Press Release

Release Date: June 29, 2016

by Media Relations Office



  • LaDonna Brown, tribal anthropologist for the Chickasaw Nation, speaks to a group of Chickasaw students with East Central University as they tour the Natchez Trace Parkway.

  • A trail on the Natchez Trace sinks into the earth from the countless feet to have traveled it over the years.

ADA, Okla. -- Before recorded time, animals followed it to reach distant grazing lands and salt licks. Generations of Native Americans pattered through it following bison and other game. Settlers, traders and explorers later walked it in search of wealth and goods.

Last October, eight East Central University (ECU) students enjoyed an experience most folks envision only through history books and Internet searches. They took in the sights, sounds and stories of this well-worn path: the Old Natchez Trace.

“I wanted to go to my homelands,” Chickasaw citizen and ECU student Taylor Polson said. “It was so overwhelming; we went to so many amazing places it was hard to keep up. I couldn’t believe I was standing in places of people I had studied, my people!”

With the cooperation of the National Park Service, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation, ECU and Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SOSU), students and tribal members were given the opportunity to study and explore their own heritage through a college-credited course and field trip. For the students, the Natchez Trace was like stepping into personal history.

The Trace

The Natchez Trace was a complex trail running through Chickasaw and Choctaw Homeland in what is now Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. The path begins just off the Mississippi River, in the homelands of the Natchez (pronounced Nah-Chee) Indians for which the Trace is named. The Trace moves northeast from Natchez, Mississippi, toward Nashville, Tennessee.

Chickasaw, Choctaw and Natchez Indians descend from the Mississippian culture, a mound-building Native American civilization rooted in the midwestern, eastern and southeastern United States. Mississippian communities were interconnected throughout the region sharing culture, art, spirituality and goods.

The Natchez Trace runs through the land where the Mississippian people lived. They used the Trace for trade and travel centuries before European contact. It helped connect these communities, so historically and culturally significant sites for the Chickasaw and Choctaw people are peppered around the Trace.

Critical among these culturally important locations are the various mounds the Mississippian tribes constructed to honor their leaders, bury their dead and mark perimeters, among other purposes. For some Choctaw descendants, the traditional belief is the first humans entered the world up through such a mound.

After European settlers began trading with the indigenous people of the area, the Natchez Trace became an important trade route for them. The Mississippi River swept traders southwestward where they would sell off all of their stock, then the Trace offered a trusted route back northeast.

Traders who made their living this way came to be known as Kaintucks. Food, tools, fuel and animals were among the many products sold or traded as they traversed the mighty river. After pocketing their profits and void of trade goods, the Kaintucks would often dismantle and sell their rafts as lumber. They would trek back up the Natchez Trace on foot.

On some parts of the Trace, the forest floor towers overhead while the trail seems to burrow through the ground. The path was stomped into the earth by generations of travelers.

In the 1800s, some Chickasaws put up stands or inns and offered ferries to serve travelers and traders on the Trace.

With the advent of steamboats, utilitarian use of the Trace diminished. Before the big boats arrived, a trip down river left no alterative home aside from fighting a swift current or an exhaustive overland trek. Steamboats solved this problem, opening up the Mississippi River for two-way trips.

As time went on, the Trace received less and less foot traffic. Nature began to reclaim it. In 1937, the National Park Service (NPS) started efforts to preserve the history and beauty of the Trace.

The Parkway

The Trace served many purposes through the years. Preservation and recreation are two more modern purposes.

The NPS, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, memorialized the Old Natchez Trace with pavement and a protected park called the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Parkway is a 444-mile long scenic road roughly following the same path as the original Trace with many stops along the way for hiking, camping, sightseeing and exploring historical sites.

For today’s visitors, the Parkway might offer a relaxing bike ride or an awe-inspiring vista. But, thanks to NPS efforts to preserve historical sites, the Parkway also offers a unique service to descendants of the Mississippian civilization.

