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Story Archives: Glimpse of Natchez Indians when French arrived - everyday life, diet, ceremonies
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|Glimpse of Natchez Indians when French arrived - everyday life, diet, ceremonies|
(Fifth in a Series)
Historians Jack Elliott and Jim Barnett first met in 1986, not long after Elliott began working for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
"Jim had already been working for 'Archives' for several years as director of the Division of Historic Properties," recalls Elliott. "This job entailed, among other duties, overseeing two historic parks: the Grand Village of the Natchez and Historic Jefferson College in Washington, Miss. For years Jim operated out of two offices, one day at the Grand Village and the next at Jefferson College. I never envied him the task; for me it's hard enough working out of one office. Only within the last few years has Jefferson College acquired its own on-site director, leaving Jim to concentrate his efforts (and his office) at the Grand Village which must make life easier."
Just as Elliott has extensively researched the colonial period in Natchez as well as the history of the Natchez fort, Barnett has spent years researching and writing about the Natchez Indians. Barnett joins the series on the Natchez fort this week to talk about Natchez Indians whose spirit still lives along the bluffs, hills and hollows of Mississippi, along the flat lands and hills of northeastern Louisiana and along the mighty river itself.
Elliott said of Barnett: "I have long associated him with two key interests: the Natchez Indians and jazz music. On numerous occasions Jim and I, often accompanied by others, have traveled in and around Natchez to find and investigate Indian sites. Given his long term devotion to the subject, these experiences were always a pleasurable education for me. It was on the first of these field trips that Jim showed me the site of Fort Rosalie. This would have a great influence on the course of my career.
"Jim has published two books on the Natchez Indians. The first, entitled simply 'The Natchez Indians,' was published in 1998 by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, while a lengthier work, 'The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735,' was published in 2007 by the University Press of Mississippi. The latter is virtually a history of Natchez itself from prehistory to 1735. In today's 'publish or perish' academic world, many books are turned out as quickly as possible while the writers quickly move on to their next work. This has not been the case with Jim's books; they are works of a life time of experience, indeed, works of love. I highly recommend them."
"And then," says Elliott, "there's Jim's other love, jazz music. He plays acoustical bass in a jazz ensemble in and around Natchez. For those who tire of loud, frenetic music, his ensemble should provide therapeutic relief. The last time I was in Natchez, I spent the night with Jim and his wife, artist Sharon Richardson. We listened to Jim's collection of music until late at night."
To follow are Barnett's answers to our questions about the Natchez Indians, the people who occupied this region for generations prior to the arrival of the French, who began the first white settlement of Natchez in 1716 when Fort Rosalie was constructed.
LIFE FOR THE NATCHEZ IN SHADOW OF EUROPEANS
BARNETT: It is important to view the "everyday life" of the Natchez Indians in the context of the time. After the 1680s, all of the tribes in the region were living their lives in the shadow of European colonization.
The Indian slave trade initiated by the English in Carolina forced the Southeastern tribes into survival mode, with larger groups such as the Chickasaws and Natchez preying on weaker tribes in order to exchange the captives with the English for guns and other European trade items. The rush for slaves dictated that those who were not slave catchers became the targets themselves. Weaker tribes crowded together inside palisade walls to try and fend off the relentless attacks. This crowding together resulted in dysentery and other water-borne sicknesses.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the first of many smallpox epidemics spread from the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River. Following that initial smallpox epidemic came waves of plague, measles, influenza, typhus, yellow fever, and other European-derived contagions (and several more smallpox epidemics). Those native people who managed to survive the slave trade and diseases became hopelessly caught up in the competition for empire between England and France. Both sides fueled chronic intertribal wars with scalps-for-guns policies and the practice of rewarding chiefs and influential warriors who participated in this client warfare. Against this violent backdrop, the observations by European colonists of the activities of the Natchez and other tribes must be seen as descriptions of diminishing societies in a state of flux, much changed from whatever they were like before Columbus.
WHAT THEY ATE, HOW THEY PLAYED
BARNETT: Like other Southeastern Indian groups, the Natchez obtained their food from a broad-based program of farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering. The main cultivated foods were corn, beans, and squash. Storage containers called "granaries" were important in keeping a supply of these cultivated foods along with dried wild plant foods for use in winter. Although tobacco is native to the Southeastern United States, the Natchez and other Southeastern groups propagated a potent smoking tobacco that originated in Mexico, where corn, beans, and squash were domesticated.
A dependable food supply allowed the Natchez to pursue an active social life dominated by monthly ceremonial feasting and dancing. The most important annual ceremonial events were associated with the harvest of the year's first corn crop (called "Little Corn") and the final harvest in the fall (called "Great Corn").
The Natchez Indians' social structure was based on matrilineal kinship (descent traced through the female line) and the division of the tribe into two moieties or halves. Moieties are documented among several Southeastern tribes, although they functioned in different ways. With the Natchez, one moiety enjoyed "elder" status over the other moiety, which the French misinterpreted as social ranking similar to the class system prevalent in Europe at the time. Membership in one moiety or the other depended upon one's mother's moiety affiliation. The Natchez moieties were exogamous, that is, members of one moiety always chose their marriage partners from the other moiety. Although the moieties often competed against each other in games, they were also very supportive of one another.
