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18 September 2011

Nanih Waiya Cave and Mound, Mississippi

Nanih Waiya Cave,
Louisville, Mississippi

"Nanih Waiya" means "Leaning Hill" in Choctaw and is the Inholitopa iski, Mother Mound, of the Choctaw people. Origin stories alternately say the Choctaw people emerged to the surface of the earth through the cave or that in their migrations, Nanih Waiya is where they settled down permanently (Carleton).

Nanih Waiya Cave is in a dark, secluded area off paved roads. We couldn't help but wonder if the cave's hill was also a mound. The cave itself is nestled into roots of several trees and looks like a burrow that leads both to the right and left. The giant hill is capped by oak trees with a bare summit that someone clears and sweeps up. A slow moving creek, filled with bald cypress trees, runs along the base of the hill. Paths lead into the thick woods, which are filled with noise and movement of birds, lizards, and other animals. The aromatic earth smells and bird calls bring the area to life. In the background was a low hum that turned out to be from a factory located near the mound. Despite the picnic tables scattered on one face of the hill, this site felt very intimate and ancient.

Creek west of the cave site, Louisville, MS
The mound is located southwest, on Nanih Waiya Road near Neshoba, Mississippi. It was enclosed by a fence and the gate was locked but thankfully some intrepid soul with wirecutters had visited before us, so easy enough to hop through and circumnavigate the impressive 215-foot long mound.  It is thought to have been built between 100 BCE and 400 CE (Myers), based on artifacts recovered from the surface of the mound, since it has never been excavated. While the platform mound is remarkably well preserved,  surroundings structure and mounds have been destroyed by years of plowing.

Choctaws made pilgrimages to the mound and left offerings on its surface for centuries. Tribal councils historically met on top of the mound (Carleton).

Nanih Waiya Mound, Neshoba, Mississippi
The mound was ceded to the United States in the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Both the cave and the mound became a Mississippi state park but due to budget constraints the state agreed to return the lands to the Mississippi Choctaw in 2008. Over a thousand tribal members showed up to celebrate the return of Nanih Waiya. Miko Beasley Denson declared that every second weekend of August is an official tribal holiday, Nanih Waiya Day, which is celebrated at the cave site with feasting and dancing (Myers). That might explain why the cave site felt so much more alive to us than the mound. However, the tribe is going has plans to redevelop the state park, including the mound, as a tribal heritage park, open to the public and with their own signage and interpretation.

Traveling through the lands surrounding the Choctaw Reservation, Linda observed that the scenery looked like Norma Howard's paintings, even down to the cotton fields.
    For more information about our trip, please visit Exploring the Ancient Southeastern Woodlands.

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