- Shattered Zone and the Rise of the Chickasaw People
Robbie Etheridge's latest book, Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World, 1540-1715, represents an important contribution to the historiography of the Native American Southeast. The shift of indigenous peoples away from complex chiefdoms to egalitarian and dispersed polities has intrigued researchers for a generation. Scholars such as Charles M. Hudson (in Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun, 1997) and Patricia Galloway (in Choctaw Genesis, 1995) have examined the transformation of some of the centralized Mississippian cultures encountered by men like Hernando de Soto during the sixteenth century into the dispersed Native communities that interacted with the Spanish, French, and English during the eighteenth century. In her study, Etheridge focuses on the Chickasaws' passage from a hierarchical society to a flexible assemblage of villages and towns that navigated the violent landscape of the 1700s. She also offers additional explanations—beyond the ravages of European pathogens, Spanish militarism, or ecological disruptions—for the metamorphosis of Mississippian cultures. In doing so, Etheridge introduces an interpretive framework for the process when she characterizes the protohistoric Southeast as a "shattered zone." The region became an arena in which inherently unstable indigenous polities struggled with the challenges of the Indian slave trade and integration into a capitalist world system. Emerging from this matrix were even more destructive forces that Etheridge calls "militaristic Native slaving societies" (p. 5).
Etheridge avoids terms like "tribe," and "nation" because they poorly illustrate the nuanced social and political organizations of American Indians. Instead, she begins her study with a simple working definition of a chiefdom: an administrative unit led by a chief. In some cases, groups of villages and towns banded together into simple chiefdoms. At times, these were little more than loose affiliations that observed mutual nonaggression pacts. In other [End Page 181] cases, simple chiefdoms joined together into a closely integrated paramount chiefdom. These peoples often marked important loci of political power with earthen mounds upon which they constructed temples or other significant edifices. Etheridge then incorporates anthropological evidence and origin stories to reconstruct the genesis of the Chicaza people.
Hernando de Soto and his conquistadors encountered them in the late autumn of 1540 in what is today northeastern Mississippi. Although the Chicazas appeared to have been a loose confederation of simple chiefdoms, they were powerful enough to keep the Spanish army at bay for several days before a truce allowed the invaders to stay until spring. Relations went well enough until Soto's demands grew too onerous. The "suspicions and distrust . . . ballooned over the course of the winter" and culminated in the Battle of Chicaza on March 4, 1541 (p. 42). The Spanish moved off after taking significant casualties, but the Natives' world soon changed dramatically.
After the invaders departed, "Chicaza and the other chiefdoms of present-day northeast Mississippi either fell or underwent fundamental reorganizations" (p. 60). To compensate for the shortage of documentary materials, Etheridge employs an impressive amount of archaeological data in her third chapter "The Aftermath of Soto, ca. 1541-1650." These natives stopped building mounds, which indicated that their older, hierarchical system had ceased to function. She calls the Chicazas and similar groups that emerged during the seventeenth century "coalescent societies" (p. 1). Their reconstruction continued as the Chicazas concentrated their settlements in the lands around Black Prairie. Because they existed on the outermost fringes of the Spanish empire, direct contact was difficult, although Chicaza villagers maintained sporadic communication through Spanish missionaries and officials who worked among the Apalachicolas.
Changes affected other peoples as well. To the west, the Iroquois wars propelled refugees into and beyond the Mississippi River Valley. The Quapaws migrated from the Ohio Basin to the lands southwest of the Missouri to evade attacks from the Five Nations. For the same reason, other Siouan-speaking peoples—like the Poncas, Omahas, and Kansas—moved onto the rim of the Great...