Choctaw: Nanih Waiya

Nanih Waiya (alternately spelled Nunih Waya) is an ancient earthwork mound in southern Winston County, Mississippi, constructed by indigenous people during the Middle Woodland period, about 1-300 CE. Since the 17th century, the Choctaw have venerated Nanih Waiya as their sacred origin location in their traditional beliefs.

The mound of Nanih Waiya is about 25 feet (7.6 m) tall, 140 feet (43 m) wide, and 220 feet (67 m) long. Evidence suggests it was originally a larger platform mound, which has eroded into the present shape. At one time, it was bounded on three sides by a circular earthwork enclosure about ten feet tall, which encompassed one square mile. In 2006, the Mississippi Legislature’s State Bill 2803 officially returned control of the site to the Luke Family, and T. W. Luke deeded it to the State on the condition that it be maintained as a park.

In 2008, the Luke family deeded control to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a Federally recognized tribe. Nanih Waiya has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This description of the Nanih Waiya Mound is written by H. S. Halbert, Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Volume 2 (of 14), 1899. Images have been added to the article.
— Orly


As Nanih Waiya is so often referred to in the folklore and traditions of the Choctaws, the writer of this paper has deemed it not amiss to give some account of this noted mound and, in connection therewith, some of the legends with which it is inseparably associated.

Nanih Waiya is situated on the west side of Nanih Waiya Creek, about fifty yards from it, in the southern part of Winston County, and about four hundred yards from the Neshoba County line. The mound is oblong in shape, lying northwest and southeast, and about forty feet in height. Its base covers about an acre. Its summit, which is flat, has an area of one-fourth of an acre. The mound stands on the southeastern edge of a circular rampart, which is about a mile and a half in circumference. In using the word "circular," reference is made to the original form of the rampart, about one-half of which is utterly obliterated by the plow, leaving only a semi-circle. This rampart is not or rather was not, a continuous circle, so to speak, as it has along at intervals, a number of vacant places or gaps, ranging from twenty to fifty yards wide. According to Indian tradition, there were originally eighteen parts or sections of the rampart, with the same number of gaps. Ten of these sections still remain, ranging from fifty to one hundred and fifty yards in length. All the sections near the mound have long since been leveled by the plow, and in other places some of the sections have been much reduced. But on the north, where the rampart traverses a primeval forest it is still five feet high and twenty feet broad at the base. The process of obliteration has been very great since 1877, when the writer first saw Nanih Waiya. Some of the sections that could then be clearly traced in the field on the west have now utterly disappeared. About two hundred and fifty yards north of Nanih Waiya is a small mound, evidently a burial mound, as can be safely stated from the numerous fragments of human bones that have been exhumed from it by the plow and the hoe. The great number of stone relics, mostly broken, scattered for hundreds of yards around Nanih Waiya, shows that it was the site of pre-historic habitations. In addition to this, the bullets and other relics of European manufacture evidence the continuity of occupancy down within the historic period. The magnitude of these ancient works—the mound and the rampart—together with the legendary traditions connected with them, leads one irresistibly to the conviction that this locality was the great center of the Choctaw population during the pre-historic period. It should here be stated that the symmetry of the mound has been somewhat marred by a tunnel which was cut into it in the summer of 1896 by some treasure-seekers, who vainly hoped to unearth some wonderful bonanza from out the deep bosom of Nanih Waiya.


The name Nanih Waiya signifies Bending Hill. Warrior, the absurd spelling and pronunciation should be repudiated by the map and the history maker. The adjective Waiya signifies "bending," "leaning over," but it is difficult to see the appropriateness of the term as applied to the mound. According to the conjecture of the writer, the term was originally applied to the circular rampart, which the Choctaws may have considered a kind of bending hill. And in process of time the name could have become so extended as to be applied to the mound and rampart conjointly, and ultimately restricted to the mound alone, as is now the case in popular usage.

