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Natchez - Shelter - Historical Cultural Studies

Guinness Cultural Studies Series - Concept: Shelter - Natchez

Address: PO Box 1088
Tiburon/Belvedere, CA 94920
Phone: 415-435-1280


Concept: Shelter

by Dixie K. Tanner
Illustrations by Judy Fry
Edited by Judith M. Wilson

Click on one of the following links for additional Guinness Cultural Studies Programs
www.telli.com/page/NootkaFood (fishing & gathering)


I am Natchez. My people live in the low rolling hills of this prairie land, where groves of oak and pine trees grow. Perched on top of one of these lush green hills, near a great river, is my village.

Early one morning I scamper barefoot down the path to the creek with the other children of my village. Soon we are swimming and splashing in the cool water. The rising sun warms the air above us.

This morning, like all other mornings, the people of my village come to the creek for their daily bath. Only the older people and the very young babies do not come every day. I look at my big sister. She is holding our youngest sister. who just turned three. She is teaching her to swim.

The wise and clever man of our village comes over and asks us children if we know why our village is built high on the hill instead of lower down near the creek. No one can answer the question, so he tells us that being on high ground protects us from spring and winter floods. It also means we can see enemies coming while they are still far away. This gives us time to prepare for battle.

Some of the older people begin to walk up the steep path to return to the village. However, the other children and I dry ourselves and lie down in a clearing that is nearby. The wise man joins us, and we ask him to tell us the story of the Natchez people.

The story of our people began long ago. No one ever wrote it down, but the elders of the village know it. We are eager to learn it and listen to the wise man carefully as he begins his tale. When we grow up, it will be our responsibility to pass the story on to other children.

In the Beginning

The sun in the sky is called the Supreme Fire. A spirit lives inside the Supreme Fire. He is called the Supreme Spirit. He is the most powerful of all the spirits that watch over the Natchez people. He has more power than the servant spirits that rule the air and the seasons.

In the beginning, the Supreme Spirit created the world and everything in it. He created all the trees, animals, rivers, hills, and mountains. When he created the first people to live on the land, they saw the sun in the sky and worshipped it.

One day, the Supreme Spirit looked down and observed all the people living there. They traveled about the land alone, always looking for food. He saw that they were lost and unhappy. They did not know how to live together and govern themselves. They did not understand how to live on the land he had created.

The Supreme Spirit made a special man out of clay. He breathed on him and made the man come to life. Then, in the same way, he made a woman so the man would have a mate. The Supreme Spirit sent these holy people to live on the land and teach the people the ways of the Supreme Spirit.

The Supreme Spirit made the holy people shine like the sun in the sky. When the people of the land looked at them, they saw a light so bright that they could not tell what the man and woman looked like. However, the brilliant light was a sign that these two people had come from the Supreme Spirit.

The Supreme Spirit gave the holy man and woman the power to teach his laws and spiritual beliefs to the people. As they learned his lessons, the people began to live in peace and harmony with each other on the land he had created.

When the shining man talked, he told the people about the seasons of the year. He told them what they should do during each moon. They learned which kinds of food they should grow, how to plant these crops, and how to harvest them.

The people asked the shining man to be their ruler. They all promised to obey him. He was willing to rule them if they would follow the laws and beliefs of the Supreme Spirit. The people agreed and called him The One. This name meant that he had come from the Supreme Spirit.

The One told the people to gather and live together. He showed them the fertile land near the great river, where they could grow good crops. He explained that in that spot, the weather was warm almost all year long. The favorable climate also made it possible for many birds and animals to survive. This meant that the people would always have a good supply of birds and animals to hunt for food. They called their new home the Great Village.

Spiritual Life

The One told the people that they needed to build a temple to worship the Supreme Spirit. After they built it, he captured flames from the Supreme Fire in the sky to start a sacred fire inside the temple. He told the people never to let this fire go out and to use only peeled hickory logs to keep it burning.

Then The One told the people to set up another village and build another temple. When the new temple was ready, he told them to light its fire with flames from the one in the first temple. He told them that if one of the fires were to go out, they were to relight it only from the flames of a fire in another village temple.

