Indiana Professor “Excavates” Lost Chickasaw Words

By Richard Green

For February 2005 Times

 John Dyson doesn’t speak fluent Chickasaw, but this Indianan considers himself an archaeologist of the language.

Actually, he spent his academic career teaching Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University. But his analogy is apt: for the last decade, he has been poring over 18th and 19th century documents, maps, books, and picking the brains of Chickasaw and Choctaw speakers in an effort to discover and restore Chickasaw words and their meanings that have not survived the last two to three centuries. “These words and phrases are my artifacts,” says Dyson.

His is a daunting task, given the multitude of thorny obstacles. For example, the same word from some 18th century source may have numerous different spellings since Chickasaw was not a written language before the tribe’s removal to Indian Territory. So, a word that was recorded in a trader’s journal or a village name on a surveyor’s map was subject to many factors, including the pronunciation of the informant, the hearing and spelling of the recorder and, in many cases, whether the informant was Chickasaw or not.

To achieve any success, Dyson has to be creative, resourceful, tenacious, patient, and to have good sources of information. He evidently possesses them all to some degree given his track record so far. He wrote an article in which he claims to have restored the original Chickasaw names to all of the pre-removal villages. He also discusses the presumed or known meanings of the names. And to strengthen the archaeologist analogy further, Dyson’s article appears in the Winter 2003 issue of Mississippi Archaeology.

Publishing in a Mississippi periodical was like a coming home event for Dyson in a sense. Born in Batesville, Mississippi, he remembers childhood visits to his uncle’s farm near New Albany (northwest of Tupelo). “The land went directly from Chickasaw ownership to my family’s ancestors, he says. “I used to walk right behind my uncle when he was plowing because occasionally he’d plow up arrowheads and other artifacts,” Dyson says.       

“I don’t know whether geography is destiny,” he says, adding that when the family moved, it was to Paducah, Kentucky, close to the Chickasaws’ historical northern border. Furthermore, the Dysons’ new home was in a city named after Chickasaw chief Paducah. Or so everybody thought.

Years later, in the early ‘90s, while teaching at Indiana University, Dyson decided to research the chief’s life and city’s name. While reference searches were not helpful, he eventually found the real explanation in a letter from William Clark (of Lewis & Clark) to his son. Dyson says: “Clark, who had been named superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis, said he wanted to name the land that became the city of Paducah after the Paducah Indians (also called the Plains Apaches). He published his research in a small journal, and when some of the local citizenry heard about the article and Dyson’s claim that their city’s namesake was bogus, Dyson says he became “persona non grata,” for a spell.

                                                             ***

The research ignited in the language professor a “fascination to know how the Chickasaws had been so influential in the southeast and beyond--way out of proportion to their numbers.”

He was disappointed initially to find how little had been written about the tribe. But he came to understand the reasons. “For one thing, the Chickasaws were relatively remote physically from the Europeans and Americans in the 18th century,” he says. “Also, because the Chickasaws were so warlike, the white colonists’ interest in the tribe was not cultural, but political. To the whites, the Chickasaw were either your ally or your enemy.”

As he read the 18th and early 19th century primary source material on the tribe, the language professor especially noticed the Chickasaw words, or words purported or assumed to be Chickasaw. Early in his research, Dyson could sometimes tell or sense that some word wasn’t Chickasaw. But intuition wasn’t good enough. If he really wanted to carve out a research niche in studying these words and their meanings, he would need to get more serious. He did.

Dyson has found words that have no meaning to today’s speakers or a different meaning than the original. For example, 18th century English trader, James Adair wrote in his book, History of the American Indians, that Chickasaws spoke of ishtahollo’ as priests or sacred beings. But the consensus of the tribe’s Chickasaw language committee holds that the word means witch.

How could today’s meaning be almost exactly the opposite? Dyson says the difference probably is associated with the tribe’s conversion to Christianity. “To 18th century Chickasaws, ishtahollo’ did sacred and supernatural things. Missionaries called these beliefs superstition, and after removal when more and more Chickasaws became Christian, the word stayed the same but the context changed.”

Dyson also looks for words that once existed but apparently have vanished. He knows, for instance, that Chickasaws used to make their dugout canoes from cypress and tulip poplar trees, but when he consulted the Chickasaw dictionaries, no words for either tree were included. “There are no swamps [where the trees grow] in Ada that I know of, so you can see how these words might have been lost simply from disuse over the last 170 years.”       

Dyson did find the words elsewhere. He says sipsi’ (tulip poplar) appears in Adair’s book. Sh a kolo’ appears for a cypress swamp on Bernard Romans’ 1772 map of northern Mississippi.

                                                 ***

The divide between the Chickasaw spoken in the 18th century and that spoken today is particularly wide because of the profound disruption to the Chickasaws’ continuity caused by their forced removal to Indian Territory in the late 1830s and ‘40s. Furthermore, no Chickasaw dictionary existed until the 1960s when one was produced by Chickasaw speakers Vinnie May and Jess Humes. (A second dictionary was produced by Pamela Munro and Chickasaw speaker Catherine Willmond in 1994.)

