Chickasaw officials and the Natchez Trace Parkway, part of the National Park Service system, have signed an agreement to begin with a $1.1 million planning and environmental assessment phase.
Chickasaws, one of the Five Civilized Tribes with which the new American government dealt in the late 1700s and early 1800s, controlled a territory stretching from southwestern Kentucky to the Mississippi River and southeastward through Tennessee, Mississippi and a portion of northern Alabama.
The area in and around Tupelo is believed to have been home to the largest concentration of Chickasaws from pre-Columbian times until the westward expansion of the young United States.
The heritage site, which has not been funded for construction, is expected to accurately replicate Chickasaw village structures from the 1700s, with exhibits, artifacts, trails and a parking area.
A heritage site was opened in Sulphur, Okla., by the Chickasaw Nation in 2010, and the Natchez Trace facility is expected to be similar but not as large.
The Chickasaw Nation is headquartered in Ada, Okla. Their tribal jurisdictional area is in Bryan, Carter, Coal, Garvin, Grady, Jefferson, Johnston, Love, McClain, Marshall, Murray, Pontotoc, and Stephens counties in Oklahoma. Their tribal governor is Bill Anoatubby. About 50,000 Chickasaws remain nationwide, compared to about 5,000 in the 19th century.
Cam Sholly, superintendent of the Natchez Trace Parkway, said he hopes to see a 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot center with indoor and outdoor exhibits. The upgraded site, he said, will have bathrooms, water fountains, better parking and more visitor amenities.
The Chickasaws cite an encounter with Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto's expedition in 1540 as their first direct contact with Europeans. Before 1700 the Chickasaws had established extensive trade with the English colonists to the east, including firearms.
The Chickasaws' territory in Oklahoma significantly has place names identical to important places and people in their Mississippi homeland, specifically Tishomingo and Pontotoc.
Hundreds of Chickasaw sites have been identified in and around Tupelo, but the locations of many remain classified to help prevent looting, illegal excavation and defiling sacred burial land.
A heritage center on the Natchez Trace will powerfully remind everyone that before white settlers, a thriving culture was sustained by the Chickasaws.