Monday, June 11, 2007

Biloxis and Aztecs

I recently came across an online version of a paper, apparently part of a book published in 1896 titled, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land by Charles Skinner. Skinner apparently wandered around the southeastern US in the late 1800s visiting various Amerindian tribes and collecting what he could of their stories and mythologies.

He briefly speaks of some Biloxi legends, although as far as I can tell, he doesn’t specify from whom these stories came. But there was an intriguing line in one of these stories:

The southern part of this country was once occupied by a people called the Biloxi, who had kept pace with the Aztecs in civilization.

This is particularly intriguing not only because I work on the Biloxi language and culture, but also because it may have broader implications for the civilizations of the entire native southeast and the Mississippian Culture, or what has often been termed the "Moundbuilder" culture.

Could Biloxis have had a civilization as advanced as that of Aztecs, assumedly including the building of monumental architecture such as pyramids, temples, and ceremonial plazas?

If you’ve looked at my earlier postings, you’ll find that I’ve talked about the Mississippian culture before, including their supposed primary centers, or cities, called Cahokia (in modern Illinois), Aztalan (in modern Wisconsin), and Poverty Point (in modern Louisiana), all more or less located close to the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

While Biloxis are a Siouan tribe who are thought to have migrated south from the Ohio Valley region at some point in ancient history, they did settle in the southeast in what is modern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. They were close neighbors of Amerindian groups known to have had large settlements, social stratification (i.e., economic disparity), and a high reverence for their chiefs or ruling class, among these the Natchez and Caddo. It is known from post-contact written records that Biloxis had temples in which they placed the preserved skeletons of their chiefs. Interestingly, Biloxis referred to their chiefs and shamans with the same term, ąyaa xi, literally meaning ‘sacred’ or ‘mysterious’ person.

This tempts me to think that Biloxi chiefs may have often been shamans or a priestly class of rulers who could have been on a par with the Olmec and Maya "shaman-kings" of those Mesoamerican civilizations. This would certainly bode well with the idea of the Biloxi civilization having been on a par with the Aztec or even the earlier civilizations of Olmecs and Mayas.

There are theories out there that the Mississippian culture and its cities may have been influenced by those of Mesoamerica, or that there was at least contact between them and dissemination of knowledge. The fact that the cities of Mississippian culture share common traits with those of Mesoamerica, such as the building of pyramids (often referred to as "mounds" in regards to North America*), temples, and monumental plazas certainly makes these theories very plausible and intriguing.

This is all speculative at this point, of course, but it is definitely food for thought in trying to discern what Native America really looked like prior to 1492.

* I was recently reading a paper that discussed Olmec "mounds." It seems the first pyramids in Mesoamerica, in the ancient Mixe-Zoquean or Olmec world of the Isthmus, were also made of earth, just as those in the ancient cities of North America discussed above. It seems that, unless these pyramids are made of stone, they are habitually referred to as "mounds" by many archaeologists. Any archaeologists out there want to chime in on the use of this terminology?

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