American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Natchez Culture

Title: Natchez Indian
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The Natchez were a temple-mound people who survived, atypically, into the period of sustained contact with Europeans. Their culture was thus something of a living window on other similar ones that had vanished or changed markedly by the time non-Natives arrived.

The Natchez were ruled by a man called the Great Sun, whose pronouncements regarding individuals were absolute and despotic. In decisions regarding the nation, however, he was subject to the consensus of a council of respected elders. Unlike the Pueblos, whose houses were egalitarian, the Natchez gave their ruler a large house, twenty-five by forty-five feet, built atop a flat-topped earthen mound eight to ten feet high.

A French observer said that, when the Great Sun "[g]ives the leavings [of his meal] to his brothers or any of his relatives, he pushes the dishes to them with his feet. . . . The submissiveness of the savages to their chief, who commands them with the most despotic power, is extreme. . . . If he demands the life of any one of them he comes himself to present his head" (Champagne, 1989, 59–60). Nearby, on another mound, stood a large building, with two carved birds at either end of its roof—the temple in which reposed the bones of earlier Great Suns. Only the Great Sun (who was also head priest as well as king) and a few assistants could enter the temple.

The sons and daughters of the Great Sun, the younger members of the royal family, were called Little Suns. Below the royal family in status was a class of Nobles, and below them a class of Honored Men. The rest of the people occupied the lower orders and were called the Stinkards. The term was not used in the presence of Stinkards themselves because they considered it offensive. Into this hierarchical society, the Natchez introduced marriage customs that included real class mobility. A Great Sun had to marry from among the Stinkards. The male children of Great Suns became Nobles, who were also obliged to marry Stinkards. The male children of Honored Men became Stinkards. Descent followed the female line, and children of female Suns became Suns themselves. The system was matrilineal, but in the household the man's word was law.

The Natchez military was hierarchical, with different warrior grades, including apprentices (at the bottom), ordinary warriors, and warrior chiefs. The whole was governed by a council comprised of the most experienced warriors. People of Stinkard status could rise in rank through valor in war. Another way to rise in status was by means of meritorious religious action. When a king died, a father and mother could sacrifice a child in the king's honor. A person also could sacrifice him- or herself upon a king's death. Thus were remaining family members elevated in class. By the time the first English colonists established themselves on the eastern seaboard of North America, Spanish explorers had crossed the Mississippi Valley and the regions southeast and southwest of it, fruitlessly seeking gold and other riches, meanwhile meeting the Natchez people. In 1540, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto became the first European to visit the area. In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and trapper Louis Joliet traveled down the Mississippi River and landed near the Natchez Trace; in 1682, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the land along the Mississippi River for France.

In the late 1720s, the Natchez chaffed under French colonialism in the newly established Louisiana Colony and rebelled against the growing French presence. The war resulted in the defeat of the Natchez, many of whom were sold into slavery and sent to the Caribbean islands, while some remnants escaped to live with the Chickasaw and Creek nations.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Champagne, Duane. 1989. American Indian Societies: Strategies and Conditions of Political and Cultural Survival. Cambridge, MA: Cultural Survival.; MacLeod, William Christie. 1924. "Natchez Political Evolution." American Anthropologist 26, no. 2: 201–229.; MacLeod, William Christie. 1926. "On Natchez Cultural Origins." American Anthropologist 28, no. 3 (July): 409–413.
 

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