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Letter from the American Southeast

Spartans of the Lower Mississippi

Unearthing evidence of defiance and resilience in the homeland of the Chickasaw

May/June 2023

Mississippi Blackland PrairieThe Blackland Prairie is a crescent-shaped swath of land extending from central Alabama into northeast Mississippi. Its fertile landscape is dotted with farms, cattle ranches, and the occasional commercial or industrial complex. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the region was one of the United States’ major cotton producers. However, centuries before, it was a vast grassland and home to the Chickasaw Nation, whose heartland was centered around the modern-day city of Tupelo, Mississippi.


Mississippi Prairie MapToday, a scattering of archaeological sites in the region, including ancient villages, burials, and battlefields, attest to the Chickasaw presence in the Blackland Prairie, but there are no longer any Chickasaw there. The tribe was forcibly removed from its homeland in 1837 and resettled 500 miles away in what is now Oklahoma. Recently, the Chickasaw have partnered with archaeologists from a number of academic institutions in an effort to identify heritage sites in their native Mississippi. “Preserving and reconnecting with our historical cultural heritage is critical for the continuance of a strong Chickasaw cultural identity,” says Brad Lieb, the Chickasaw Nation’s director of Chickasaw archaeology.


This research has enabled a new understanding of the Chickasaw’s traditional home and their long path through the American Southeast. It has also underscored their unique ways of navigating the age of European colonialism. In addition, recent excavations are providing clues to the whereabouts of Chikasha, one of the most historically important Chickasaw sites, and one that has eluded archaeologists for as long as archaeology has been an endeavor in this region. What took place at Chikasha was not only a watershed moment in Chickasaw history, but also a pivotal episode in the story of North America. Sixteenth-century Spanish accounts record that it was at Chikasha that the ancestors of today’s Chickasaw came face-to-face with Europeans—specifically with the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto—for the first time. This encounter ended in a brief but bloody skirmish, known as the Battle of Chikasha, during which the Native Americans launched a surprise attack on the Spanish, forcing them to flee in the middle of the night, abandoning stores of precious supplies that they desperately needed to sustain them on their march through the American South.


In 2014, archaeologists’ attention was drawn to a location in the Blackland Prairie outside Starkville, Mississippi, known as Stark Farm. The area had been surveyed by a cultural resource management firm after economic development plans were introduced. During the survey, archaeologists found Native American cultural material dating to the contact era, roughly 1450 to 1650. Around this same time, the Chickasaw Nation initiated an archaeological project to investigate ancestral sites in Mississippi in collaboration with the University of Florida, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. To give younger members of the Chickasaw Nation a close look at their deep history, they also founded the Chickasaw Explorers program, which provides an opportunity for Chickasaw college students to participate in archaeological fieldwork alongside faculty and students at universities in the Southeast. Stark Farm appeared to be an ideal place to start. “For most of the students, it’s the first time they have been able to return to the traditional Chickasaw homeland and it’s an emotional experience,” Lieb says.



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