Choctaw Traditions – The Council Fire, The Nahullo

The faces of the Choctaw and Chickasaw men of sixty years ago were as smooth as a woman’s, in fact they had no beard. Sometimes there might be seen a few tine hairs (if hairs they might be called) here and there upon the face, but they were few and far between, and extracted with a pair of small tweezers whenever discovered. Oft have I seen a Choctaw warrior standing before a mirror seeking with untiring perseverance and unwearied eyes, as he turned his face at different angles to the glass, if by chance a hair could be found lurking there, which, if discovered, was instantly removed as an unwelcome intruder. Even today, a full blood Choctaw or Chickasaw with a heavy beard is never seen. I have seen a few, here and there, with a little patch of beard upon their chins, but it was thin and short, and with good reasons to suspect that white blood flowed in their veins.

It is a truth but little known among the whites, that the North American Indians of untarnished blood have no hair upon any part of the body except the head. My knowledge of this peculiarity was confined, however, to the Choctaws and Chickasaws alone. But in conversation with an aged Choctaw friend upon this subject, and inquiring” if this peculiarity extended to all Indians, he replied; “To all, I believe. I have been among the Comanche’s, Kiowa’s and other western Indians, and have often seen them bathing, men and women, promiscuously together, in the rivers of their country, and found it was the same with them, their heads alone were adorned with hair.”

In conversation soon after with a Creek friend upon the subject in regard to the full-blood Creeks, he said, “They have no hair whatever upon the body, except that of the head, and the same is the case with all full-bloods that I have seen of other tribes.” It is also the testimony of all the early explorers of this continent.

The Council of Fire

Choctaw Village near the Chefuncte, The women appear to be making dye to color the strips of cane beside them, by François Bernard, 1869
Choctaw Village near the Chefuncte, The women appear to be making dye to color the strips of cane beside them, by François Bernard, 1869

In their ancient councils and great national assemblies, the Choctaws always observed the utmost order arid decorum, which, however, is universally characteristic of the Indians everywhere. In those grave and imposing deliberations of years ago convened at night, all sat on the ground in a circle around a blazing fire called “The Council Fire.” The aged, who from decrepitude had long retired from the scenes of active life, the war-path and the chase, formed the inner circle; the middle aged warriors, the next and the young warriors, the outer circle. The women and children were always excluded from all their national assemblies. The old men, beginning with the oldest patriarch, would then in regular succession state to the attentive audience all that had been told them by their fathers, and what they themselves had learned in the experience of an eventful life the past history of their nation; their vicissitudes and changes; what difficulties they had encountered, and how overcome; their various successes in war and their defeats; the character and kind of enemies whom they had defeated and by whom they had been defeated, the mighty deeds of their renowned chiefs and famous warriors in days past, together with their own achievements both in war and the chase; their nation’s days of prosperity and adversity; in short; all of their traditions and legends handed down to them through: the successive generations of ages past; and when those old seers and patriarchs, oracles of the past, had in their turn gone to dwell with their fathers in the Spirit Land, and their voices were no longer heard in wise counsel, the next oldest occupied the chairs of state, and in turn rehearsed to their young braves the traditions of the past, as related to them by the former sages of their tribe, together with their own knowledge; and thus were handed down through a long line of successive generations, and with much accuracy and truth, the events of their past history; and when we consider the extent to which all Indians cultivated that one faculty, memory, their connections in the history of the past is not so astonishing. I will here relate a little incident (frequently published) in the life of the famous Indian chief, Red Jacket, as an evidence of strength and correctness of the Indian s memory. It is said of Red Jacket, that he never forgot any thing he once learned. On a certain occasion, a dispute arose in a council with his tribe and the whites, concerning the stipulations made and agreed upon in a certain treaty. “You have forgotten,” said the agent, “we have it written on paper.” “The paper then tells a lie,” replied Red Jacket. “I have it written down here,” he added, placing his hand with great dignity on his brow. “This is the book the Great Spirit has given the Indian; it does not lie.” A reference was immediately made to the treaty in question, when, to the astonishment of all present, the document confirmed every word the unlettered warrior and statesman had uttered. There can be little doubt but that a large majority of their traditions are based upon truth; though passing as they have through so long a period of time, it is reasonable to suppose that many errors have crept in.

