Traditional Villages in the Ancient Chickasaw Homelands
For Chickasaws, the village was the heart of the people, representing their culture and their relationship to the land and each other. Traditionally, the ancient Chickasaw homelands were once scattered across the forests, mountains and prairies of lands that later became parts of western Kentucky and Tennessee and northern Mississippi and Alabama. Chickasaw towns were typically spread 10-15 miles apart and surrounded by a stockade. When under attack, the Chickasaws withdrew into a few of the larger towns, making it difficult for their enemies to mount any successful attack by virtue of the terrain.
A traditional Chickasaw town or village consisted of several compounds or households. Some Chickasaw towns were reported to have numbered over two hundred households. The number of dwellings owned by a family varied based on the family’s social standing. However, households could contain a winter house, summer house, corn storage building or "corn crib" and menstrual hut. The principal men’s homes were larger than those of the average Chickasaw man and had deep balconies on the front side.
Important tribal business was conducted in a large structure that stood as the focal point of the village. An open area near the town square was set aside for stickball, other games or ceremonial dances . A palisade, or stockade fence made of large poles, fortified towns.
The Toompalliꞌ chokkaꞌ, or summer house, was a lighter structure designed to be used during the warm part of the year by providing shade from the sun and protection from the rain. Located on the edges of the villages, their design allowed for the flow of air, which kept the house cool during hot weather. The average structure was 12 by 22 feet (3.6 by 6.7 meters) and shaped like a rectangle. This shape provided for a long tent-like roof made from split saplings or bundles of cane, allowing the eaves to be vented and let the breeze pass easily through the building. The frames of the house were covered by loosely woven mats of bark or grass and built with posts of pitch pine, honey locust or sassafras for extra sturdiness.
According to some oral history accounts, summer houses did not have walls attached until it rained, when the walls were handily placed against the house and interlaced with rope on the existing supporting poles. Summer houses had floors attached to supporting poles which were placed approximately two or three feet from the ground, providing storage for items underneath the floors of the houses.
During the cold months, the Chickasaws lived in the Hashtolaꞌ chokkaꞌ, or winter house, which was built for warmth and insulation. The pine logs used in its construction were much heavier, and the outside walls were coated with a daub of clay, stomped wet grass, or crushed shells. Unlike the summer house with its sharp angles and rectangular shape, the winter house resembled a snail’s shell. Roughly designed in a circle and resembling the number six, the winter house was partially sunken into the ground. This layout prevented the heat from escaping the structure by preventing freezing cold wind and rain from blowing into the living area.
It is said that the entryway into the home was a narrow corridor about four to six feet long, only allowing for single file entry. In addition to preventing heat loss, the design also provided an extra level of protection as the narrow, winding entrance could be easily defended against enemy intrusion. Families would assail the enemy as they exited the entryway into the main living area. On the inside, mattress frames of cane splinters, often referred to as couches, sat on two- to three-feet-high posts and lined the walls of the home. For warmth and softness, bedding consisted of split-cane mats and the skins of animals such as buffalo and elk.
The storage house, or corn crib, was a small, enclosed room made of wood, built high above the ground with a small opening for entry. The Chickasaw used the corn crib to shelter goods and store the food supply, such as sunflowers, peas, beans, squash, pumpkins, tobacco, melons and corn, from weather and animals. By coating the posts in bear grease, they were able to keep mice and other creatures from raiding their food, thereby proving additional protection. The Chickasaws gained access to the store house by climbing a ladder. When not in use the ladder was stored away, keeping intruders of all variety out. The corn crib was so efficient at protecting the supplies of food, the Europeans adopted this structure to shelter their harvests as well.
The main hub and largest structure of the Chickasaw village is the aa-anompoliꞌ chokkaꞌ, or council house. This was also referred to as the mountain house, indicating its larger size and greater importance than that of the family dwellings. Early each morning the council of the chiefdom would meet in the council house or the dance ground to discuss important tribal matters, events and diplomacy concerning the Chickasaw people. Men would sit around the step formed by the sunken floor. Women and children were allowed inside during formal councils but were not allowed to speak.
The council house was constructed largely in the same manner as the summer house. Raised on four legs, great reclining couches lined the walls of the council house, and smaller benches were placed between the support posts. Mattresses of cane splinters and animal skins were used for bedding and in some instances a balcony or porch was constructed outside the great house. A sacred fire was contained in the center of the council house and a trap door was located in the ceiling to allow smoke from the fire to pass through. Chickasaws believed the smoke carried prayers to Abaꞌ Binniꞌliꞌ , the Chickasaw Creator.
Today, the Traditional Village, or Chikasha Inchokka', at the Chickasaw Cultural Center is more than a replica of the Chickasaws’ traditional dwelling structures. It is a living representation of the Chickasaw people’s lives in their ancient homelands. To learn more about Chickasaw history, please visit the Chickasaw.tv History & Culture channel .
Featured image: Reconstruction of Chickasaw housing. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw TV.
By Chickasaw TV