Indian Life in the Loess Hills
When the Europeans Arrived

Pottery shards found in bayou at Laurel Hill Plantation south of Natchez, MississippiBefore the Europeans arrived in our Loess Hills, a multiplicity of Indians nations lived  here: Chickasaw, Taposa, Chakchiuma, Ibitoupa, Tiou, Tunica, Ofo, Yazoo, Taensa, Natchez, Houma... At the right you see pottery shards from those days, found in a bayou just south of Natchez. The largest shard is four inches across (10 cm).

The Indian nations listed above were somewhat similar to one another. Even their languages were similar or perhaps identical in some cases. The dominant tongues in the Loess Hills were variants of the Muskhogean language stock. Early European visitors described Muskhogean as "very agreeable to the ears, courteous, gentle and musical... the women in particular so fine and musical as to represent the singing of birds.

Indians in the Loess Hills were profoundly religious. They believed in a supreme being who through His agents created man and nature. The sun was the most important manifestation of the Supreme Being, with actual worship of the sun developing among the Natchez. But there were also lesser gods and spirits whose natures could be either good or bad. Some brought bad luck and illness, others helped during the hunt, or protected the crops.

Life was highly ritualized, with highly trained priests and officials presiding over each of life's important moments. Among the Natchez, when a leader or other important person died, wives and followers might be sacrificed so that their spirits would accompany the departed into the promised land. The Chickasaws inhabiting the loess zone's northern half buried their dead in holes in the floors of the houses where they had lived. Corpses were placed sitting upright, facing west, to make it easier for the released spirit to find its way into the hereafter. The Chickasaws supported a special class of women mourners who for a year mourned daily for the departed.

Each tribe was divided into two parts, or moieties, and each moiety was further divided into clans. People could not marry within their own clan. In our culture, we have the tradition of tracing our ancestry through the male line. Tribes of the Loess Hills traced their lineage through the female line: they were "matrilineal."

Loess-zone Indians lived in villages, not in isolated homesteads. Each village was governed by clan elders. Villages were joined in confederation with other villages to form nations, and these nations were governed by one or more chiefs, and a national council. Most loess-zone Indians seem to have enjoyed a good measure of personal liberty. A striking exception was among the Natchez, where a rigid caste system was enforced by a despotic ruling class. Most non-royal Natchezeans were little more than serfs.

It is almost impossible for us to imagine the extent to which the loess-zone Indians' lives were bound to nature. All things of everyday life, whether food, housing, shelter, ornament, or plaything, were derived from nature. For example, one feature of the loess zone's vegetation is that dense canebrakes are very frequent. It happens that Cane, a form of bamboo, can be split into long, flexible splints that can be woven into baskets, mats, fish traps, seines, fences, and even the sidings of summer houses. Hollowed Cane became blowguns. In 1699 when d'Iberville visited Houma Indians in or near the Tunica Hills, the chief's house was illuminated by a torch, or flambeau, fifteen feet long and two feet thick, made of bound together canes "for a thickness of two feet.

Similarly, hickory trees also could be split for the weaving of heavy containers and siding of winter houses. Hickory and Black Locust were preferred for making bows and the shafts of arrows.

During the 1682 expedition of the Frenchman RĂ©ne Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle -- La Salle for short -- to locate the mouth of the Mississippi by canoeing downstream from the north, second-in-command Henri di Tonti observed buildings of the Taensa, who were closely related to the Natchez. The Taensa, as well as the Natchez, constructed cabins of mud overlaid with mats woven from Cane splints. The chief's cabin was reckoned to be forty feet square with walls ten feet high and a foot thick, covered by a dome-shaped roof about fifteen feet high.

hut constructionAt first glance a report of the use of "mud" in such a rainy part of the world might strike us as suspicious because why wouldn't rain was the mud away? We must remember the special features of loess. Clayey loess mud, when dried, becomes surprisingly hard, as every loess-zone gardener knows. If "mud" walls made of loess were vertical and protected from blowing rain by Cane mats, they could have afforded excellent protection, and remained serviceable for many years.  The picture at the right shows part of an exhibition at Wickliffe Mounds in extreme western Kentucky at the northernmost point of our Loess Hills.  Notice how the mud is attached to a woven wood frame.

Of all the animals providing food to the loess zone Indians, none was more appreciated than the deer. Its flesh could be eaten fresh, or dried and smoked, and kept for hard times. Most clothing was made from deer skin. Arrow points were made from antler tips, and dried deer sinew and entrails could be prepared in such a way as to serve as bow strings, sewing threads, and woven fish nets. If skin is not properly cured, it becomes too hard to comfortably wear. Deep brains smeared on tanned skins made the skins soft to the touch.