But one has given his opinion, on page 92 of his “History of the Indian Tribes of North America,” in the following positive and presumptuous assertion, though his apparent ignorance of all the characteristics (well known to the thousands of the White Race who have lived among them and studied them a long life-time) of the North American Indians so plainly manifested throughout his entire work, entitles his assumed learned opinion regarding the truth or untruth of the traditions of the North American Indians, or anything else concerning that people, to but little, if any, credit. He boldly asserts, with a seemingly great indifference as regards its truth, that “Nothing can be more uncertain, and more unworthy, we will not say of credit, but of consideration, than their (the Indians) earlier traditions; and probably there is not a single fact in all their history, supported by satisfactory evidence, which occurred half a century previous to the establishment of the Europeans.” Though all admit that the voices of tradition coming from all Nations even from our own ancestors, the Britons are enshrouded, to a greater or less extent, in dense and dubious fogs, and become more dim and distant as we go further back into the past. Yet that does not necessarily bring even the traditions of the North American Indians under his edict, “Nothing can be more uncertain, and more unworthy, we will not say of credit, but of consideration, than their traditions, “as here comes to our aid modern Oriental Discovery, with records engraved on rocks and stamped on bricks records contemporary with the events, and in all cases independent of the modern authority since the records have been hidden from the eyes of both the believer and disbeliever. Inscriptions are disclosed, in languages now dead, in characters long-forgotten, and to which every key had been apparently lost. Ancient cities and countries, Thebes, Ninevah, Pompeii, Balbee, Babylon, Jerusalem and Egypt rise to testify and confirm the credit of many of the traditions, fables and legends of the Old World. And so also, from the buried past of the New World, hundreds of witnesses have already been summoned, and are still being summoned, that confirm the credit of the traditions and legends of the North American Indians, and to which they pointed back through the long vista of ages past, ere the Indians were known to the White Race, and give the merited contradiction to the assertion that their traditions “merit not even consideration.”

Mammoths & Nahullo

As the climate warmed during the last part of the Ice Age, large mammal such as the Mastodon migrated into the Shenandoah Valley. Source: VR image by Richard Thornton

An ancient Choctaw tradition attributes the origin of the prairies along the western banks of the Tombigbee River, to some huge animals (mammoths) that existed there at the advent of their ancestors from the west to Mississippi. Their tradition also states that the Nahullo, (Supernatural) a race of giant people, also inhabited the same country, with whom their forefathers oft came in hostile contact. These mighty animals broke off the low limbs of the trees in eating the leaves, and also gnawed the bark off the trees, which, in the course of time, caused them to wither and die; that they roamed in different bands, which engaged in desperate battles whenever and wherever they met, and thus caused them to rapidly decrease in numbers; and that, in the course of years all had perished but two large males, who, separate and alone, wandered about for several years each confining himself to the solitude of the forest many miles from the other. Finally, in their wanderings they met, and at once engaged in terrible conflict in which one was killed. The survivor, now monarch of the forests, strolled about for a few years wrapped in the solitude of his own reflections and independence then died, and with him the race became extinct.

That the Choctaw traditions of both the mammoth and great men, was based on truth as to their former existence in the southern and western parts of this continent is satisfactorily established by the many mammoth skeletons of both men and beasts and fragments of huge bones that have been, and are continually being found in different parts of the country, and all of whom, according to their tradition were contemporary with the ancient fathers of the present Indian race. It is well known that the ancient existence of those giants and mammoth was wholly unknown to the White Race, until the excavation of their bones proved their former existence; yet were known to the Indians to have existed and so declared; but which was regarded by the whites as only an Indian fable, unworthy of belief or even a second thought. A huge skeleton of one of those ancient animals was found in March 1877, four miles east of the town of Greenville, Hunt County, Texas. I secured a fragment of the skeleton, evidently a part of the femoral bone, which measured twenty-one inches in circumference. A tooth measured three inches in width, five inches in length along the surface of the jawbone and five inches in depth into the jaw, and weighed the seemingly incredible weight of eleven pounds. The teeth proved the monster herbaceous, the animal of which was in a perfect state of preservation. The greater part of the frame crumbled to dust, as soon as exposed to the action of the air.

Here then it had found a burial place, among others of the prehistoric population of the various animals which held possession of this continent before, perhaps, the advent of man, rising up before us like some old granite dome, weather-beaten and darkened by the lapse of ages past. But death came to it, as to its predecessors, whose cemeteries time has opened here and there, and revealed to the scrutiny of the curious, the testimony of vanished age. Many citizens of the immediate neighborhood visited the place of disinterment, and viewed the solitary grave and looked with wondering interest upon this stranger of hoary antiquity arising from his forest tomb where he has so long slept in silence, unknown and unsung; whose history, as that of his mighty race, is wrapped in the eternal silence of the unknown past. Yet, to one who seeks to muse over the mysteries of the unwritten long ago, this fossil tells a story of the mystic days of yore and of the multiplied thousands of years since old Mother Earth commenced to bear and then destroy her children.

