Cultural events, local museums and art allow north Mississippi residents to reflect upon the rich histories of native tribes.
Written by Shanna Flaschka | Photographed by Joe Worthem
November is National Native American Heritage Month, a time for all Americans to commemorate the achievements and cultures of Native American people. Mississippi has plenty of reason to take note. Our state was once home to over 20 different tribes, many of which can be recognized in our city and county names, such as Chickasaw, Choctaw, Natchez, Tunica, Biloxi and Pascagoula.
American Indian Day was first observed in 1915, after a declaration by American Indian Association president Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe. In 1986, Congress authorized the first American Indian Week. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a resolution to create National American Indian Heritage Month, renamed National Native American Heritage Month in 2017 by President Obama.
Locally, the Natchez Trace Visitor Center in Tupelo is a great place to start learning about our state’s Native American heritage. Although the Chickasaw Nation is now headquartered in Oklahoma, a prairie near Tupelo was once home to a tribe of about 2,000 people, and the land their village inhabited has been preserved at the Natchez Trace’s milepost 261.8. The Chickasaw village site is open to the public year-round. It’s worth a stop to hike the various trails there, which include informative markers and artist renderings about the former inhabitants and their way of life.
In September, members of the Chickasaw Nation held several cultural demonstrations at the Natchez Trace Visitor Center and at the First Choice Gateway pavilion in Pontotoc. Each event included speakers and exhibits of Chickasaw history and culture, stickball demonstrations and performances by a traditional dance troupe.
According to Jesse Lindsey, the Chickasaw Nation cultural resources activities manager, during Native American Heritage Month, most events and activities are hosted in Oklahoma, but representatives from the organization travel to Mississippi about once a year.
“We bring our dancers and travel all over the U.S.,” Lindsey said. “[But] Tupelo is our homeland so we dance on our grounds.”
Events such as these demonstrate reverence for tribal tradition and also enlighten audiences. As part of the performance, there are a few dances in which the audience is invited to participate.
“We speak of our culture and history, and then we dance,” Lindsey said.
In November, the Natchez Trace Visitor Center will host a free special exhibit of artwork by Chickasaw children who live in Oklahoma, courtesy of the Chickasaw Nation.
At the Chickasaw County Heritage Museum in Houston, visitors can view a collection of Native spear points, authentic garb and other items of historical note.
Some 40 years ago, Chickasaw County native James Clark founded the Chickasaw County Historical and Genealogical Society after speaking with a neighbor who was going to Tupelo to do genealogical research. Clark realized that they needed the same kind of resources in Houston for people tracing their ancestry. Several decades later, a $100,000 grant from the state helped fund the research center and the museum. Clark and other members of the society run the museum.
“It’s been about 10-15 years since we created a museum on a block of land the city owned,” Clark said. “We told them we need that land, but some big shots tried to buy it. When their deal fell through, we bought it and used local timber for the building.”
The museum itself is now brimming with historic artifacts, some donated by the Chickasaw Nation. There are eight displays of spear points and arrowheads, various fossils and sets of traditional clothing for a man and a woman. There are also informative poster displays about the history of the Chickasaw people.
Across from the museum, a permanent outdoor art installation offers another reminder of the area’s Native American heritage. This past summer, Pontotoc-based artist Samantha Baldwin added her own contribution to Houston’s memory of its original people with a painting of a Chickasaw woman, one of four murals she created on the walls of a storm shelter in Joe Brigance Park.
“I knew from the very beginning when I got this crazy idea (to create the murals), I wanted something that was free for everyone to see,” Baldwin said. “I wanted a piece that would tie in with the community historically, but I also wanted it to be something meaningful that would reach the entire community and reach a lot of people on different levels. Something that was not just visually beautiful, but beautifully in one’s heart. When it makes (the viewer’s) heart ache and happy, as an artist that means you’re doing it right.”
The Chickasaw County Heritage Museum is located at 304 E. Woodland Circle in Houston. Hours vary; call the museum at 662-456-0060.
The Natchez Trace Visitor Center is located at the Trace milepost 266.0 and is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.