Monday, August 27, 2007

Biloxi shaman-kings*?

As I’ve been working on my ethnographic sketch of the Biloxi nation to eventually accompany the Biloxi dictionary as my thesis, I’ve been synthesizing the works of various authors over the past century, pulling together some of the bits and pieces that have been written. Also, while in Washington DC to do research at the National Anthropological Archives this past summer, I ordered copies of all of Albert Gatschet’s notes, which finally arrived the other day. Gatschet was the first linguist to do fieldwork on Biloxi in 1886, and he determined that it was indeed a Siouan language, not Muskogean as previously assumed.

During my research, I’m finding mounting, primarily linguistic, clues as to the political make-up of pre-contact Biloxis. The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), which incorporates many of the peoples and cultures traditionally associated with Mississippian or "mound-building" cultures, of which Biloxis were apparently a part, was largely agricultural and, as has happened to many agricultural economies through history, became socially non-egalitarian and stratified, including an elite class of ruling nobles. (This was nowhere better represented in the SECC than by Biloxis’ neighbors, Natchez, whose society was divided into an elite ruling nobility carried around on litters who referred to the "common" folks as "Stinkards.") There is mounting evidence that these ruling nobles were also members of an elite priesthood, which makes them quite similar to what we've learned about Mayan societies of ancient Mesoamerica. There is some linguistic evidence that Biloxis may have shared a similar system of nobles vs. commoners.

The evidence? In Gatschet’s materials, there is a term yaaxi (also ąyaaxi), literally 'mysterious' or 'sacred' person, which Gatschet states meant ‘conjurer’ but was also sometimes used for ‘chief.’ Traditional Native American shamans, usually referred to as medicine men or women, could be either beneficent healers of the sick and injured, or they could be malevolent "sorcerers" or "witches" who could cause illness or injury with the help of evil spirits. The term ‘conjurer’ of course is usually associated with the malevolent sorcerer. It thus appears in the data that Biloxi conjurer = chief. In Biloxi oral tradition, there is also reference to their chief being seated in an elevated position, perhaps on a raised chair, platform, or throne. Thus, I think it seems reasonable to hypothesize a Biloxi "shaman-king" who was not only ruler of his people but also the head healer and sorcerer.

As stated before, this would put the Biloxi chief in line with what anthropologists are learning of other SECC societies AND with ancient Mesoamerican societies. Imagine the power wielded by these kings, who could control their citizenry through its manipulation of its citizenry's fear of the unknown spirit world that the chief could control, and who, in line with typical shamanism, could "transform" into powerful animal spirits such as a panther (or jaguar in Mesoamerica) or a raptorial bird such as the eagle. What better way to "earn" the respect, obedience, and worship of your populace!

Anyway, this is what I've come up with through my research so far.
UPDATE: Please be aware that I employ the term "shaman-king" loosely as it is still very much debated as to whether the priests or sorcerers of Native America, or anywhere outside of Siberia where the term shaman originated (a Tungus term), should be called "shamans". They technically do not fit the specifications of the term as applied in Siberia. My colleague and friend, Alice Beck Kehoe, is adamantly opposed to this term being employed by anthropologists outside of the confines of Siberia.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Watson Brake
Oldest pyramidal complex in North America

The dates of Mississippian or "moundbuilding" culture seem to be getting pushed back further in time. While Poverty Point was previously considered the oldest "mound" site in North America, that distinguished honor now apparently belongs to Watson Brake, discovered about 30 years ago, also in Louisiana, near Monroe. While Poverty Point dates back to about 1500 BC, Watson Brake apparently dates back to about 3400 BC. Watson Brake is a collection of 11 pyramidal mounds arranged into a large oval apparently surrounding a large central plaza.

Watson Brake mound site

Unlike Poverty Point, as yet there are no signs of residential sites at Watson Brake. Anthropologists currently speculate that Watson Brake may have been a constructed site for a band or bands of hunter-gatherers to conglomerate, perhaps for ritual or ceremonial purposes.

Interestingly, Watson Brake seems to predate the Olmec civilization by almost 2,000 years. The Olmecs also erected "mounds," or earthen pyramids, thought to be the forerunners of later Mayan and Mexica (Aztec) stone pyramids. (Mounds, or pyramids, were also built in the Andes region of South America.) This leads me to wonder if these Watson Brake "moundbuilders" may have been related to Olmecs, perhaps their forebears who decided to travel farther south into southern Mexico and became the "mother culture" of the later Mayas and Aztecs. Or perhaps much of Native America descends from a common culture that began erecting pyramidal and other monumental structures as terrestrial representations of their view of the cosmos and spiritual beliefs.

More food for thought!