By Anna Lewis
The oldest law-making body that ever assembled in Oklahoma met at Nunih Waiya, near the present site of Tuskahoma in Pushmataha county, in 1834. This was the name the Choctaws gave to the capital, which was the meeting place of their general council. The site was selected because it resembled the old Nunih Waiya in Mississippi. It was a low sloping hill with a ravine on one side making a bluff, along the north side. The name Nunih Waiya was selected in commemoration of the most sacred mound in the old home. The tradition, the legends, and the early history of the Choctaws are centered around Nunih Waiya.
Nunih Waiya is a type of mound found exclusively in the Gulf states. The chronicler of De Soto's expeditions, the first Spanish expeditions in the southern states, speaks of these mounds and gives a very interesting explanation of how they are made. He says that they were to be found in the center of all Choctaw villages and that the top of the mound was used for the home of the chief and his attendants, while the common people lived around the base.
These early Spanish also speak of the southern Indians as sun worshippers. The reverence which the Choctaws held for Nunih Waiya no doubt comes from centuries of tradition when it functioned as a great tribal center for sun worship. The early Choctaws regarded the sun as the Father of Life and instinctively they turned to the earth as the Mother of Creation, and as time went on, Nunih Waiya was being regarded as the mother of their race. When removal was being discussed, the primitive Choctaws declared that they could not go west as long as Nunih Waiya stood.
The following is one of their legends concerning Nunih Waiya:
"The earth was a vast plain, destitute of hills or mountains. While the earth was in this condition the Great Spirit came down
to earth and alighted near the center of the Choctaws' country and threw up a hill or mountain, calling it Nunih Waiya. When this was done, he caused the red man to come out by stomping on the ground. When the signal was given some appeared only partly formed, others with their heads above the water, struggling for life. Some were perfectly formed. Thus were the Choctaws created. The Great Spirit told them that they should live forever. They did not understand what He had said, so they asked him to repeat it. This seemed to anger Him and He took away the grant and told them that they were to become subject to death.
"After the formation of man from the ground, the hills were formed, the earth hardened and it was made fit for the habitation of man."
Another tradition of their origin is that a long time ago, their ancestors dwelt in a country far distant toward the setting sun. Then a time came when they had to find a new country. A general council was held and after many days of grave deliberation, a day was chosen when they should all bid farewell to their old homes and under the leadership of the two brothers, Chahtah and Chikasah, seek a new country. The evening before they were ready to leave a "Fabussa" pole was set up in the middle of the encampment by the chief medicine man and prophet. He told them that this pole would be their guide.
The next morning the pole leaned toward the rising sun and this was the direction they went. Each night the pole was set up and each morning it turned toward the east. Weeks and months passed and they continued east, and to their astonishment they came to a great river. They had never seen or heard of so great a stream. Where it came from or where it went, they did not know. So they named it Misha Sipokni, which in their language meant Beyond Age, whose source and terminus are unknown.
After some difficulty they crossed the river because the pole indicated that they must go farther east. After weeks more of traveling the pole one morning stood upright. "Fohah hupis hno
yah"—"rest all of us here"; and this sacred mound Nunih Waiya came into being.
Chahtah and Chikasah agreed to part. The pole again was to decide, and it was placed between the two brothers; it fell toward Chikasah and he and his followers went north as the pole indicated.
Another version of the tradition is that since there were so many of them in the migration that they went in groups in order to find food as they marched. When the Choctaws reached Nunih Waiya, the party under Chikasah had aready crossed over a creek. That night a terrible rain came and a messenger could not overtake Chikasah and his party to tell them that the pole was standing erect at the base of a hill, Nunih Waiya, so that was the way the two tribes came into existence.
Soon after they selected Nunih Waiya as their final resting place, the Great Spirit divided the Choctaws into iksa or clans, and gave them their marriage law, "which they must keep and that one always marries into the opposite clan and the children all belong to the mother's clan."
Another version of the legend of migration gives the following story:
After they had marched many weary miles and had consumed in all probability years, many of the people were dead. The bones of the dead were carried along, as this was a part of their burial custom. The Choctaws halted on the bank of a little river so their scouts could be sent to explore the region of the country around, and so the aged and feeble and those over-burdened might have time to catch up and rest. Many of the families were loaded with the bones of their dead. These could not be left behind. Some had almost more bones than they could pack but could not be parted from them.
It took several days before all the migrants had reached the encampment; some slowed down with a double load of bones on their backs. They moaned, "Oh when will this journey end? To
pack the bones further will kill us and we shall have no name amongst the iksas of this great nation."
Winter was coming on so the leaders decided to rest here a while. The land was beautiful and there was much rejoicing. The chiefs gave instructions for the land to be prepared to plant what seed corn they had and it was found that there were only a few ears. These had been preserved by the old people who had no teeth, so the soil was prepared.
One end of the encampment was a mound with a hole in one side. As it leaned toward the creek the people called it leaning hill—Nunih Waiya. They passed the winter at Nunih Waiya and they planted their crops and gathered them. Now it was time to go on.