According to the classification of the archæologists, Nanih Waiya is a pyramidal mound, which kind of mounds is found almost exclusively in the Gulf States. The chroniclers of De Soto's expedition speak constantly of the mounds, and of these writers, Garcilaso de la Vega tells us exactly how and why they were made. According to his statement, in building a town, the natives first erected a mound two or three pikes in height, the summit of which was made large enough for twelve, fifteen or twenty houses to lodge the cacique and his attendants. At the foot of the mound was laid off the public square, which was proportioned to the size of the town. Around the square the leading men had their houses, whilst the cabins of the common people stood around the other side of the mound. From the "lay" of the land, the writer is satisfied that the public square at Nanih Waiya was on the north, between the mound and the small burial mound. In regard to the rampart, it was, no doubt, surmounted by palisades, as De Soto's writers particularly describe the palisaded walls, which surrounded the Indian towns. As to the gaps in the rampart, the writer is convinced that these gaps were left designedly as places for the erection of wooden forts or towers, as additional protections to the town. The Knight of Elvas describes the town of Pachaha as being "very great, walled, and beset with towers, and many loop-holes were in the towers and the wall." La Vega mentions the towers made at intervals of fifty paces apart in the stockade wall of Maubila, each tower capable of holding eight men. Dupratz describing the circular stockade forts which he had seen among the Southern Indians, expressly states that "at every forty paces a circular tower juts out." Other statements from early writers could be given showing that wooden towers were built along at intervals in the stockade walls that surrounded the ancient towns of the Southern Indians. These statements, no doubt, give us the correct solution to the mystery of the gaps in the earthen rampart at Nanih Waiya.

Nanih Waiya - artist rendering.

Nanih Waiya - artist rendering.

While there can be no doubt but Nanih Waiya was the residence of the cacique and his attendants, in accordance with the statements of La Vega, other statements induce the belief that the summit of this mound was sometimes used as a place of sun-worship. Sun-worship, it should here be especially noted, was not performed as an isolated ceremony, so to speak, but came in as part of the programme in the transaction of all tribal business, both civil and military. The Choctaws were sun-worshippers, as were all the other branches of the Choctaw-Muscogee family. They regarded the sun as the type or essence of the Great Spirit. And as the Sun, or rather Sun-God, warms, animates and vivifies everything, he is the Master or Father of Life, or, to use the Choctaw expression, "Aba Inki," "the Father above." In like manner, according to their belief, as everything here below came originally from the earth, she is the mother of creation. Sun-worship, it may here be stated, prevailed to some extent, though in a much attenuated form, as late as seventy years ago among the Choctaws, as is evidenced by the actions of the Choctaws of that day during an eclipse of the sun. Even at the present day some faint traces of this sun-worship may be seen in the antics of a Choctaw prophet at a ball play. The chroniclers of De Soto's expedition give us frequent hints as to the prevalence of sun-worship among the Indian tribes of the countries which the Spanish army traversed. Two centuries later, William Bartram, in his description of the Creek rotunda, which was erected upon an artificial mound, gives an elaborate account of the ceremonies in the rotunda connected with partaking of the black drink. He states that the chief first puffed a few whiffs from the sacred pipe, blowing the whiffs ceremoniously upward towards the sun, or, as it was generally supposed, to the Great Spirit, and then puffing the smoke from the pipe towards the four cardinal points. The pipe was then carried to different persons and smoked by them in turn.

Imagination, perhaps, would not err, if going back a few centuries, we could depict scenes similar to this as often enacted upon the flat summit of Nanih Waiya. And, perhaps, the superstitious reverence which the Choctaws have ever manifested towards this mound may be a dim traditionary reminiscence of its once having been a great tribal center of solar worship. The aboriginal mind, in sun-worship, from viewing the sun as the Father of Life, as without the light and warmth of the sun nothing would spring into existence, no doubt instinctively turned to the earth as the Mother of Creation. If there was a father there must be a mother. In the course of time, what more natural that the pre-historic villagers living at the base of Nanih Waiya, with its tremendous pile ever looming up before their eyes, should finally come to regard it as the mother of their race. As far back as history and tradition run, Nanih Waiya has ever thus been regarded by the untutored Choctaws of Mississippi. During the various emigrations from the State, many Choctaws declared that they would never go west and abandon their mother; and that just as long as Nanih Waiya stood, they intended to stay and live in the land of their nativity.

