As Chickasaw people, our deep connection to specific land in the southeast is what makes us connected as a people. This is the land that our ancestors lived on, cultivated, and cared for for thousands of years. We call it the homelands and it lies in what are now the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. In the late 1830s, we were pressured by US president Andrew Jackson into a treaty that forced us to give up our homelands and move west to what was called 'Indian Country.' Many lives were lost on this brutal journey made by foot. For many generations it was too painful for Chickasaw people to look back at the homelands, but now we are reconnecting with, and protecting many of the sites of our ancestors.
This spring I had the incredible opportunity to visit these sacred lands for the first time. It was a homecoming that I shared with a group of fellow Chickasaw artists. We began with a celebration at the Mississippi museum of art for the exhibit that we created together titled Visual Voices. This exhibit is filled with works that explore our connections to our ancestors as they lived their lives in the homelands.
Joanna Underwood-Blackburn, myself, and my daughter at the reception for Visual Voices. Joanna is an accomplished pottery and sculpture artist and serves as the chair of our Visual Voices artist board. Learn about this exhibit and the featured artists at https://www.chickasawartists.com Visual Voices will open at MoCNA on August 16th.
After our celebration at the museum, we headed north towards the Chickasaw Homelands.
Words can't even begin to describe the many emotions I felt while standing in the same sites that my direct ancestors lived and worked in. This tour also took us to sites and boarders that tell stories of how our ancestors struggled to maintain our lands in the face of rapidly expanding white immigrant settlements and the Andrew Jackson presidency. The years leading up to the 1830s, when the southeastern tribes were forced into treaties with the US government giving up their homelands, were wrought with turmoil. Our ancestors had to navigate complicated politics to protect their homelands.
This photo really doesn't do it justice but this aquatic forest was indescribable. Majestic cypress and tupelo trees rise from still waters. These are the landscapes that I always imagined. They are one of the many magical environments of our homelands.
The sign below was one of the first historical markers that we encountered while driving North on the historic Natchez Trace Parkway. It marks a boarder of the Choctaw lands after the Choctaw entered into the treaty of Doaks Stand with an American commission under Andrew Jackson in 1820. This treaty forced the Choctaw to give up five and a half million acres. It was one of the first land grabs by Jackson's administration. The region was rich for farming, which southeastern tribes had done for thousands of years. When the European immigrants began to establish plantations on the backs of slave labor, so to did some Indigenous families. There were many prosperous Choctaw and Chickasaw owned businesses established in the years leading up to the removal, making these lands even more appealing to the American government.
The rivers of the homelands were once plentiful with a variety of freshwater mollusks. From these, our ancestors harvested pearls which were an important element of adornment for people and even buildings. We used pearls for their ability to reflect the light of the sun. A French explorer named this river Pearl River, but I'm sure it's original name was in Choctaw.
We drove along the Natchez Trail, which was originally created by our Choctaw and Chickasaw ancestors as a trade route.
This is the stream that was a known marker between Choctaw and Chickasaw lands. Here I am standing on the Choctaw side. Many families like mine descend from both Choctaw and Chickasaw ancestors. Also, my tank top is by my friend Jared Yazzie of OXDX.
In this photo you can see great earthen mounds in the distance. Our ancestors constructed these mounds from many layers of soil. Many mounds were used for burials, this is why they remain sacred to us today. They were also city centers which supported a thriving trade economy.
I loved seeing so many kinds of plants used by my ancestors. Not only do they make the homelands lush and green, but they also helped us in many ways providing food and medicine. Below are some beautiful wild roses that were growing on one of our village sites. My 'Of Earth and Place' collection is inspired by some of these homeland plants.
Some of the plants featured in the collection are possum grapes. Possum grapes are a favorite fruit of both past and present Chickasaw people. These tiny wild grapes can be found throughout the southeast as well as in Oklahoma. A popular recipe still made today is possum grape dumplings.