Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Flush Times in Mississippi (and Terre Haute)

Your humble narrator spent much of the past month preparing and giving research presentations to several regional audiences: to students and faculty at the University of Mississippi, to the attendees of the Chickasaw Days celebration in Holly Springs, MS; and to the invitees of Indiana State University's Center for Global Engagement in Terre Haute. The three talks concerned, respectively, the Chickasaw Indians' perception of coinage and currency, the adoption of commercial agriculture by the same nation in the early nineteenth century, and the history and culture of the Great Lakes Indians from the Mississippian era (had to work Mississippi in there somewhere!) to the Relocation program of the mid-twentieth century.

The currency talk, which Robbie Ethridge kindly invited me to give, observed that the Chickasaws first acquired coinage, diplomatic medals, and silver jewelry at more or less the same time (between ca. 1765 and 1790). I argued that they probably saw these three novelties as commensurable objects, as diplomatic tokens and prestige symbols. Chickasaw men and women knew how Europeans used money, and were glad to acquire it, but they appear to have either hoarded it or only to have exchanged it for other "prestige goods" until the 1820s.

My address to the Chickasaw Days festival, "Stock and Trade," discussed the nation's similarly conservative approach to stock-raising and cotton cultivation, activities they adapted to their own gendered division of labor and desire not to abandon other traditional enterprises (like hunting and maize horticulture). I adapted the talk from a similar address I gave at the Ittafama Ithana conference on Chickasaw History last February, an address that I assumed most history enthusiasts in northern Mississippi had missed.* Most, but not all: some of the Chickasaw Nation Dance Troupe, ten of whom performed in Holly Springs, had been in my audience in Oklahoma.

I had formed the idea that Holly Springs was just a wide spot in the road. Actually, it is a fairly large courthouse town with several museums - including the birthplace of famed anti-lynching activist Ida Wells - and at least one restaurant serving first-rate fried pickles. It is a majority-black community, and the Chickasaw Days event drew a predominantly white crowd. Perhaps the region's Native American history doesn't appeal as much to an African-American audience. The nineteenth-century Chickasaws were slave-owners, after all, and later made a strenuous effort to exclude their freedmen from citizenship. Perhaps the town's black families were preoccupied with the huge homecoming-day parade which took place around the main square the same day as the festival, and in which many African-American children and teenagers were featured participants. I rather hope the latter interpretation is the more accurate one.

* My conference talk has since been reprinted in the Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture, Spring 2017 issue.

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