After the temples were built, a chief guardian watched over each one. It was his job to guard the temple and the sacred fire at all times. To do this, he needed eight helpers. Two guarded the temple at a time. While one helper slept, the other one stood guard and kept the fire burning. The first two helpers watched the fire for the first quarter of the moon. When each new quarter arrived, two other helpers took their place. With the coming of each new moon, the helpers repeated the cycle.

The Rulers

When The One died, the son of his oldest daughter followed him as ruler. The people called their new ruler Great Sun. Great Sun's mother, who was The One's wife, was a ruler of the people as well. Her name was Shining Woman. When she died, her oldest daughter, who was Great Sun's sister, filled her place and took the name Shining Woman.

Together, Great Sun and Shining Woman ruled their people. All of the children born to them were called the Sun People. They were the tribe's most honored people.

The Natchez always passed on the tribe's leadership from one generation to the next in this way. To this day, whenever the Great Sun dies, Shining Woman's oldest son becomes the next Great Sun.

The wise man explained that this is how the Natchez people are ruled. Since The One and his mate, Shining Woman, came to earth many, many moons ago, many Great Suns have ruled the Natchez people. The people believe that their present Great Sun is a descendant of The One. Great Sun and Shining Woman are the honored masters of all the tribe's property. Great Sun is also the master of the temple.

When people greet Great Sun, they show their respect by howling. Also, Great Sun's cabin is the largest in the whole village, showing everyone his importance. It is built in the center of the village, directly across from the temple. Great Sun's cabin and the temple are the only buildings built on raised mounds of earth.

Early every morning, Great Sun goes to the door of his cabin. Standing in the doorway, he shouts three times toward the east, where the sun rises in the sky. Then he bows down to the earth. A tribesman brings his pipe to him. He smokes it and blows the smoke east, in the direction of the rising sun. Next, he blows smoke to the west, then to the north and south. He does this to show praise for the wholeness of the land.

The Temple

The temple, on its raised mound of earth, is on the west side of the village square. It faces the Great Sun's Cabin. Mats cover the wood and clay walls. It does not have any windows and has only one door. The door faces east in the direction of the rising sun. Three painted wooden birds are on the roof. One is in the middle of the roof over the door of the temple. The other two are on either side of it, on the two front corners of the roof.

Great Sun and Shining Woman go to the temple every day to make sure the sacred fire is still burning and to worship the Supreme Spirit.

Inside, the temple is divided into two rooms. The first is the largest. It is where the sacred fire is burning. Behind the fire is a table. On it are beautifully painted cane baskets and boxes. Some of the baskets hold the bones of the ancestors of the Natchez people. Others hold baked clay pots, carved wooden rattlesnakes, and stuffed owls.

Also on the table are pearls that the Great Sun wears on special occasions. Sun children wear one or two pearls until they are 10 years old. Then the pearls are returned to the temple.

The second room of the temple is the holiest place. This is where the people believe a stone statue of The One is buried. No one but the Sun People and the temple guardians are allowed to enter the second room.

The Supreme Spirit gave the Great Sun the power to decide when to hold feasts. The Natchez hold a feast for each of the 13 moons of the year. Each moon is named for the most important crop or animal of that moon. During the feasts, everyone gives thanks to the Supreme Spirit for the things he provides them through the land.

Now, the wise man says it's time to return to the village. Running up the steep path, we pass many cabins. More than 30 of them are nestled in the groves of trees along the main path. I take a smaller path that branches off and leads to my village. Villages are scattered up and down the creek as far as I can see.

Building a Cabin

Early one morning, the wise man tells my friends and me that this is a special day. Two of the Sun People from our village are going to be married. The men of our village are going to build a new cabin for them, and we can help. This is exciting news. We have watched the men build many cabins, but this is the first time we have been allowed to help.

I join a group of men and go into the woods to search for some hickory trees. When we find the trees, we cut them down with our stone axes. Then, we chop off the branches to make the trunks into posts. The wise man tells us to save some of the larger branches to use later. We drag the posts and branches back to the site of the new cabin.