Ah, could the records of the ages to which they point be restored, how many doubts and problems would be solved? But they only tantalize us by their near approach and undiminished inscrutableness, while imagination shrinks from the contemplation of the intervening years between. Yet, from those relics of the ages past, an unlimited field for the imagination is open to view, which many thinkers have attempted to explore only to find themselves utterly lost.

“Hupimmi hattak tikba a mintih hushi aiokatula” (our, forefathers came from the west), declare the ancient Choctaws through their tradition, and they saw the mighty beasts of the forests, whose tread shook the earth; but our forefathers ancestry came from the northwest beyond the big water.”

“Tis but the tradition of the ignorant Indian a foolish fable,” responded he of the pale-face, of boasted historical attainments when lo! Accident unearths the long hidden monster of traditional record, and the truth of the rejected declaration of the despised Indian is established, and with equal truth establishing the fact that, mid all our boasted ancient pedigree, theirs is more ancient, and perhaps more honorable, reaching back through the vista of pre-historic times to the” dim and hazy regions of ages past and unknown.

Also of the tradition of the Choctaws which told of a race of giants that once inhabited the now State of Tennessee, and with whom their ancestors fought when they arrived in Mississippi in their migration from the west, doubtless Old Mexico. Their tradition states the Nahullo (race of giants) was of wonderful stature; but, as their tradition of the mastodon, so this was also considered to be but a foolish fable, the creature of a wild imagination, when lo! Their exhumed bones again prove the truth of the Choctaws tradition. In the fall of 1880, Mr. William Bevtrly, an old gentle man 84 years of age living near Piano, Collin County, Texas, and who was born in west Tennessee and there live d to man hood, stated to me that near his father’s house on a small creek were twenty-one mounds in consecutive order forming a crescent, each distant from the other about fifty feet and each with a base of seventy-five or eighty feet in diameter, and rising to an average height of forty feet; that he, when a boy twelve years of age, was present with his father, when an excavation was made in one of the mound in which human bones of enormous size were found, the femoral bones being five inches longer than the ordinary length, and the jaw bones were so large as to slip over the face of a man with ease. This statement was confirmed by Rev. Mr. Rudolph of McKinney, Texas, and several others, all men of undoubted veracity, which places the truth of the former existence of the mounds, their excavations and results, as well as the Choctaw tradition, beyond all doubt and even controversy.

In regard to the race of giants that once occupied the now State of Tennessee and mentioned in the tradition of the ancient Choctaws, Mr. H. S. Halbert, an esteemed friend, says in a letter to me, January 22, 1878, “I will give you some facts which modern researches have thrown upon the ancient occupancy of this continent, on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States stretching from the coast of North Carolina up to and through New England. I refer particularly to the seaboard .

“I am satisfied that the Indian race were in occupancy of this seaboard region only about 200 years before the discovery of America in 1492, I give the reasons:

About the year 1000, A. D. (I quote the date from memory, not having the authorities before me) the Northmen discovered America and made some settlements on the New England coast. All this, as you know, is historical. The Northmen there came in contact with a people whom they called Skrellings. Now these Skrellings, from the description given by them were not Indians, but Esquimaux. They were the same kind of people the Northmen had previously met in Greenland and whom they called also Skrellings, or rather Skraellinger. This is plain proof that 500 years before Columbus, the Esquimaux race inhabited the seaboard of New England and not the Indians.

“Again, the Tuscarora Indians, now living in Canada, but formerly from North Carolina, state in their traditions that they came from the west and settled on the North Carolina seaboard about the year A. D. 1300. Their traditions also state that they came in contact with a people of short stature, ignorant of maize and eaters of raw flesh.

“Now to whom does this description apply but to the Esquimaux? Thirdly, relics have been discovered implements of various kinds, along the seaboard exactly similar to those used by the Esquimaux of the present day. All this is plain proof to my mind, that the Esquimaux once inhabited the Atlantic seaboard as far south as North Carolina, and that they were pushed northward by the influx of the incoming Indian tribes; and that- the Indian had not been settled but for comparatively a short period in this seaboard at the time of Columbus discovery. The Mound Builders seemed to have never occupied this seaboard stretching from North Carolina upward. Now as to the Delaware tradition.

“The Delawares, or Leni Lenape as they style themselves in their native tongue, have a tradition that they came from the west. When they came to the Great River, perhaps, somewhere in the latitude of St. Louis, they found a people of tall stature, and living in towns. This people the Delawares called Allegewi. They asked the Allegewi for permission to cross the river, which was granted. The Allegewi, however, seeing the Indians constantly coming from the west in such large numbers, and fearing they would ultimately dispossess them of their country, commenced war upon them. After years of fighting, the Allegewi were defeated and driven out of their country retreating southward, and the Delawares and other tribes took possession of their country. Now these Allegewi are without doubt the same stock of people spoken of in Choctaw tradition as the Nahoolo.”