There is another evidence that Nanih Waiya was a great national center during the pre-historic period. The ravages of civilization have still spared some traces of two broad, deeply worn roads or highways connected with the mound, in which now stand large oak trees. The remnant of one of these highways, several hundred yards long, can be seen on the east side of the creek, running toward the southeast. The other is on the west side of the creek, the traces nearest the mound being at the northeastern part of the rampart, thence running towards the north. Many years ago this latter road was traced by an old citizen of Winston county full twenty miles to the north until it was lost in Noxubee swamp, in the northeastern part of Winston County. These are the sole traces of the many highways, that no doubt, in pre-historic times, centered at Nanih Waiya.

Nanih Waiya is a prominent feature in the migration legend of the Choctaws, of which there are several versions. While the versions all agree, to some extent, in their main features, as the immigration from the west or northwest, the prophet and his sacred pole, and the final settlement at Nanih Waiya, there is still much diversity in the respective narratives in regard to the details and other minutiae. The most circumstantial narrative is that of the Rev. Alfred Wright, published in an issue of the Missionary Herald of 1828. The version given in Colonel Claiborne's "Mississippi," pages 483, 484, is a very unsatisfactoryversion. The writer of this paper wrote this version in 1877, and sent it to Colonel Claiborne, who inserted it in his history. It was taken down from the lips of Mr. Jack Henry, an old citizen of Okitibbeha County, he stating that he had received it in early life from an Irishman, who had once lived among the Choctaws and who had heard the legend from an old Choctaw woman. As will be seen, the legend was transmitted through several memories and mouths before being finally recorded in printer's ink. It came not direct from Choctaw lips, and no doubt, was unconsciously colored, or its details imperfectly remembered in its transmission through the memories of the two white men. The version which is given below came direct from the lips of the Rev. Peter Folsom, a Choctaw from the nation west, who was employed in 1882 by the Baptists of Mississippi to labor as a missionary among the Mississippi Choctaws. Mr. Folsom stated that soon after finishing his education in Kentucky, one day in 1833, he visited Nanih Waiya with his father and while at the mound his father related to him the migration legend of his people, which according to Mr. Folsom, runs as follows:

In ancient days the ancestors of the Choctaws and the Chickasaws lived in a far western country, under the rule of two brothers, named Chahta and Chikasa. In process of time, their population becoming very numerous, they found it difficult to procure substance in that land. Their prophets thereupon announced that far to the east was a country of fertile soil and full of game, where they could live in ease and plenty. The entire population resolved to make a journey eastward in search of that happy land. In order more easily to procure subsistence on their route, the people marched in several divisions of a day's journey apart. A great prophet marched at their head, bearing a pole, which, on camping at the close of each day, he planted erect in the earth, in front of the camp. Every morning the pole was always seen leaning in the direction they were to travel that day. After the lapse of many moons, they arrived one day at Nanih Waiya. The prophet planted his pole at the base of the mound. The next morning the pole was seen standing erect and stationary. This was interpreted as an omen from the Great Spirit that the long sought-for land was at last found. It so happened, the very day that the party camped at Nanih Waiya that a party under Chikasa crossed the creek and camped on its east side. That night a great rain fell, and it rained several days. In consequence of this all the low lands were inundated, and Nanih Waiya Creek and other tributaries of Pearl River were rendered impassable.

