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An Eye for an Eye

By Richard Green

For April 2005 Times

When Spanish and French missionaries arrived in the Southeast to begin saving souls for Christ, they soon realized that they had a big job on their hands.

In the early 1700s, when the French Jesuits told Chickasaw chiefs Fattalamee and Oboystabee that killing for revenge is wrong, the Chickasaws may have thought there were translation problems or that these black robed priests were deranged.

In the Chickasaws’ world, for as long as anyone could remember, the clan was obligated to seek retaliation for the death of a member. This duty was carried out with religious fervor and symbolism because it was a spiritual necessity. They believed that the soul of the deceased person could not rest until his or her death had been avenged. Once the French understood that the concept of blood revenge was imbedded too deeply in Indian culture to abolish, the governor, Bienville, came to believe that it would lead the Chickasaws and Choctaws to destroy one another.

The English who settled the colony of Carolina were interested in profits not souls. And during their first years of ranging out from Charles Town into the interior of the southeastern part of the continent, Indian retaliation helped the planters and traders to get what they wanted: Indian slaves.

Probably the English didn’t even understand or care that the dominant element of Indian warfare was not economic advantage or acquiring territory, but retaliation. All they knew was that retaliation resulted in more slave labor, which the English needed in their Caribbean sugarcane fields. That the English lacked this basic understanding is suggested later when they were unable to form a stable alliance between the Chickasaw and Choctaw to drive the French out of the lower Mississippi Valley.

In other words, when the English curtailed their slave business after 1715, and clan and tribal retaliation no longer promoted their economic interest, Carolina agents like James Adair went out to try to mend fences between the tribes. Especially Adair, as a Chickasaw speaker and part-time resident in Chickasaw country, should have known that generations of blood feud could not be whisked away with diplomacy or by appealing trade goods. His actions, however, belie what he knew. Doubtless, his attempt to realize his goal of gaining a monopoly of Carolina’s trade with the Choctaw clouded his judgment.

Even his predecessor, Carolina officer Thomas Nairne knew in 1708 after spending a week or less with the tribe that blood revenge was an integral component of tribal law. “In case of murther [murder] the next kinsman dispatches the Criminal (at any convenient opportunity) without Tryall [trial], or formality…This is allwayes allowed.”

It’s just a sentence but it also shows that Nairne understood that vengeance was the prerogative of clans, not the tribe. Clans were the most important social group to tribal members, according to Charles Hudson, whose 1976 book, The Southeastern Indians, remains perhaps the best (and most readable) ethnohistory of the people of his book’s title. Only members of clans had status. If a war party captured an enemy, he could be tortured unmercifully and killed. But if he were adopted by a clan, members would protect him as one of their own.

Serious misdeeds, such as killing a person, were punished by clans, in accordance with the law of retaliation. It was the duty of the male blood relatives of the deceased to kill either the killer or a member of the killer’s lineage. The law was applied, wrote Hudson, “with amazing consistency.” Even accidents did not go unpunished because the Southeastern Indians “did not recognize degrees of homicide.” The killer wasn’t so much guilty as he was accountable.

Revenge According to Adair

More than thirty years after Nairne’s visit, James Adair arrived in Chickasaw country. He began trading and living periodically with the Chickasaws, and based on his observations and discussions, wrote a book, The History of American Indians. In the book, he demonstrated the importance of the law of retaliation to the tribe. He wrote that he had “known the Indians to go a thousand miles for the purpose of revenge” through terrible terrains and weather conditions, but such was their “overboiling revengeful temper that they utterly condemn all those things as imaginary trifles…”

It was a temper inflamed by the earnest and abiding belief that “the spirits of those who are killed by the enemy, without equal revenge of blood, find no rest, and at night haunt the houses of the tribe to which they belonged; but when that kindred duty of retaliation is justly executed they immediately get ease and power to fly away.”

Adair amplified these points by relating an instance, in which a Chickasaw warrior set off alone to avenge the death of a near relative during a war with the Creeks. Arriving on the outskirts of the target town on the Koosa River, he hid under a fallen tree and waited for almost three days until a man, woman and girl passed by him just before sunset. He shot one, bludgeoned the other two and took scalps of all three, which he held up brazenly in view of the village, screamed a “death whoop” and hightailed it to the west. Reportedly two and a half days and 300 miles later, he arrived back home among the Chickasaws where the revenge ritual was played out.

As Adair noted, warriors, shouting with passion, cut the victims’scalps into several pieces that were fixed to pine branches, which were lashed to the roofs of the round winter houses where the deceased relations had lived. Adair was told that this ritual freed their ghosts to go to an intermediate, but unknown, place of rest, until they returned to live forever in “that tract of land which pleased them best, when in their former state.”

This solemn religious ritual was attended by a long train of rejoicing women, “chanting with soft voices, their grateful song of triumph to [the chant] Yo He Wah.” Warriors echoed them and gave out war whoops. Together, they danced over three days and nights, rejoicing in their victory and releasing the spirits of their deceased kin from “the eaves of their houses which they haunted…”


Over his nearly 30 years of contact with the Chickasaw, Adair also observed the effect missionaries had on the tribe, and he had very little of a positive nature to report. Instead of reforming them, missionaries “corrupted their morals.” Before departing for London in the early 1770s, Adair reported that the vanguard of American missionaries was largely wicked and ignorant.

