The Natchez Indians
by George Sabo III
Many archeologists and historians believe that the powerful Quigualtam,
who in 1541 rejected Hernando de Soto's claim that he was the "son
of the sun" goading Soto instead to prove his claim by drying
up the "great river" was in fact the leader of a 16th-century
Natchez community. Certainly Natchez Indians were counted among the thousands
of warriors who chased the broken Spanish army down the Mississippi River
as they sought their escape from North American under the command of Soto's
successor, Luis Moscoso de Alvarado.
The"common dance" of the Natchez, from Le Page du Pratz (1774)
When La Salle descended the Mississippi at the end of the following century,
the Natchez occupied a series of towns on the east bank of the river,
in the vicinity of the modern town that today bears their name. They controlled
a large territory that extended along both sides of the lower Mississippi
The Natchez are famous in the anthropological literature on Southeastern
Indians for their elaborate social and ceremonial system and for their
use of platform mounds, both of which are key to their identity as the
last example of the mound-building cultures that dominated the Mississippi
Valley during late prehistoric times.
A Natchez man, from Le Page du Pratz (1774)
According to their origin story, the Natchez achieved their identity
when a man and his wife joined a preexisting community. The newcomers
were so bright that they appeared to have come from the sun. The man told
the people about the Great Spirit and instructed them in the proper form
of worship. He also gave them rules according to which they should live.
These rules included instructions for building a temple on top of a platform
mound where community leaders could communicate with the Great Spirit,
who would be represented by an eternal fire within the temple. The community
leader would be called the Great Sun.
Natchez social organization was based on the relationship of community
members to the Great Sun. In the 17th century, French explorers
and colonists met this leader, who lived in a large house on the top of
a platform mound at the site that is now preserved by the State of Mississippi
as the Grand Village of the Natchez. The Great Sun enjoyed the status
of a living god, and such was his esteem that he was carried about on
a litter wherever he went. Across from the Great Sun's mound, on the opposite
side of a large, open plaza, was the temple mound. The Great Sun's principle
advisor, his mother who was called White Woman, lived in a house on top
of another platform mound. These individuals along with the White Woman's
other children formed the highest class in Natchez society known as the
Suns. Below the Suns were the Nobles, followed by the Honored People.
Stinkards were commoners who occupied the lowest class in society. However,
since people were required to take spouses from a lower class, and since
class membership was inherited from the mother in this matrilineal society,
many children of lower class fathers were born into a higher class.
A Natchez woman and girl, from Le Page du Pratz (1774)
Like most other Southeastern Indians, the Natchez were agriculturalists
who raised fields of corn, beans, squashes, and other crops including
tobacco. Hunting and fishing activities were important, but perhaps as
much for recreational purposes as for the subsistence returns these activities
yielded. The Green Corn ceremony was the apex of their annual cycle of
religious events and ceremonies.
French settlement alongside the Natchez began peacefully, but by the
1720s increasing demands upon their lands and resources led to hostilities,
which culminated in a devastating war with the French during which the
Natchez suffered tremendous losses. Those who were not killed during the
war sought refuge among the Chickasaws, Creeks, Catawbas, and Cherokees. The
Natchez endured many difficulties throughout the following centuries, but today they maintain a distinct cultural identity.
Le Page du Pratz, Antoine
The History of Louisiana (facsimile reproduction of the 1774 edition,
edited by Joseph G. Tregle, Jr.). Louisiana State University Press, Baton
Natchez of Southwest Mississippi. In Indians of the Greater Southeast:
Historical Archaeology and Ethnohistory, edited by Bonnie G. McEwan,
pp. 142-177. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Swanton, John R.
Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf
of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 43. Smithsonian Institution,
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