the Chickasaws have an undying connection to their land of origin.
The Choctaws and Chickasaws were once a single tribe, and what caused the division is still debated. Each version of the story — whether it has a Choctaw or a Chickasaw origin — includes a journey from the West, a sacred pole and a virtually unavoidable division of the group.
Collectively, the tribal land stretched across Northeast Mississippi into parts of Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The Chickasaws, who’ve now settled more into Oklahoma, still claim Tupelo as their homeland. It’s been almost two centuries since the Chickasaws lived there, but, when they did, it was a hotspot with nearly 40,000 people. They’re proud of it, too. Tribe members will ride buses 500 miles from their home in Oklahoma to Tupelo down Highway 6 in an attempt to reconnect with their past.
“For obvious reasons, this land that we inhabit today was theirs first and some of their influence can still be found in the way our roads are laid out and why towns have their names,” said Neal McCoy, executive director of the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“The Chickasaw Nation is a very successful nation from terms of financial stability, but their values and hospitality really align well with the people of North Mississippi.”
Many say they do feel at home when they’re there. The trees grow in size and lushness, and they can picture the stories their elders have shared with them about living off the Mississippi land. They feel the connection in their bones.
Tupelo was an easy choice for the Chickasaws when they were deciding where their new state-of-the-art heritage center should be. The Chickasaw Inkana Foundation has been a major player in getting the multi-million-dollar center up and running. The plans have been in place for years and are picking up steam.
Once completed, the center will play an important role in both preserving the Chickasaw tradition and heritage, as well as raising awareness of the tribe’s existence.
“This is a reconnection to the tribe’s homeland, which, for them, is a very emotional and sacred place,” McCoy said.
Two hours south, about four miles west of Philadelphia, marks the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ reservation. Driving up at night, a golden moon off the peak of one of the tribe-owned casinos lights the way.
The Mississippi Choctaws were historically one of the poorest populations in the entire country until Chief Martin turned everything around when he found inspiration in Europe post-WWII. He brought the ideas of the Marshall Plan back to the tribe with him.
“When Chief Martin saw that Europe had rebuilt itself from rubble to prosperity under the Marshall Plan, he realized if the Choctaws were going to improve, they’d have to do it themselves,” John Hendrix, the tribe’s director of economic development, said.
The chief continued to be aggressive with the economic plan and, in turn, the tribe created their own jobs through businesses like a greeting card assembly plant.
The Choctaws were known as the civilized tribes, staying very active in commerce and business and doing a lot of trading.
“They were basically the Mississippi economy before Mississippi became a state,” Hendrix said. “Now, the Choctaws are one of the largest employers in Mississippi with half of the employees being non-Indian. Without that we wouldn’t be as strong of a state as we are today, especially east central Mississippi.”
The Choctaws, who have a population of about 11,000 people right now, have been busting at the seams in some places. They, like the Chickasaws, have the power of self-governance within the reservation and have flourished. Being able to govern themselves also allows them to take care of their people, and they do. They’ve made investments in their future, such as educating the youth on the tribe’s native language or building new hospitals to work toward a healthier community.
These last couple of years, the Choctaws have upgraded from a hospital designed to accommodate a population of 1,500 to a state-of-the-art facility with all of the latest equipment. The new facility also houses specialists, so tribe members no longer have to drive an hour or more to see a specialized doctor.
There’s also a whole section dedicated to the prevention and treatment of diabetes, which is an issue that has plagued the tribe for decades.
“This transition improved patient care and service,” Hendrix said. “People are more likely now to come to the hospital because they can get treated in a timely fashion by professionals.”
Hendrix said there are also a lot of programs in place working to preserve the Choctaw culture. There are programs in the elementary school teaching the native language, opportunities for anyone to learn traditional crafts like dress-making and every year the tribe hosts the Choctaw Indian Fair.
Stickball is still one of the most dominant activities. The sticks are similar to those in lacrosse, but are smaller and made of wood. Each player gets two. There’s a pole in the middle and players score points each time they hit it with the ball. The game is harder than it sounds and the Choctaws aren’t playing around. Stickball is hardcore and physical with pushing and shoving, but it’s the No. 1 pastime.
“I think it’s good for the people of Mississippi to know the history of the land and the history of the people that inhabited the land before they came along and the state even existed,” Hendrix said.
Barnett added that knowing Mississippi history is knowing the deep, and sometimes dark, history of the natives.
“An understanding of the history of the state’s native people is vital to any understanding of how Mississippi developed and how it became the state and culture it is today,” he said. “Anybody who lives in Mississippi is living on land that was once the possession of tribal groups in the state, and it’s important to understand that when European settlers came to Mississippi, they weren’t just putting up their tents and cabins on different land and settling, they were taking the place of the native population that lived here.”
Despite the story of the Mississippi Indians not being in the spotlight in a lot of areas of the state, evidence of their significance can be found all over from historical markers to statues in Tupelo and even Indian mounds scattered throughout the land. Once you know of them, it’s hard to ignore them.
Both the Chickasaws and Choctaws are on the rise, doing better than they have in many years.
One of their biggest challenges now is racing against time to preserve their culture, attempting to document elders’ oral histories, teaching the younger generation about how things used to be and standing up for themselves like they’ve always done. The clash of present and past can be hard to handle, but if anyone can come out triumphant, it’s the Mississippi Indians.
“I think if people only took away one thing, it should be the importance of recognizing Mississippi’s American Indian heritage,” Barnett said. “So many aspects of our state are constant reminders like the names of counties and towns. Plus, the names of rivers and geographic places. Mississippi has a very rich and diverse past, especially when you begin to look at the tribal roots.”