The supreme deity was Ababinili, an aggregation of four celestial beings: Sun, Clouds, Clear Sky, and He That Lives in the Clear Sky. Fire, especially the sacred fire, was a manifestation of the supreme being. Two head priests (hopaye) presided over ceremonies and interpreted spiritual matters. Healers (aliktce), who combated evil spirits by using various natural substances, and witches were two types of spiritual people.
Political leadership was chosen in part according to hereditary claim but also according to merit. The head chief, chosen from the Minko clan, was known as the High Minko. Each clan also had a chief. There was also a council of advisers, which included clan leaders and tribal elders. The fundamental units were local groups.
Key Chickasaw values included hospitality and generosity, especially to those in need. Two divisions were in turn divided into many ranked matrilineal clans. The people played lacrosse, chunkey (in which an arrow was shot through a hoop), and other games, most of which included gambling and had important ritual components. Tobacco was used ritually and medicinally. Murder was subject to retaliation.
Boys were toughened by winter plunges into water and special herbs. Women were secluded in special huts during their menstrual periods. Marriage involved various gift exchanges, mainly food or clothing. A man might have more than one wife. Men avoided their mothers-in-law out of respect. In cases of adultery only the woman was punished, often by a beating or by an ear or nose cropping. Chickasaw practiced frontal head deformation.
The dead were buried in graves under houses, along with their possessions, after an elaborate funeral rite. They were placed in a sitting position facing west, with their faces painted red. After death they were only vaguely alluded to and never directly by name. All social activities ceased for three days following a death in the village. Chickasaw maintained the concept of a heaven generally in the west, the direction of witchcraft and uneasy spirits.
Chickasaw built their villages on high ground near stands of hardwood trees. They were often palisaded and more compact during periods of warfare. Rectangular summer houses were of pole-frame construction, notched and lashed, with clapboard sides and gabled roofs covered with cypress or pine-bark shingles.
Winter houses were semiexcavated and circular, about 25 feet in diameter, with a narrow, four-foot-high door. They were plastered with at least six inches of clay and dried grass. Bark shingles or thatch covered conical roofs with no smoke holes. Furniture included couches and raised wood-frame beds, under which food was stored. Town houses or temples were of similar construction.
Crops—corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers—were the staple foods. Men also hunted buffalo, deer, bear, and numerous kinds of small game, including rabbits but probably not beaver or opossum. Birds and their eggs were included in the diet. Women gathered nuts, acorns, honey, onions, persimmons, strawberries, grapes, and plums. Tea was made from sassafras root. Chickasaw ate a variety of fish, including the huge Mississippi catfish (up to 200 pounds).
Earthen pots of various sizes and shapes served a number of purposes. Men stunned fish with buck-eye or green walnut poison. Women wove mulberry bark in a frame and used the resulting textile in floor and table coverings. Most clothing was made of deerskin, although other hides, including beaver, were also used. Men wore breechclouts, with deer-skin shirts and bearskin robes in cold weather. Most kept their hair in a roach soaked in bear grease. There were also high boots for hunting. Women wore long dresses and added buffalo robes or capes in the winter. People generally went barefoot, although they did make moccasins of bear hide and occasionally elk skin.
The Chickasaw traded as far away as Texas and perhaps even Mexico. Among other items, they traded deerskins for conch shell to use as wampum. Cloth items (from woven mulberry inner bark) were decorated with colorful animal and human figures and other designs. The people also made exceptional dyed and decorated cane baskets. Men hollowed dugout canoes out of hardwood trees.
The Chickasaw were known as fierce, enthusiastic, and successful warriors. Raiding parties usually consisted of between twenty and forty men, their faces painted for war. They engaged in ritual preparation before they departed, and, upon their return, ritual celebration, which might include the bestowal of new war names.
The Chickasaw may once have been united with the Choctaw. The people encountered Hernando de Soto in 1541. At first welcoming, as their customs dictated, they ultimately attacked the Spanish when the latter tortured some of them and tried to enslave others.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, warfare increased with neighboring tribes as the Chickasaw expanded their already large hunting grounds to obtain more pelts and skins for the British trade. Increasingly dependent on this trade, they did not shrink from capturing other Native Americans, such as the Choctaw, and selling them to the British as slaves. In general, the Chickasaw's alliance with the British during the colonial period acted as a hindrance to French trade on the Mississippi.
Constant warfare with the French and their Choctaw allies during the 18th century sapped the people's vitality. In part to compensate, they began absorbing other peoples, such as several hundred Natchez as well as British traders. A pattern began to emerge in which descendents of British men and Chickasaw women (such as the Colbert family) became powerful tribal leaders. Missionaries began making significant numbers of converts during that time.
Tribal allegiance was divided during the American Revolution, with some members supporting one side, some the other, and some neither. The overall goal was to preserve traditional lands. With game growing scarce, many Chickasaw became exclusively farmers during the early to mid-19th century. Some also began cotton plantations, and the tribe owned up to 1,000 African-American slaves during that period. By 1830 they had a written code of laws (which banned whiskey) and a police force.
As non-Native settlement of their lands increased during the 1820s, many Chickasaw migrated west, ceding land in several treaties (1805, 1816, 1818) during the period. Finally they ceded all lands east of the Mississippi in 1832. Roughly 3,000 Chickasaw were forcibly removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) after 1837, where many died of disease, hunger, and attacks by Plains Indians who resented the intrusion. The Chickasaw fared somewhat better than the Cherokee, being able to purchase many supply items, including riverboat transportation, with tribal funds. Most settled in the western part of Choctaw lands.
Survivors of the ordeal resumed farming and soon, with the help of their slaves, grew a surplus of crops. However, as a tribe the people had lost most of their aboriginal culture. Their own reservation and government were formally established in 1855 and lasted until Oklahoma statehood in 1907. In the years before the Civil War, the people operated schools, mills, and blacksmith shops, and they had started a newspaper. Chickasaw fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Unlike some other Oklahoma tribes of southeast origin, the Chickasaw never adopted their freed slaves.
Their lands were allotted around 1900. All tribal governments in Oklahoma were dissolved by Congress in 1906. By 1920, of the roughly 4.7 million acres of preallotment Chickasaw land, only about 300 remained in tribal control, a situation that severely hampered tribal political and economic development well into the century. Many prominent 20th-century Oklahoma politicians were mixed-blood Chickasaw. From the 1940s on, individuals received payments from the sale of land containing coal and asphalt deposits.
Barry M. Pritzker
Debo, Angie. A History of the Indians of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970; Iverson, Peter. "We Are Still Here": American Indians in the Twentieth Century. Arlington Heights, IL: Davidson, 1998; Power, Susan C. Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004; Rawls, James. Chief Red Fox is Dead: A History of Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishing, 1996.