THE TATTOOED SERPENT
BARNETT: The Tattooed Serpent, also known as "Olabalkebiche," was perhaps the most important ally of the French colony at Natchez. It is clear from the colonial narratives that "Tattooed Serpent" was an office title and not a personal name. He was the brother of the Great Sun, the hereditary chief of the Natchez.
Although the Tattooed Serpent is often called a "war chief," the colonial records reveal that his role was that of a diplomat, charged with maintaining peace with the French. He died on June 1, 1725, and his subsequent funeral ceremony is well-documented, providing archaeologists with vital ethnographic data to help interpret the ceremonial use of mound centers that were occupied before European contact.
Le Page du Pratz recorded the Tattooed Serpent's views on his people's relationship with the French, in which the chief asked rhetorically: "Why have the French come to our land?" (Du Pratz description of this discussion follows.)
WHY HAVE FRENCH COME TO OUR LAND?
DU PRATZ: One day I stopped Tattooed Serpent who was passing without looking and without stopping. He was the brother of the Great Sun and great warchief of the Natchez, and to go to the fort he could not go otherwise than in front of my house. If he had taken another route it would have appeared to be an affectation and he was too prudent and too politically shrewd to act in that way. Thus I called to him and said to him, Formerly we were friends. Aren't we so any more?
TATTOOED SERPENT: Noco, I don't know.
DU PRATZ: You used to come to my house. At present you just pass straight by. Have you forgotten the road, or is it that my house gives you sorrow? As far as I am concerned, my heart is always the same for you and for all of my friends. I do not know how to change. Why, therefore, do you change?
It took him some time to answer me, and I perceived that I had embarrassed him by what I had said to him. He had been summoned, to the fort by the commandant. The commandant had also spoken to me and begged me to talk to Tattooed Serpent, seeing that the interpreter did not render him any good responses, and that it was appropriate to make an effort to discover if there was among the Natchez a remnant of resentment stemming from the recent conflict. '
He finally broke his silence.
TATTOOED SERPENT: I am ashamed to have to be so long without seeing you, but I believed that you were angry with our nation. This is because of all the French who took part in the war..
DU PRATZ: You are wrong to think in that way. Monsieur de Bienville, being our war chief, we have to obey him the same as you are obliged to obey your brother the Great Sun.
TATTOOED SERPENT: I did not approve, as you know, the war that our people have made against the French to avenge the death of their relatives, because I made them carry the calumet of peace to the French. You knew it, because you were the first to smoke it. Is it that the French have two hearts, a good one today and tomorrow a bad one? As far as my brother and I are concerned, we only have one heart and one word.
(Du Pratz says that in "an angry manner," Tattooed Serpent continued.)
TATTOOED SERPENT: Why have the French come to our land? We have not gone to find them. They asked us for land because that of your country was too small for all the men who were there. We told them that they might take some land where they wished, that there was enough for them and for us, that it was good that the same sun shown on us, that we would walk on the same road, that we would give them of that which we had to live, that we would aid them to build and to make fields. We have done that. Isn't that true?
What need did we have of the French? Before them, didn't we live better than we do now? Because we deprive ourselves of a part of our grain, of game and of fish that we killed to share with them. In what, therefore, did we have need of them?
Was it for their guns? We used our bows and arrows which sufficed to make us live well.
Was it for their white, blue, or red blankets? We did well enough with the skins of buffaloes which are warmer. Our wives worked on these coverlets of feathers for the winter and of the bark of myrtle trees for the summer. It wasn't so beautiful, but our wives were more hard working and less vain than they are now.
Finally, before the arrival of the French, we lived like men who know how to do with what they have, whereas today we walk like slaves who do not do what they wish."
FUNERAL CEREMONY & HUMAN SACRIFICE
BARNETT: The Tattooed Serpent's funeral in 1725 was the last ceremonial event of its kind to be witnessed by Europeans. French voyageurs witnessed a similar funeral ceremony for a female Natchez chief some twenty years earlier. The people's behavior in these two funeral ceremonies may be a vestige of ceremonial activities that were common to the widespread late-prehistoric moundbuilding civilization present in the American Southeast between A.D. 900 and 1500.
The Tattooed Serpent's funeral was a major event in the lives of the Natchez people, requiring days of ritual preparation. The main part of the ceremony involved the sacrifice of the deceased man's wives and servants, who as the dead chief's entourage, would accompany him into the world of the afterlife. Colonial eyewitness accounts indicate that those people scheduled to be sacrificed reacted in a variety of ways. Some proudly accepted of their fate, while others employed desperate measures to remain among the living.
The four years following the Tattooed Serpent's death witnessed the passing of other influential pro-French Natchez chiefs, including the Great Sun and the ranking chief of the Flour village. A growing pro-English faction among the tribe led in the Natchez Rebellion of 1729-1731, which ended the French civilian settlement at Natchez. The rebellion also led to the break-up of the Natchez tribe and forced the Natchez people to seek refuge with other tribes.
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