While we are gone, some of the men dig holes in the ground for the cabin's corner posts. When we return with the posts, I help the men lift the posts and put them into the four holes.







Other men arrive carrying more poles that they have cut down and cleared of branches. The wise man explains that these are the cross-poles to support the walls of the cabin.

Some of the men hold the cross poles high up the posts, as far up as they want the walls to be. Then, other men tightly fasten these cross-poles to the corner posts with tree-fiber ropes. After we finish, the wise man pushes against the framework we have created to make sure it is strong and doesn't wobble.




Next, we tie more cross-poles to the corner posts, running down from the first cross-pole. When we finish, the structure looks like four wide ladders, all joined at the four corner posts.








Just then, another group of men and boys arrives with a large number of long cane poles. Everyone begins to stick these poles into the ground between the corner posts behind the cross-poles. I help the other boys hold the splints, while the men tie these smaller poles to the each of the cross-poles. This makes the frame of the cabin much stronger.

Now, the sun is setting, so all the workers leave to go their cabins for the evening meal. This day went very fast. I am very tired. After we eat, I crawl onto my sleeping platform and fall fast asleep.

I wake early the next morning and run to the site of the new cabin. Just then, the other men and boys begin to arrive.

One of the young men climbs up the wall slats and onto one of the corner posts. He is holding a long piece of tree-fiber cord between his teeth. He slides up the corner post and ties one end of the cord to the top of the pole. He lets the other end of the cord drop into the cabin. At the same time, another young man climbs the post on the far corner of the cabin and ties the end of a long cord to the top of his pole.

Now, both men push themselves to the very top of their posts and lean toward each other. The posts begin to bend and the men come closer together.

As the posts bend, some of the men go inside the house and grab the cords hanging down that are attached to the top of the posts. They pull on the cords and the posts bend further down. Finally, the men on the posts meet each other in the middle of the cabin. Quickly, they tie their two posts together.

Next, the young men come down from the roof. Then, they climb the two remaining corner posts, at the other corners of the cabin. When they are at the top of these posts, everyone does the same things they did to set the first two posts. When the men meet at the top of the roof, they tie these posts to the first two posts. Now, all four main posts are tied together.


Finally, they grab the cane poles one at a time and bend each one down to attach it to the four corner posts. I smile as I watch the two young men scamper over the poles. They must be very skilled and nimble not to fall through the canes and poles. Soon, all the poles are tied together at the top of the cabin, making a curved skeleton roof.

Now, the wise man says, it's time to finish the walls. We quickly fasten more canes along the walls between the posts on the outside of the house.


After all the canes are tied in place, the wise man sends us to the woods to gather mud from the creek beds and moss that hangs from the trees. With the help of some of the men, we carry the large baskets of the moss and mud back to the cabin.

The men mix the mud and moss together and add water. They stir it until it becomes a thick paste. We dip our hands into the paste and pull out handfuls to spread along the canes of the walls. Some of the men take paste into the cabin and spread it on the inside walls.

The paste feels strange when we squeeze it through our fingers. This plastering is a lot of fun. We get it all over us, and by the time we finish, we all look like scary mud warriors.


Then, we spread bundles of clipped grass on top of the muddy walls. I ask the wise man why we put grass on the mud. He said that the grass soaks up some of the water in the mud. This helps the mud to dry faster and to hold it in place.

When we finish applying the grass, the men fasten smooth cane mats over the grass walls, both inside and outside the house. They join all the mats together so they look like large mats covering the walls from top to bottom.


The wise man says that the thick mud between the mats on sides of the cabin will keep the inside of the cabin warm in the winter and cool in the summer.



While we prepare the walls, some young men climb up on the roof and spread paste and grass on it. With the heavy paste on the roof, it presses down on the posts. Gradually, the curve in the roof straightens out until the shape of the roof becomes flat on all sides.

The men leave a small hole at the top of the roof. The wise man says that the hole is to let the smoke escape from the fire inside the cabin.


