Museum program provides insight to Chickasaw language, culture

Union County has seen a growing awareness of the influence on New Albany native writer William Faulkner over the past two decades and, more recently, the blues.

Now there is growing interest in the various native people of the area and the early European explorers they encountered.

This comes at a time when the Chickasaw Nation is increasing its presence in the homeland area and stepping up efforts to preserve its culture.

In connection with that, the Union County Heritage Museum hosted Dr. John P. Dyson Monday to talk about a project to revitalize the Chickasaw language among its people.

Dyson, a Batesville native, is also the nephew of the late Gazette columnist and historian Christine Speck and has spent time here over the years.

He was raised in Paducah, Ky., however, and taught at Indiana University for 40 years. Although he studied zoology and later taught languages, a paper he wrote on the origin of the name “Paducah,” got him “hooked on the Chickasaws,” he said.

He learned there was a people called the Plains Apaches who controlled trapping in an area where the French wanted to trap. As a result, the French put a bounty on the people, offering anyone who bought in a slave a musket in return.

“So Paducah became the word for captive or slave,” he said.

Dyson said most Chickasaw settlements were around here and Tupelo, and Muscle Shoals, although they had influence over nearly half the country at the time.

“They didn’t settle,” he said, and so they left little trace on the land.

Working on his historical society paper, Dyson said, he found “The famous chief Paducah did not exist.”

As it turns out, a letter from explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame to his son revealed that he had wanted to lay out a town in honor of the vanished Paducah tribe. “Same Indians with different names,” he said.

In 2004 he published “Chickasaw Village Names from Contact to Removal” in “Mississippi Archaeology in 2004, which led to his being given the Chickasaw National Heritage Preservation Award two years later.

“They asked me to work for them,” he said. “So I taught myself Chickasaw.”

The Nation wanted help in preparing educational materials for their Language Revitalization Project to help preserve the language. “They are teaching it from pre-school on up,” he said, because now the only fluent speakers of Chickasaw are elderly and there is fear of losing the language entirely.

When asked how long it took him to learn Chickasaw he replied, “I don’t know; I haven’t finished yet.” He added it had taken him 22 years to get to this point and he plans to continue.

He feels the importance of knowing a language is key to knowing a culture.

Dyson gave examples of familiar words that have Chickasaw origins, using their spelling and punctuation.

For instance, “panki aatakka li” (the diacritical marks are not included) means place where grapes hang down and the Europeans eventually misunderstood it as “Pontotoc.”

“Back in the day, many people could not read and write English,” he said, much less accurately understand Chickasaw.

The Euclatubba River comes from “yoklit abi,” which means “he caught him and killed him.”

“The Chickasaws never named places or things for people,” he said.

In fact, Chickasaws did not have permanent names, but rather names given to them to mark achievements.

“Their names were works in progress,” he said. “A Chickasaw never had a name in the sense we do.”

Most Chickasaw men were warriors, first given names by their maternal grandmothers that they used until their first raid.

Then, a name was given to mark achievements in battle or otherwise. “It would stay with him until he did the next big thing,” Dyson said. “It was more of a title.”

Incidentally, the first title for white men was “naaholo,” which stood for a spiritual being. “But it was the name used to talk about white people, because they had never seen anything like them,” he said. “it’s still used today.”

Naturally, someone asked about the name “Ishtehotopah,” memorialized with a marker near King’s Creek.

Dyson said he was a “minko” and the word meant leader. “There were many kinds of leaders,” he said.

But the actual name Ishtehotopah refers to what he did here. “He had a ferry boat,” Dyson said, that provided a way for people to cross the Tallahatchie River at the time. The name means, roughly, “it was tied up for them.”

“Tishomingo” is a word for helper. “Tallahatchie” or “tali hachchi” means rocky slow-moving river.”

Dyson was questioned repeatedly about the origin of words and customs, with the capacity crowd staying nearly 30 minutes past the allotted hour.

After the program, Dyson stayed to chat and also had copies of his book “The Early Chickasaw Homeland: Origins, Boundaries and Society.”