“As southeastern Indians, especially Chickasaw people, we look at these places as being very old, ancient architecture left from our ancestors,” said LaDonna Brown, tribal anthropologist for the Chickasaw Nation. “It is a part of our spiritual makeup, and it is very important to us that they be respected and protected.”

Respect and protection are at the heart of the NPS mission for the Natchez Trace Parkway: “to preserve and protect cultural and natural resources important to the identity of the United States, while providing for the enjoyment of these lands for current and future generations.”

As an extension of this mission, an employee with NPS made it possible for members of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations to help preserve the history of the Natchez Trace.

The Partnership

In 2010, Jane Farmer began working as park guide for the Natchez Trace Parkway. One of her first projects was developing educational material to teach grade school students about the Parkway and Trace. Farmer said she realized telling the story of the Natchez Trace meant telling the story of the Native Americans who lived in the area.

“If I could get the Chickasaw people to develop lesson plans, they could tell the stories they felt were important, and they could tell the stories much more accurately than I could,” Farmer said. “I wouldn’t be able to write things with the same heart as the Chickasaw people could.”

Farmer contacted the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, then sought program funds from the NPS to help fulfill her vision. The NPS and the two tribes reached out to ECU and SOSU to plan a college course designed for Chickasaw and Choctaw students.

The Class and Trip

Since 2014, ECU and SOSU has offered a yearly class in association with the NPS to help Chickasaw and Choctaw students connect with their ancestors and Homeland. For many students, the trip was their first visit to the lands where their people originated.

Jalena Walker, Hannah Roquemore, Liz Yochum, Kayla Wood, Courtney Parchcorn, Hannah Fortner, Patrick Cooke, Daniel Walker and Taylor Polson took the course and made the trip in Oct. 2015. These students found themselves peering into a historical world, a sight depicting locales sacred to the Chickasaw people and other descendants of Mississippian tribes.

Farmer, who gave tours during the student trips, said each student group was unique although their routes all centered along portions of the Parkway.

“Students had the opportunity to walk on original sections of the Old Trace, possibly on the same exact trails as their ancestors once trod,” Farmer said.

Students visited Tuscumbia Landing, Colbert’s Stand, the Chickasaw village site and the Moundville Archaeological Park and Museum.

Students also toured old village sites and ancient mounds now protected by the Parkway. Some visited nearby ridges where Chickasaw families once lived. Others peeked into a cave important to the creation story of the Choctaw people.

Jalena Walker, one of the participating Chickasaw students, said she didn’t know much about these sites before studying them and seeing them in person. “To me, it seemed to take me back to when Chickasaw people were there and what it looked like back then,” Walker said.

Dr. Thomas Cowger, ECU Chickasaw Endowed Chair, History professor and director of the Native American Studies program taught the course and accompanied students on the trip.

He said in his four years of involvement in the project, he watched it be a life altering experience for many of the participating students. “We found it nearly impossible to fully prepare them for the overwhelming and visceral reactions they felt when they actually stood on such important Chickasaw historical sites,” Cowger said.

Once back in Oklahoma, the students came together to create curriculum for younger students teaching the history of the Chickasaw Nation along the Trace from a Chickasaw perspective. These materials were tailor-made for teachers as lessons with no cost to use in their classrooms. However, the information is also available to learners all over the world online.

The fruits of the students’ labor can be accessed at https://www.nps.gov/natr/learn/education/classrooms/curriculummaterials.htm

“We built a relationship with the Natchez Trace Parkway to help interpret our culture and history on the Parkway,” Brown, who acted as tour guide for the students, said. “We told our own story in our own words about the Homeland.”

Brown said, in the end, the course and visit to the Natchez Trace Parkway offered Chickasaw students not only a look back, but also a look in.

“It was a trip for these students to learn who they really are, where they come from, where their culture comes from and how that relates to them in the 21st century,” Brown said. “Once we got to the first stop on site, the students connected and realized that’s me, these are my ancestors. It wasn’t academic anymore.”

Last Updated: 09/16/2016