Feast to celebrate the return of the Nanih Waiya Mound

Feast to celebrate the return of the Nanih Waiya Mound

Choctaws celebrate the return of Nanih Waiya. Over 1,000 members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, along with invited guests and officials from tribal, state and national levels, congregated on the Nanih Waiya cave site in Winston County to celebrate the restoration of ancestral lands back to the Choctaw people. The November 14 celebration, billed as “Coming Full Circle, Regaining and Embracing our Mother Mound,” featured traditional Choctaw social dancing and storytelling, speakers and a feast to mark the return of the Nanih Waiya mound and cave site to the tribe. The official transfer of the deed was signed by officials on August 8, 2008. Dr. Kennith York, Tribal Planning Director, welcomed those in attendance to “a sacred place, our mother,” and thanked the family of T.W. Luke Jr. for their foresight of keeping the area intact during the 1800’s. The Luke family recognized the historical significance of the mound and donated land containing the mound to the State of Mississippi for use as a park. “They gave directions to the Department of Archives and History that it should remain the same as much as possible. I would like to challenge our tribal government, our people to try to keep it the way it is as much as possible,” said Dr. York. He also added that if anyone witnesses any destruction to the mound or cave site to report it immediately to tribal authorities. “We want to take care of this place. A lot of people want to come and visit our birthplace and we want to make sure they come and have an enjoyable time, as well as learn about our people. Choctaw people have always had their culture, language and a strong history. We want the young people to learn that and in order to do that we can point to this place, our sacred ground,” Dr. York said. Students from Choctaw Central High School’s Drama Club gave an historical account of Nanih Waiya and its importance to the tribe’s identity. Miko Beasley Denson, chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, did a roll call of the eight recognized Choctaw communities and told the audience that we all may come from different communities, but today we come together as one Choctaw. “As Choctaws, or as we call ourselves Chahtas, we know that this history is in our bones. Our people have lived in most of what is now called Mississippi for more than 400 years. We know how and why our land was taken, more acres than we can ever reclaim, but this one acre of Nanih Waiya is sacred land and we reclaimed this one acre with pride and continued determination to maintain the sanctity of Choctaw land,” said Denson. Denson thanked members of the Mississippi Legislature for their efforts in returning the land back to the tribe. “Senators, representatives, we say ‘yakoki’ for your support and friendship and I’m glad that you all made time to be here with us among Choctaw. It took a lot of hard work to get this land back. Now we need to preserve it,” Denson said. Special acknowledgement was also given to the event coordinators, Choctaw Tribal Council representatives Diamond Hundley of the Bogue Chitto Community and Ann Wesley of the Crystal Ridge Community, officials from Neshoba, Winston and Kemper Counties for getting the roads ready, and all the cooks who started preparing the food at 4 a.m. “They made it happen because people cared for what they were doing. They cared that we came back to a site we call mother mound,” added Denson. A proclamation commemorating Nanih Waiya Day as a Choctaw holiday was spoken in Choctaw by Roseanna Thompson, Choctaw Tribal Language Program Director. Event emcee Barry McMillan, Miko Denson’s chief of staff, gave the English translation. The proclamation reads: "A proclamation of Nanih Waiya Day by the sovereign tribe of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians: Let it be known that this day is Nanih Waiya Day, a Choctaw holiday. Today shall be a day of celebrating and rejoicing in remembrance of August 8, 2008, when Nanih Waiya was returned to the Choctaw people. From this day forward, we shall celebrate the anniversary of that glorious day every year on the second Friday of August. Nanih Waiya is the cultural and religious center of the tribe and is the birthplace of the Choctaw people. Nanih Waiya, our mother mound, was taken from the Choctaw people long ago, but it has now been restored to her children. Let it be proclaimed to all people that this land shall never be sold, traded or negotiated with ever again. This land has remained in the hearts of the Choctaw people and from this day forward shall never leave their hands again. Nanih Waiya will forever be for the benefit of the members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Having so proclaimed, as the leaders and members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, on this 14th day of November, 2008.” All 17 members of the Choctaw Tribal Council and Miko Denson signed the proclamation, making Nanih Waiya Day an official Choctaw holiday. Nanih Waiya, which means “leaning hill” in Choctaw, was ceded to the United States, along with 11 million acres of Mississippi territory when The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed Sept. 27, 1830. Designated a state park, Nanih Waiya was one of several parks that required substantial subsidies for maintenance from the state general fund. In 2004, the Mississippi Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks was directed to promptly dispose of several parks through closure, lease, sale, or transfer. Nanih Waiya was on that list. Former state Senator Gloria Williamson, who represented Neshoba, Leake and Winston Counties, stated that due to lack of a fulltime park ranger and visitors, the park didn’t generate funds to put back into it. “Nanih Waiya was never developed like that. They were the first one on the chopping block because it didn’t turn any money,” said Williamson. “When it came up in the Senate that we were going to close Nanih Waiya State Park, (then) Chief (Phillip) Martin decided that he was interested in it because of the mound and it being a ceremonial place for the Choctaws.” Williamson, along with state Representative C. Scott Bounds of Neshoba County, worked to educate colleagues on the issue, marshal support of leadership, and shepherded it through key committee and floor votes in both the Mississippi Senate and House of Representatives. Senate Bill 2732, authorizing the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to convey the 150-acre park back to the tribe, was passed and signed into law by Governor Haley Barbour in 2007. Barbour described the legislation as a win for both the people of Mississippi and the tribe. “Transferring this park to the Choctaw people makes sense for the Choctaws and it makes sense for the taxpayers of Mississippi,” Barbour said. “We all look forward to its reopening and hope it will draw more visitors to this region and Mississippi.” Nanih Waiya has been cherished by the Choctaws for centuries as their “Mother Mound,” the place which is the center of all origin stories. In one story, it is the place through which the Choctaw emerged onto the surface of the earth; in another it was the ending place of the migration into what would become central Mississippi. It has always been the figurative heart of the Choctaw homeland. Believed to have been built between 100 B.C. and 400 A.D., the mound is 25 feet high, 218 feet long and 140 feet wide. It also has major historical significance to all people of Mississippi & Choctaws around the country since it is probably the best documented mound site in the southern U.S., if not the entire country, with published descriptions of it going back to at least 1775, according to tribal officials.