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Today is August 12, 2020

Mississippi Seen

A holiday in August? Welcome to Nanih Waiya Mound

By Walt Grayson

A holiday in August? Welcome to Nanih Waiya Mound

As we flip our calendars over to August, there are few if any holidays denoted in the small print within the squares of the dates. August is woefully lacking in collective joyous occasions on which to decorate the house or pop fireworks or have a cookout. However, that is not the case for the Choctaw Nation. Their newest celebration is in the month of August and centers around the return of ownership of the oldest icon in their culture — Nanih Waiya Mound in Winston County.

When I first started doing television feature stories about the things we have here in Mississippi, one of my guides was a book published in the 1930s by the WPA that detailed the natural, architectural, historic and cultural attractions in Mississippi. Back then the book was only about 50 years old, so quite a few of the things were still here. That book is where I discovered Nanih Waiya Mound. Traveling there, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed because it was a lot smaller than I imagined it should be.

My idea of Indian mounds was shaped by a mound complex, about five miles up Highway 1 north of Greenville where I grew up — the Winterville Mounds. It still has about a dozen mounds scattered around a flat plaza crowned by a 50-foot temple mound.

So, seeing Nanih Waiya, slightly over 20-feet high and maybe a football field long, was a little disappointing. But what Nanih Waiya lacks in size it makes up for in cultural stature.

Nanih Waiya plays heavily into the Choctaw origins legend — where ancestors of the nation migrated to Mississippi from out west by following the direction of a tilting pole stuck into the ground upright in the evening but leaning the next morning. Until it was planted into the earth at the headwaters of the Pearl River. There it stayed upright the next day, and the people stayed, too.

Nanih Waiya Mound was built to mark the event according to legend. But ownership of the mound was transferred to the United States when the Native American population of the Southeast was removed to Oklahoma. Only some of the Choctaw stayed behind, vowing to never leave the side of the “Mother Mound” as long as it stood.

Eventually, the mound became a state park. And in 2008 when so many of our state parks were closed, Nanih Waiya was given back to the original owning family who deeded it back to the Choctaw Nation. It just so happened to be in August when that transfer was made. And there was a huge celebration on August 18 of that year with pageants, dancing and feasting because the Mother Mound was back in the family.

So, as I understand it, August 18 is still a holiday in the Choctaw Nation — Thanksgiving and the 4th of July rolled into one may be a rough comparison. But it is a uniquely Choctaw celebration creating a unique August holiday.

 

 

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” He lives in Brandon and is a Central Electric member. Contact him at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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