After the subsidence of the waters, messengers were sent across the creek to bid Chikasa's party return, as the oracular pole had proclaimed that the long sought-for land was found and the mound was the center of the land. Chikasa's party, however, regardless of the weather, had proceeded on their journey, and the rain having washed all traces of their march from off the grass, the messengers were unable to follow them up and so returned to camp. Meanwhile, the other divisions in the rear arrived at Nanih Waiya, and learned that here was the center of their new home, their long pilgrimage was at last finished. Chikasa's party, after their separation from their brethren under Chahta, moved on to the Tombigbee, and eventually became a separate nationality. In this way the Choctaws and the Chickasaws became two separate, though kindred nations.

Such is Mr. Folsom's version of the Choctaw migration legend. This national legend is now utterly forgotten by the modern Choctaws living in Mississippi. All, however, look upon Nanih Waiya as the birthplace and cradle of their race. She is "ishki chito," "the great mother." In the very center of the mound, they say, ages ago, the Great Spirit created the first Choctaws, and through a hole or cave, they crawled forth into the light of day. Some say that only one pair was created, but others say that many pairs were created. Old Hopahkitubbe (Hopakitobi), who died several years ago in Neshoba County, was wont to say that after coming forth from the mound, the freshly-made Choctaws were very wet and moist, and that the Great Spirit stacked them along on the rampart, as on a clothes line, so that the sun could dry them.

Soon after the creation, the Great Spirit divided the Choctaws into two "iksa," the "Kashapa Okla," and the "Okla in Holahta," or "Hattak in Holahta." Stationing one iksa on the north and the other on the west side of the sacred mound, the Great Spirit then gave them the law of marriage which they were forever to keep inviolate. This law was that children were to belong to the iksa of their mother, and that one must always marry into the opposite iksa. By this law a man belonging to the Kashapa Okla must marry a woman of the Okla in Holahta. The children of this marriage belong, of course, to the iksa of their mother, and whenever they marry it must be into the opposite iksa. In like manner a man belonging to the Okla in Holahta must marry a woman of the Kashapa Okla, and the children of this marriage from Kashapa Okla must marry into the Okla in Holahta. Such was the Choctaw law of marriage, given, they say, by Divine authority at Nanih Waiya just after the creation of their race. The iksa lived promiscuously throughout the nation, but as every one knew to which iksa he belonged, no matrimonial mistake could possibly occur. This iksa division of the Choctaws still exists in Mississippi, but is slowly dying out under the influence of Christianity, education, and other results of contact with the white race.

The Choctaws, after their creation lived for a long time upon the spontaneous productions of the earth until at last maize was discovered, as they say, on the south side of Bogue Chito, a few miles distant from Nanih Waiya. There are several versions of the corn-finding myth, in all of which a crow and a child are main factors. Some of the versions state particularly that the crow came from the south, "Oka mahli imma minti tok." Other versions are silent on this point. The version here given is a translation by the writer of a version which was written down for him in the Choctaw language by Ilaishtubbee (Ilaishtobi), a Six Towns Indian. It is as follows:

A long time ago it thus happened. In the very beginning a crow got a single grain of corn from across the great water, brought it to this country and gave it to an orphan child, who was playing in the yard. The child named it tauchi, (corn). He planted it in the yard. When the corn was growing up, the child's elders merely had it swept around. But the child, wishing to have his own way, hoed it, hilled it, and laid it by. When this single grain of corn grew up and matured, it made two ears of corn. And in this way the ancestors of the Choctaws discovered corn.