Then, the young men tie large mats together tightly around the roof. They place them so they overlap each other. We watch the men start from the bottom and layer the mats higher up over the tops of the lower sets of mats.

The wise man tells us that when it rains, the water runs down the strips of cane. When it reaches the bottom of the roof, it drains off onto the ground below. This means that the rain water does not leak inside the cabin. The cane roofs help the cabins stay dry during rainstorms.

Finally, some of the men plant flowers around the cabin. Now, it looks like a real home. We all stand back and admire our work. We are proud of the fine work we did. I know the couple will be very pleased with their new home.

However, the wise man tells me and the other boys that we are not finished. He says that it is now time to build a bed for the couple.

We follow the men to the pile of the large branches we collected earlier. They choose large branches to use as posts. We cut the top end of the branches down to a spot where a larger branch was split off to make a V- shaped fork at the end of each post. The wise man shows us where to cut the other end of them and tells us to make them as long as one of my legs.

While we prepare the posts, other men dig four holes in the dirt floor of the cabin. After we take the posts into the cabin, the men place them in the four holes, with the branch end sticking up. They lay a pole across the top two branched posts and rest it in the notches. Then, they lay another pole in the notches of the other two poles. Finally, the men rest smaller poles along the length of the bed's frame, across the two poles resting in the notches. They tie them at the top of the bed and also at the foot, where they rest on the cross poles.

One of the men places long cane mats on top of the bed to make it into a platform. Then, to make the bed warm and soft, the wise man places a bear-skin cover on top of the platform. "Now," he said, "With this bed, the cabin is ready for the man and his wife to move in."

Great Sun's Cabin

As we walk outside, I ask the wise man why Great Sun's cabin is different from all the others. He points to Great Sun's cabin and says that it is four times larger than the cabin we just built and bigger than any in the village. It has higher walls, and it is on a mound of earth so it stands above all the other cabins. The wise man says that the inside of Great Sun's cabin is also different.

None of us are allowed to go into Great Sun's cabin. This makes us very curious to know what his cabin looks like, and what is different from our cabins.

The wise man says that everyone entering the cabin must walk in a circle around a large stone in the middle of the floor to reach Great Sun's bed. His bed stands alone on one side of his cabin, and it is decorated with painted figures. On the other side, beds belonging to members of his family are lined up against the wall. Only elders and Sun people are allowed to enter Great Sun's cabin. No one is allowed to use Great Sun's bed, or any of his personal belongings.

He reminds us that Great Sun is the most important man in the village. Therefore, his cabin shows his status and importance.

The Marriage Ceremony

The next day, the wise man tells me that Shining Woman's oldest son is going to marry a girl he chose from our people. The couple is going to live in the new cabin I helped build. I became very excited because I knew that this son will follow Great Sun as ruler of our people.

The other boys gather around us, and we ask the wise man when the ceremony will be. The wise man tells us that the man just left the village to hunt and fish. Tomorrow he goes with his family to visit the girl's father in his cabin. He will take the fresh fish he caught with him. His family will go with him and take meat, skins, and other presents. After they present the gifts to the father, the marriage ceremony will begin.

The following day, I go with my father to watch the marriage ceremony from a distance. The couple stands in front of the wise man and one of his older friends. The man stands next to the girl, holding his bow and arrows in his left hand. My father says that this shows that he does not fear the enemy, and that he will always care for his wife and children and be prepared to defend them.

My father points out that the girl is holding a laurel twig in her left hand to show she will always preserve their good reputation. In her right hand she holds an ear of corn to show that she will take care of the household and prepare her husband's meals.

In front of the wise man and his friend, the man and girl announce to each other and their families that they wish to be man and wife.

As my father and I walk back to our cabin, my father says that the two families will go to enjoy a feast together. He tells me that the married couple will eat from the same dish. At the end of the meal, the man will smoke from his pipe. He will blow smoke toward his wife's parents and then toward his mother and father. Next, both families will play games and dance until very late. Then, the man and his new wife will go to their new cabin.

© Copyright 2012, Guinness Cultural Studies Publishing, Tiburon, California 94920