Choctaw dictionaries, however, were published by Cyrus Byington in 1915 and by Ben Watkins in 1892. And because Choctaw and Chickasaw are similar languages, Dyson has found the books to be essential to bridging the two-century Chickasaw language gap. Both Byington, a missionary, and Watkins spent years with the Choctaws, learning from people “whose ways of living and thinking and looking at the world are long past,” writes Dyson. 

The books contain a treasure trove of synonyms, which strongly suggests “a former period of bountiful Chickasaw synonyms,” Dyson writes. “The words that evidently existed have been lost to history and to the elders. In the two Chickasaw dictionaries, I am lucky to find one synonym for a word.”

Since he started his research, Dyson has consulted a number of Chickasaw and Choctaw speakers. Last year, he attended a meeting of the Chickasaw language committee and asked for the members comments and help. He speaks periodically with Oklahoma Choctaws and Mississippi Choctaws, and not surprisingly finds differences in their vocabularies and word usages. Members of both groups were helpful as he plowed through the 19th century Choctaw dictionaries while researching his article on Chickasaw village names.

One of his major findings was that some of the Chickasaw village names in the literature were actually Choctaw. Because the Choctaw and French were allies, French documents reflect Choctaw information. For example, in March 1736, French and Indian forces attacked the Chickasaw village of Chokkilissa. But in his article, Dyson writes that Okla Chitoka is how the Choctaws referred to the attacked village.  Okla is town; chito is large; and ka emphasizes the importance of the town. Being French and using French spelling, the recorder wrote it as Ogoula Tchetoka.

Thus, the account of the great Chickasaw victory has appeared in history articles and books as the “Battle of Ogoula Tchetoka.” From a Chickasaw perspective, it should be the “Battle of Chokkilissa’.”

In this article, Dyson proceeds chronologically through the major sources of information, narratives (such as Adair’s book) and maps, which provide Chickasaw village names. Naturally, he says, this entails repetition, especially since the names of some of the villages didn’t change or change much. But, the “greater and more varied the number of spellings, the better the clues we have to what was actually being said.”

A good example of the same village name spelled numerous ways is Foli’ Cha‘a’, which in Chickasaw literally means “chopped off switches,” according to Dyson. Tying the diverse spellings together, he says, gave him fits. I spent probably weeks cross-checking in the Chickasaw and Choctaw dictionaries and other sources, verifying alternate spellings in numerous languages, and pestering native speakers and language colleagues to death.” The village’s first mention, Dyson writes, appeared on a sketch drawn about 1684 for the French crown by an Italian mapmaker named Coronelli. He spelled it Fabatchaoux. It was later written as Falatchao and Falatche in French, Hollachatroe in English by Nairne and Phalacheho in English by Adair in his 1775 book.

Dyson believes “chopped off switches” refers to the cut saplings known as wattle that were used to construct Chickasaw buildings. Foli’ is obsolete in Chickasaw, but fuli means switch in modern-day Choctaw and is the old Choctaw word for wattle. In the article’s introduction, Dyson notes that the village names are almost unfailingly practical or pragmatic, in that their meanings describe some aspect of the village or its natural setting. By extension, Dyson believes that the early-day Chickasaws were as pragmatic as the names of their villages.

Four of the villages listed by Coronelli appear with divergent spellings on virtually all of the major documents and maps throughout the 18th century, Dyson says. While historical and archaeological evidence clearly shows that the village locations changed (usually for self-defense against the French and their Indian allies), the village names did not. Dyson writes that Chickasaw identity and continuity were explicit in the persistence of seven village names throughout the 18th century. He identifies them as Chokkilssa’, Chokka’ Falaa’, Aamalaata’, Chisha’ Talla’a, Tokaabilowa’, Foli’Ch a ‘a’ and Aahikki’ya’.

Though Dyson’s article is 38 pages long (including the bibliography and notes), he says he hopes it is a good beginning. “I do not pretend to have gotten every name correct,” he says, inviting comments and alternative interpretations from Chickasaw speakers and scholars.

Another project that he is researching for publication is an examination of all the old-fashioned or obsolete Chickasaw words in James Adair’s 500-page book. He says the words and phrases include clothing, food, musical instruments, even cursing the enemy. But what Dyson is perhaps most excited about are the words associated with traditional Chickasaw spirituality. He says, “Adair is quite detailed about their different religious ceremonies; who performed them; and why, when and under what circumstances.”

Although Dyson identifies Adair’s book as “definitely the one to consult for 18th century Chickasaw words, the trader had a maddening habit of inserting Indian words in the text often without identifying tribal origin. Since Adair spent most of his time with the Chickasaw Indians and admired them most, scholars assume that the majority of the Indian words in his book are Chickasaw. But, Dyson will spend considerable time teasing out words that are Catawba, Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek.

Dyson reports that he is burrowing ahead, but wisely refrains from predicting when his paper will see print. When this work is available, we will cover it here.

Persons interested in obtaining a copy of the Winter 2003 issue of Mississippi Archaeology containing Professor Dyson’s article on Chickasaw village names may contact the Mississippi Archaeological Association, Box 571, Jackson, MS, 39205. The cost is $2.50 and checks should be made out to MAA.

In addition, many large research libraries subscribe to the journal. A copy is available at the Chickasaw Library in Ada.

Last Updated: 08/13/2014