"The great water" referred to in the above myth is the Gulf of Mexico. "Okachito," "great water," is the term invariably applied by the Mississippi Choctaws to the Gulf. If there are any traces of historic truth in the myth, we may infer that it contains a tradition of the introduction of corn into the Choctaw country across the Gulf of Mexico, from South America or from the West Indies. Professor J. W. Harshberger, in his monograph on the nativity and distribution of maize concludes that its earliest home was in Central America, whence it spread north and south over the continents of America. In his map in which he gives the lines of travel by which maize was distributed, he has two lines in South America. One of these lines extends southward between the Andes and the Pacific as far down as Chili. The second line, after leaving the Isthmus of Panama, goes eastward along the north coast of South America until it enters Venezuela. From Venezuela, it goes to the West Indies and from the West Indies to Florida. This line of maize distribution harmonizes with the Choctaw tradition embodied in the myth that maize came into the Choctaw country from across "the great water," that is, from across the Gulf of Mexico. We learn from the early Spanish writers that there was intercommunication between the natives of Cuba and those of Florida. This being the case, corn could have been introduced among the pre-historic peoples of the Gulf states, across the Gulf, directly or indirectly from South America. To add completeness to the matter, according to Professor Harshberger's map, maize was introduced among the ancient peoples of the States lying north of the Gulf States by a line of distribution running from northern Mexico. It may be still further added that maize was certainly introduced into the Gulf States and into the Mississippi Valley before the beginning of the mound-building era, for only a sedentary agricultural people were capable of building the mounds.

Returning from this digression, the question may be asked, when was Nanih Waiya built, who were its builders, and how long was it in building? As to the last question, it would be a moderate estimate to say that it would take two Irishmen, equipped with spades and wheelbarrows, full ten years of constant toil to build Nanih Waiya and its rampart. The evidence shows that the earth used in making the mound was carried at least one hundred yards—an additional amount of toil that must be taken into consideration in making an estimate of the time consumed in building Nanih Waiya. Furthermore, it can be safely stated that the two supposed Irishmen could accomplish as much in one hour in the way of dirt-piling as three pre-historic natives with their rude tools of wood and stone, and baskets or skins for carrying the earth, could accomplish in one day. Nanih Waiya then must have been a long time in building. There must have been frequent interruptions of work to allow its builders time to raise crops, or in some manner to procure their supplies of food. The probabilities are, that while the work of building the rampart and the towers was carried on continuously until they were completed, so as to have the people of the place well protected from their foes, the work of building the mound was a gradual one. A small or moderate sized mound may first have been built for the cacique and his attendants. In course of time, perhaps by his successor, the mound may have been made larger and higher, each succeeding cacique adding to its size until it attained its present dimensions. In short, the mound may have been the successive work of two or three generations.

As to the builders of Nanih Waiya, all the evidence shows that they were Choctaws. There is no evidence that any race preceded the Choctaws in the occupancy of Central Mississippi. And it is not at all probable that the Choctaws would have held this mound in such excessive reverence if it had been built by an unknown or alien·race.

During the decadence of the mound-building custom, the mounds were gradually made smaller and many of these small mounds reveal relics of European manufacture, thus giving indisputable evidence of their modern age. From these facts it can be safely assumed that the larger the mound, the greater, presumably, is its antiquity. Nanih Waiya then, being the largest mound in Central Mississippi, may possibly date back to about fifteen hundred years ago, as the fifth century is given by the archæologists as the beginning of the mound-building age, which age lasted about one thousand years. It may be sufficient to say that Nanih Waiya is very old and was built by the Choctaws themselves, or possibly, granting it a very remote antiquity, by the primordial stock, from which, by subsequent differentiation, the various branches of the Choctaw-Muscogee family were formed.

In regard to the modern history of the mound, one event may be placed on record. At some time in 1828, at the instance by Colonel Greenwood Leflore, a great national council of the Choctaws convened at Nanih Waiya. The object of this council was the making of new laws so as to place the Choctaws more in harmony with the requirements of modern civilization. On this occasion severe laws were enacted against drunkenness and against the practice of executing women as witches. This assembly is remarkable as being the only known national Indian council held at Nanih Waiya within the historic period. How many Indian councils similar to this the mound may have witnessed in the pre-historic past can never be known.

This imperfect sketch of the Choctaw sacred mound is brought to a close with a hope, that, as long as Mississippi stands, so long may Nanih Waiya stand, steadfast and immovable, the greatest of Mississippi's pre-historic monuments.


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