The Chickasaw Migration Story: Journey from the Place of the Setting Sun
From their prehistoric migration to present-day Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee, to the purchase of their new homeland in south-central Oklahoma in the mid 1800s, Chickasaw culture and heritage has always had roots in nature and the elements. In ancient times, Chickasaws placed great importance and meaning on the locations significant to their history and religion. The great migration legend, which described how the tribe moved from the “place of the setting sun” to the east as ordained by Abaꞌ Binniꞌliꞌ (the Chickasaw creator god), is central in explaining the importance of the homelands.
Before the Chickasaws were forcibly removed in the 1830s from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma , their vast domain extended northward from the northern portions of Mississippi and Alabama to the Ohio River, and eastward from the Mississippi River to the headwaters of Elk River in Tennessee.
However, the story of the Chickasaw people stretches back into time even farther and according to oral tradition, the Chickasaw people once lived in a land far west of the Mississippi River and migrated east. This migration from west to east is recounted in the Chickasaw migration story and describes how the tribe moved from the “place of the setting sun” to the east, as ordained by Abaꞌ Binniꞌliꞌ.
The Chickasaw migration story tells us that before the Choctaw and Chickasaw were two different tribes they were one entity led by two brothers, Chahta and Chiksa' . After experiencing many years of war with a powerful enemy, the two brothers decided it was time to travel to different lands and have peace once again. The tribe was then split into two groups, each led by one of the brothers.
Chahta and Chiksa' led their people from the direction of the setting sun. The brothers brought along a divine long pole (Kohta Falaya), and each night they would place the pole in the ground. Upon waking in the morning, Chahta and Chiksa' would look at the pole to determine which way it was leaning and that would be the direction they traveled on that day. If the pole in the ground was standing straight up and not leaning, then that was the place they were supposed to settle and they had found their new homeland.
For weeks, months and years they journeyed, and yet the pole was found leaning to the east every morning, indicating their journey was not complete. One morning they awoke and the pole was swaying back and forth, which had never happened before. When the swaying stopped, the two brothers could not agree on the position. Chahta believed that it was standing straight, and that they had found their new home. Chiksa' did not agree that the pole was standing straight and felt as though their journey should continue.
The brothers eventually came to the conclusion that Chahta and his followers would remain in the area while Chiksa' and his followers would continue the direction he believed the pole was leaning. Chiksa' continued until it stood straight again, and from then on, the followers of Chahta were known as Choctaw, and the followers of Chiksa' were known as Chickasaw.
After leading the Chickasaws farther eastward to present-day Alabama and Georgia, the Kohta Falaya reversed its direction and guided the people westward to a place in the vicinity of the present-day towns of Pontotoc and Tupelo, Mississippi, less than one hundred miles north of where the Choctaws had settled. There, the sacred long pole stood straight as an arrow. The Chickasaw people then knew with certainty that they had found their new homeland and that their long journey was at an end.
These new ancient Chickasaw homelands would eventually be scattered across the forests, mountains and prairies of the lands that later became parts of western Kentucky and Tennessee, and northern Mississippi and Alabama. Major waterways, such as the Mississippi, Tombigbee and Tennessee Rivers offered not only a source of food and water, but provided opportunities for trade and transportation in the region as well.
Explanations of natural phenomena and descriptions of one's place in the universe are common themes in Chickasaw oral tradition. In ancient times, Chickasaws placed great importance and meaning on those locations defined as important by history and tribal religion. The stories of the elders had significance in describing tribal history, not in terms of chronological dates, but more in terms of how events and locations impacted nature and people. The elders continue to convey these oral traditions to tribal youth as ancient knowledge and a sacred obligation, thereby instilling cultural identity and tribal cohesiveness in the new generation of Chickasaw culture keepers.