The word Nahoolo is a corruption of the Choctaw word Nahullo and is now applied to the entire White Race, but anciently it referred to a giant race with which they came in contact when they first crossed the Mississippi river. These giants, says their tradition, as related to the missionaries occupied the northern part of the now States of Mississippi and Alabama and the western part of Tennessee. The true signification of the word Nahullo is a superhuman or super natural being, and the true words for white man are Hattak-tohbi. The Nahullo were of white complexion, according to Choctaw tradition, and were still an existing people at the time of the advent of the Choctaws to Mississippi; that they were a hunting people and also cannibals, who killed and ate the Indians whenever they could capture them, consequently the Nahullo were held in great dread by the Indians and were killed by them whenever an opportunity was presented; by what means they finally became extinct, tradition is silent.

“Chemical analysis of the bones of this giant race in Tennessee and elsewhere,” says Mr. H. S. Halbert, in a letter of January 3rd, 1878, “indicate the ravages of one of the most terrible diseases to which flesh is heir. Bones exhumed from these ancient cemeteries indicate with painful certainty that syphilis was, at least, one cause of the extinct ion of this ancient people. 1 It was long supposed that syphilis was imported into this continent by the European race. That may have been the case, in the historical period, but I have no doubt it prevailed with awful fatality among that ancient people, who -dominated a large portion of this continent before the advent of the Indian race.

“Mr. Grant Lincicum, (Dr. Gideon Lincicum, with whom I was personally acquainted, was an educated white man, who came to the Choctaw Nation after the advent of the missionaries, and settled at Columbus, then a small place, and afterwards wrote a MS. of the Choctaw habits, customs, traditions and legends, which has been lost)” stated that they (the Mound Builders) were, according to the Choctaw tradition, a hunting-people. He certainly must be in error on this point. (Not so; Lincicum used the pronoun “they” with reference to the Nahullo, and not to the Mound Builders, of whom their traditions never spoke). Now I believe that the Mound Builders were of much fairer complexion than the Indian, perhaps almost, if not quite, as fair as we, and were an agricultural people also. Disease and war no doubt were the main causes of their extinction. Detached off shoots of them may have amalgamated with the Indian tribes, and thus lost their physical peculiarities, but at the same time kept up with their tribal organization. The Mandan Indians (now extinct) are supposed to have been a degenerate and amalgamated offshoot of the Mound Builders. In their manners and customs they were strikingly different from the other Indians. I have no doubt but the researches of antiquarians in some manner, to us yet unknown, will throw much light upon the early occupants of this continent.”

Be that as it may, I still believe in the Choctaw traditions that the Nahulio who inhabited North Mississippi and Alabama, and West Tennessee, were “a hunting people,” as they have left no trace whatever of having been agriculturists, ad the unbroken forests of majestic trees of ages growth, that covered the land everywhere at the advent the of the Europeans, evidently prove.

Still I admit, with friend Halbert, that, possibly the Allegewi of Delaware tradition may be the Nahulio of Choctaw tradition, if they were of white complexion, as the word Nahulio is emphatically applied to the white race and no other. If white, may they not be of the Northmen, who, it is said, established a few colonies upon the Atlantic coast A. D. 1000?” Then, if the North American Indians are not the Mound builders, (which has not yet been satisfactorily proved) may not the Northmen be?

Some have believed that the Nahulio were the Carib Indians, as they were said to be of gigantic stature and also cannibals, and who once inhabited our Gulf coast. They were found by Columbus in the West Indies, and they are still found in the isles of the Caribbean Sea and Venezuela. The early French writers of Louisiana called the Caribs by their Indian name Attakapas, and Attakapas Parish in Louisiana took its name from that tribe. The French translated Attakapas, Man-eater. Attakapas is a corruption of the Choctaw words Hattakapa, (man eatable) which they (the French), no doubt, got from the Choctows, who gave the tribe that name. I am inclined to believe that the Nahulio of the Choctaw tradition were not regular cannibals, but that they sacrificed human victims in their religious ceremonies, which in extreme cases may, perhaps, have required their officiates to eat a portion also of the victim’s flesh. The same also of the Caribs, hence Hattakapa, (man eatable) instead of Hattakupa, eater.

Cushman, Horatio Bardwell. History Of The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, Texas: Headlight Printing House. 1899

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