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One such early observer was a French carpenter by the name of Pénicaut. He wrote that the Natchez "owned" nine villages, including two "refugee villages" inhabited by the Grigras and Tioux tribes. In his opinion the Natchez lived comfortably in well-built houses around which peach trees were often planted for fruit and shade. The straw hut at the right is a reconstruction of a Natchez dwelling, on display today at the Grand Village of The Natchez Indians archaeological park and museum in Natchez. Pénicaut further reported that women wore white dresses woven of nettle and mulberry-bark fibers, and the dresses covered them from neck to foot. The men wore deerskin leather jackets and breechcloths and leggings.
Pénicaut was especially taken with the Natchez's festivals, and the behavior of young, unmarried women. To him, the young women took aggressive roles in courtship comparable to that of men in his French culture...
Antoine Simon Le Page Du Pratz has left us the most extensive eyewitness accounts of the Natchez. Du Pratz was an educated, affluent veteran of the War of the Spanish Succession in Europe, and more than anything he wanted to live the Good Life on a plantation situated in an interesting place. He found what he wanted beside the trail connecting the newly constructed French Fort Rosalie with the main Natchez Indian village. Here, in 1720, he bought a cabin from the Indians, along with four hundred acres of land.
During eight years at Natchez he became friends with the Natchez, who he said "make good use of their reason, who think justly, who are prudent, faithful, generous, much more than certain civilized nations." Much of his basic knowledge about Indians came from a Chitimacha slave girl whom he had acquired.
Du Pratz provided fascinating information about the Natchez's class system. At the very top was the Great Sun, who ruled the tribe as an absolute monarchy. The Great Sun's feet never touched the earth, for he was carried everywhere on a litter, and mats were spread before him as he walked. The Great Sun and his immediate family were known as "suns." Below the suns was a class of "nobles," and then came something like the class of gentlemen, known as the "honored." The lowest class, the miche-miche-quipy in the Natchez language, in English has been translated as "stinkards."
Mary Ann Wells in her book Native Land: Mississippi 1540-1798 suggests that this unfortunate name may have arisen from a literal translation meaning "smells different," which could have been the Natchez-language manner of referring to another tribe. Possibly the "stinkards" were members of a small tribe who had joined the Natchez nation after disaster had befallen their own. At any rate, people knew not to call the miche-mich-quipy "stinkards" to their faces.
Among the Natchez, members of each class were required to marry someone in a class lower than their own -- except that the miche-miche-quipy could either marry up the scale, or among themselves. The Great Sun as well as all the other suns were required by law to marry a miche-miche-qipy. When The Great Sun died, his successor had to be the son of his eldest sister. Lineage among the Natchez was traced through the female line; it was matrilineal.
When any member of the suns, died, whether male or female, the spouse, several friends and followers, and slaves would be strangled to death sacrificially so that they could cross to the spirit world with the sun. Dying for this cause was considered to be a joyous opportunity. Du Pratz witnessed such an occasion himself.
In the spring of 1725, the Great Sun's brother, Tattooed Serpent, died. The Great Sun, a friend of Du Pratz, elected to follow Tattooed Serpent into death, but Du Pratz and some other colonists managed to stop him. However, one noblewoman, a friend of Tattooed Serpent and someone famous for her knowledge of medicine, could not be dissuaded. A child was also selected, and the members of Tattooed Serpent's household died. Tattooed Serpent's wife was amused at the Frenchmen's objections, and insisted that she died joyfully.
The Natchez Indian community consisted of several villages, and each village had its own temple, which sat upon a mound. The main mound is now known as Emerald Mound, the remains of which are shown at the right. This is a picture of a picture on display in the Natchez Visitor Center. Today Emerald Mound is easily accessible and comprises one of the main points of interest featured in our Loess-Zone Log. The mound stands thirty-five feet high and covers seven acres. Du Pratz learned from the guardian of one temple a story about the Natchez Indians' past. According to it, the Natchez appeared in the east, migrated westward, but finally returned back east to the loess bluffs of the Mississippi. Also, he was told of the "Ancient Word," which had been passed from generation to generation by way of a select group of young men who had sworn not to change the story in any way.
The story related how the Infinite Spirit fashioned the first man from clay, breathed life into him, and likewise created small spirits with limited power, to serve as the Infinite Spirit's helpers. There was also an evil spirit in the world, but the Infinite Spirit had bound it to prevent it from doing harm. However, the evil spirit also had his little army of small spirit-helpers, and these managed to cause trouble from time to time. People eventually went astray, so the Infinite Spirit sent a man and woman from the sun to set people back on the right path.
The sun-people brought with them a code of conduct. The most important rules were:
Kill only in self-defense
Do not commit adultery
Do not be greedy
Share everything joyfully
Some have wondered whether this story may not have been influenced by Christianity, for Christian missionaries had been at work in the Natchez area for more than twenty years by Du Pratz's time. However, even if the legend is "contaminated," one can glimpse its Indian soul.
Good reading: Native Land: Mississippi 1540-1798