That description brings to mind the first Christians to spend prolonged time among the Chickasaws in 1540-41. Nearly one hundred and seventy years later, the Chickasaw mentioned de Soto’s visit to English officer Thomas Nairne. Among other things, the Chickasaws remembered the Hernando de Soto expedition for its savage behavior and the symbols of Christianity, the crosses and the priests. Thus, barbarism may have been linked to Christianity in the minds of the Chickasaw.

After a century of contact with Europeans and Americans, Chickasaws had learned that not all Christians were bad, but compared to Indians they were certainly inconsistent. The French and later Spanish missionaries preached about turning the other cheek, but the Chickasaw rarely observed the colonists doing so.

Then in 1799, the Rev. Joseph Bullen, a Presbyterian missionary, arrived in Chickasaw country intent on establishing a church and school. He was smart, industrious and kept a journal that has survived. While there is nothing in it directly about the law of retaliation, there are plenty of mentions, perhaps self-serving, of Bullen making headway with the tribal leaders, especially Levi and James Colbert and Wolfs Friend (also known as Ugulaycabe). Bullen wrote that Wolfs Friend brought his two youngest sons to live with and be educated by the missionary. In a meeting with the chief on June 23, 1799, Bullen wrote that the chief was receptive to his message that “all men are brothers,” that all people sin, and that everyone is capable of redemption. Presumably that would include warriors, whose vocation was exacting revenge.

H.B. Cushman wrote that another Colbert brother, Chief George Colbert, believed that Chickasaws were a virtuous people before whites came into their country. That is why, Cushman noted, that Chief Colbert opposed all innovation introduced by white people, including missions, schools and alcohol. Nonetheless, Colbert in around 1800 persuaded the tribal council to end the traditional tribal law of retaliation, according to Chickasaw interpreter Malcolm McGee in an 1841 interview. McGee didn’t elaborate, so we don’t know Colbert’s reasons for advocating such a fundamental change in tribal law. But by 1800, the European colonial powers were no longer competing against one another in the Southeast or trying to manipulate tribes to their ends. As a result, the Chickasaws were at peace with their Indian neighbors.

In 1805, Dr. Rush Nutt wrote in his journal that he had learned that the Chickasaws “of late years [have] given up the idea of unjust retaliation…punishing the innocent for the guilty.” Of course, Chickasaw retaliation did not correspond to an American or European sense of justice, but was an obligation to one’s clan. By the 19th century, that sense of obligation was weakening among some tribal members, particularly the mixed blood leadership. As Nutt also observed: “The Indians are falling off from their former customs & habits very fast. There are a great many half breed among the Chickasaws…They are done with the hunt…they have laid down their gun & tomahawk & taken up the implements of husbandry.”

While Nutt’s opinion was somewhat exaggerated, retaliation was not applied as often because the Chickasaws were no longer at war with the tribal allies of the French and Spanish. Retaliation, however, was still a fact of life inside the tribe. Sometimes retaliation would be acceptable as a payment of goods or services, but if the family of the slain person insisted on execution, it had to be carried out, even if the death had been accidental.

Nutt cited one instance where a person wearing a bear robe who was skinning a deer was shot by a warrior who assumed that a bear was feeding off the deer’s carcass. When the warrior reported the mistake, he didn’t ask for mercy, but asked for a few extra days with which to work off a debt so that his family would not be burdened. His request was granted and furthermore the aggrieved family decided not to execute the warrior if he would give them a blanket and some other items. He refused, saying he would not purchase his life that way. Nutt and an unidentified Chickasaw discussed the injustice of executing one who had not killed the person in question or had done so accidentally. “He agreed that it was not justice,” wrote Nutt, “but concluded that it was an Indian custom.”

As the 19th century proceeded and the Chickasaws were forced to cede their territory to the American government, many tribal members became more dispirited; some saw their removal as inevitable. In such a sad state of affairs, the fabric of the tribe’s social organization continued to fray. In 1837, on the verge of removal from the Chickasaw’s ancient homeland, a respected tribal chief, Emubby, was murdered in cold blood by a white man named Jones. According to historian Grant Foreman, “Indignation over this murder made the [American] officers apprehensive of further trouble, which, however, did not materialize.” Chief Emubby’s murder was not avenged.


James Adair, History of American Indians, edited by S. C. Williams, (Johnson City, TN: Wautauga Press, 1930).

James Atkinson, Splendid Land, Splendid People, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004).

H. B. Cushman, History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians, (Greenville, TX: Headlight Printing House, 1899).

Grant Foreman, Indian Removal, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932).

Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians, (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1976).

Thomas Nairne, Nairne’s Muskohogean Journals, edited by Alexander Moore, (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1988).

Jesse Jennings, editor, “Nutt’s Trip to the Chickasaw Country,” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. IX, No. 1.

Dawson Phelps, editor, “Excerpts from the Journal of the Reverend Joseph Bullen, 1799 and 1800,” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. 17, No. 3.

John Swanton, “Social and Religious Beliefs and Usages of the Chickasaw Indians,” Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 44, 1928.

Last Updated: 08/13/2014