A great council was met to discuss the question of what to do with the bones of their dead. The leaders knew that some of them could not carry the bones farther, neither would they be willing to leave them behind. So it was decided to make Nunih Waiya their home and to bury the bones of the dead nearby. After this was done a feast was made and they could sing:
"Behold the wonderful work of our hands and let us be glad. Look upon the great mound; its top is above the trees and its black shadow lies on the ground. It is surmounted by the golden emblem of the sun, its glitter dazzles the eyes of the multitude. It inhumes the bones of fathers and relatives. They died on our sojourn in the wilderness. They died in a far off wild country. They rest at Nunih Waiya. Our journey lasted many winters; it ends at Nunih Waiya."1 This legend is an interesting and very plausable explanation of the mound.
The only council held in modern times at Nunih Waiya in Mississippi was the one Greenwood Le Flore called in 1828. The object of the council was to make new laws to replace some of the old ones. At this council several laws were enacted against drunk-
1Gideon Lincecum, "Choctaw Traditions about Their Settlement in Mississippi and the Origin of Their Mounds," Publications of the Missiissippi Historical Society (Oxford, 1898-), VIII (1904), 532.
enness and against the practice of executing women representing themselves as witches.2
Cushman tells the story of George S. Gaines, who was riding along near Nunih Waiya one day, and to satisfy his curiosity turned and rode to its base. Then he dismounted and walked up to its top. While there he noticed a band of Choctaws passing and being desirous of their company, he soon overtook them. Pushmataha was one of the company and greeted Mr. Gaines with, "Well, friend Gaines, I see you have been up to pay your compliments to our good Mother."
"Yes, I concluded to pay her a visit as I was passing," replied Mr. Gaines.
"Well, what did she say to you?" asked the Choctaw Chief.
"She said," replied Mr. Gaines, "That her Choctaw children had become too numerous to longer be prosperous, contented, and happy in their present country, and she thought it best for them to exchange their old country and lands for a new country and lands west of the Mississippi river, where game is much more abundant, and the hunting grounds far more extensive."
With a loud laugh in which all the Choctaws joined, Pushmataha exclaimed: "Holobih: holubit ish nohowa nih." ("It's a lie: Our good Mother never could have spoken such words to you.")
This then was a sacred spot with a sacred name so in order to hold to a part of their traditions and their past history, these newly migrated Choctaws named their common meeting place Nunih Waiya.
Under the old tribal form of government, which had existed from the later part of the eighteenth century, the Choctaws had been divided into three districts; each of these divisions had its own chief. There was, however, a general meeting to discuss matters of common interest.
2H. S. Halbert, "Nunih Waiya, the Sacred Mound of the Choctaws," Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society (Oxford, 1898—), II (1899), 233.
Soon after the removal bill had passed Congress in 1830, when it was inevitable that the Choctaws would be moved west, two district chiefs, Mosholatubbee and Nitakechi addressed a communication to the secretary of war in which they stated that they agreed among themselves on the location of each of the three districts in the new territory west of the Mississippi.
The Six Towns people under their district chief, Nitakechi, were to be located west of the Kiamichi. The Upper Towns people were to be given the district east of the Kiamichi. While the Lower Towns people were to be settled along the Arkansas. These were the three original districts of the Choctaw Nation and each district had a chief and central meeting place which was a district council house or district capitol. These original districts were named in honor of the three greatest Choctaw chiefs, Pushmataha, Moshulatubbee, and Pukshunnubbee; all three had rendered important services to their people during these trying times.
By 1834 the Choctaw Nation was established in the new country and a committee was appointed to select a site for the erection of a general council house. This committee was composed of delegates from each of the three districts. The location chosen was in the central part of Pushmataha District, which is now about two miles and a half southwest of the present town of Tuskahoma. This was the first capitol located in Oklahoma, and the first laws made by Oklahomans were made here.
By the treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek the government agreed to erect a general council house for the nation. The building was erected in 1838. It was made of hand hewn pine logs with a chimney at each end. It was just one large room for in 1838 the Choctaw law-making body, or the general council, was a unicameral body, and only one room was necessary. The general council under the constitution of 1834 was made up of twenty-seven members elected from the three districts. The three district chiefs were ex-officio members and any two could veto legislation enacted, unless it was passed by a two-thirds majority of the legislature.
This one room log house, painted white with green window shutters, was the center of the Choctaw government during a most critical period of their history—that period when they were pioneering in a republican form of government with a written constitution, and pioneering in a new country and in a new civilization.
In 1842 their constitution was changed and a bicameral legisative body was provided for. So the capitol was enlarged to accommodate the change in the law-making body. A new building was erected for the lower house. This stood only a short distance from the old building which was used now to house the Senate.
The site of this oldest capitol is one which should be marked because of the history it represents. All that remain today are piles of rock where the chimneys were, and the old burying ground around the capitol grounds.
In 1850 the capitol was moved from Nunih Waiya and the buildings were sold to Captain John Anderson. His grave stone carries the date of 1878. There are other graves of various members of his family and the early families of this neighborhood. All are in a bad state of decay as most all Indian burying grounds are today. Many of the graves have been vandalized and desecrated. All that remains of the old building today is a smoke house, made of the original logs, not on the location of old Nunih Waiya but about half a mile north of Tuskahoma on Edwin Calvin's farm. He is a Choctaw and he has saved the logs which otherwise would have been lost. They are now well preserved and are put together as the old council house was without nails. So stands a part of the oldest law-making house in Oklahoma. So also stands a part of the past of the Choctaws, events that center about the legend of Nunih Waiya.3