Nearly as important was the Black Bear which, though extinct in the Loess Hills now, was once common. Bear skin was made into heavy, black winter robes and blankets. The hide, tougher than deer hide, was fashioned into moccasins and boots. As important for cooking as pig lard was for our own ancestors, Indian women used bear oil for cooking. They stored their bear oil in large jars, and also rubbed some of the oil into their hair and over their bodies to make everything moist and shiny.

PawpawsThere were fish, mussels, turtles, birds, walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts and acorns, mulberries, blackberries, persimmons, plums, grapes, potato-size pawpaws with custardy taste such as those pictured at the right, honey from wild bees, hundreds of medicinal plants the knowledge of which now is lost, herbs to drive away evil spirits and to freshen water, yellow dyes from nettles, tanning agents from Black Oak, and hundreds of other natural gifts. Each thing had its season, its own special time to be harvested and relished, and possibly such a life was varied and meaningful in ways modern folk can no longer even imagine.

In addition to this bounty available from hunting and gathering, Indians of the Loess Hills, at the time of the Europeans' arrival, also practiced agriculture. In a communistic fashion, land around each village was considered to belong to the community as a whole, but each household was provided with a plot of ground to cultivate.

The three main crops were corn, beans, and various forms of squash. A certain pleasing harmony relates to this precise combination of foods. For, there is no more important element of the human diet than protein. Proteins are composed of a number of amino acids. But no foodstuff derived from plants and available to the Indians contained the full assortment of amino acids needed to enable the body to synthesize protein. In other words, if one ate only corn, or only beans, soon the body would deteriorate because of its inability to make protein.

However, when amino acids from corn are added to amino acids in beans, like parts of a puzzle, suddenly all the amino acids needed for protein synthesis are present, and the body can produce flourish. The various calorie-rich squashes, which were more like sweet pumpkins than our summer yellow squash, added their own tastes, as well as extra minerals and vitamins, which are no less important to good health.

One further good thing about corn, beans, and squash was that they could be stored for long periods of time. Whenever hunting and fishing was poor, and food from the forest was scant, there would be stockpiles of corn, beans, and squash. Of course, the Indians grew more than these three crops, especially melons, sunflowers, peas, and tobacco.

Though it's clear that the Indians had many food sources available to them, it's good to remember that quite a few food items we expect in a typical household were unknown to the Indians. Before the Europeans introduced them, the Indians had never seen cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. Among the condiments brought over by the Europeans were olive oil, cinnamon, parsley, coriander, oregano, and black pepper. Europeans likewise introduced nuts and grains such as almonds, rice, wheat, and barley; and fruit and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapes, lettuce, carrots, cauliflowers, potatoes (these relayed from Peru), and sugarcane.

The Indians traded widely among themselves and other Indian nations. Loess-zone Indians could produce more deer skins and clay urns filled with bear oil than they needed, so these were among the items they traded for commodities unavailable here, such as conch shells from the ocean, used in ceremonies, and sheets of copper, from which ornaments could be fashioned.

By no means should Indian life be painted as ideal or utopian. The earliest Europeans often found Indian tribes at war with one another, and the Indians practiced slavery. Slaves were usually captured during the many inter-tribal wars. It is reported that to prevent escape, Indian slaveholders would sever the nerves or sinews of their slaves' feet just above the instep. With such painful and permanent damage to their feet, the slaves could hobble about the fields doing their work, but they could never expect to successfully flee from bondage.

Moreover, in the special case of the Natchez Indians, where a small elite tyrannically ruled over the masses, as with the Aztecs in central Mexico, the sun-god expected human sacrifices.

In fact, the loess-zone Indians appear to have shared a surprising number of traits with the indigenous people of Mexico and central America. For example, during the 1682 expedition of La Salle, Henri di Tonti noted that the Chickasaws inhabiting the loess-capped bluffs at or near present-day Memphis for the most part, like the Maya of central and southern Mexico, had "flat heads, which is considered a beauty among them, the women... flatten the heads of their [male] children, by means of a cushion which they put on the forehead and bind with a band, which they also fasten to the cradle..."

In 1699, when d'Iberville ascended the Mississippi from its mouth and stopped among the Houma Indians in or near Louisiana's loess-capped Tunica Hills, the Houmas regaled the Europeans with a "grand ball." Drums fashioned of gourds containing dry seeds were beat to begin the performance. A dance was performed by fifteen pretty young girls who wore skirts with feather and fur sashes. Their hair braids were adorned with tufts of feathers, and their bodies were ornamented with paint and tattoos. They kept time to the music with movements of feathered fans. About twenty young men wearing breechcloths, tattoos, and feathers in their hair also danced. Some breechcloths bore small metal discs which dangled to their knees and clanked together during the dance.

When Europeans arrived in the loess zone, Indian society was complex and diverse. As with all cultures, it was evolving in its own way toward some kind of more sophisticated order. However, what the Indian world would have been like if allowed to continue developing can now only be imagined, for when Europeans arrived the direction in which Indian society was developing was forever altered.

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