- The Chickasaws' Place-WorldThe Mississippi River in Chickasaw History and Geography
For over three hundred years Chickasaws have employed the Mississippi River to define their geographic homeland and history. Throughout the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth century this waterway delineated the western limits of Chickasaw Country.1 Chickasaw storytellers used the Mississippi to split west from east, while Chickasaw names for the river demarcated north and south. The Mississippi River divided time as well. According to Chickasaw migration stories, proto-Chickasaws crossed the Mississippi, traveling west to east, and thereafter the river marked a new era—the beginning of Chickasaw history. Other Chickasaw cultural constructs, like maps and titles, also demonstrate how the Mississippi functioned as a unifying symbol. In all these ways and more, the Mississippi River simultaneously served as a physical landmark and cultural touchpoint for the Chickasaw people.
The importance Chickasaws placed on the Mississippi has been overlooked, and clear interpretations of the past require contextualization within particular place-worlds.2 This understanding necessitates a reevaluation of Chickasaw activities and relationships along the waterway. Chickasaw villages sat nearly one hundred miles east of the Mississippi, yet Chickasaws frequented that river, which they called Sakti Lhafa' Okhina', meaning the "scored bluff waterway." Long before American settlers clamored to ship goods down the river, or Andrew Jackson defended it from invasion, or Mark Twain romanticized the Mississippi's waters—long before citizens of the United States arrived in the region—the Chickasaw Nation had done all three. Chickasaws managed and manipulated the river as they traveled by pirogue, utilized its resources, and patrolled its banks. Yet important beliefs expressed in [End Page 1] the stories they told about the Mississippi, the Chickasaws' names for the waterway, and the otherworldly characteristics they ascribed to it were no less important. The natural environment and Chickasaw social and religious constructs helped to define Chickasaw sovereignty along the Mississippi.
These dynamics became critical when colonial competition brought would-be empires to the Mississippi River Valley. Nations that systematically built relationships with the Chickasaws became part of their sociopolitical landscape and could expect to freely travel the Mississippi River past Chickasaw lands. However, Chickasaw warriors limited the mobility of those who entered this space uninvited, particularly around the "scored bluff," a natural bottleneck in the river known today as the Chickasaw Bluffs near Memphis, Tennessee. By controlling this important spot below the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, the Chickasaws became valuable allies or feared adversaries of France, Britain, Spain, and the United States. Any nation that wanted to travel the Mississippi River between the Missouri and Ohio Rivers and the Gulf of Mexico had to contend with the Chickasaws. Therefore, understanding Chickasaw conceptions of the Mississippi River is consequential for the study of colonialism and early American history.3
Careful reading of the Chickasaw migration story indicates that the Mississippi River helped define geographic space and historic chronology for the Chickasaw people. Though this story may have once been passed down in a single narrative form, written accounts vary considerably in detail. Driven by their own motivations, traders, missionaries, settlers, anthropologists, and Chickasaws put pen to paper chronicling the legend. Written accounts have been individually recorded over the course of the last three centuries. Throughout the years, authors in diverse locations have authored versions for various audiences. The writers' personal sentiments, cultural values, and religious beliefs undoubtedly colored how they documented the story. Language barriers also filtered many of the descriptions we are left with. Newer accounts may have been influenced by older reports, further compounding the problem of transmission. Such critical information is all too often missing from the historical record. Unfortunately, time and cultural distance obscure far more than the story can reveal. Consequently, scholars face serious limitations when employing these accounts to envision the past.4
While multiple variations of the story exist, they contain enough [End Page 2] continuity to explain how eighteenth-century Chickasaws might have conceptualized the Mississippi River. Since time immemorial Chickasaw people have told and retold how they came to settle their Mississippi homelands. These were not fictive accounts. They were, and still are, Chickasaw truths.5 Common tenets within the...