Nanih Waiya, the great mother mound of the Choctaw people, has guarded the source of the Pearl River for millennia. The Muskogee people were birthed from her earthen body first, but they left her. The Cherokee and the Chickasaw are her children, too. They lagged behind for a time, drying themselves on their mother’s flanks, but the day of leaving came for them. Neither the Cherokee nor the Chickasaw ever caught up with the Muskogee, who were so careless with fire that they obliterated their own trail. Brothers and sisters were parted, and they never met again.
The Choctaw, like most lastborn children, are bound tightly at the heart to their mother. They live in the shadow of Nanih Waiya still. Invaders have tried to rip them away. Disease has stalked them. The mighty Army of the United States of America has hauled them bodily to places they did not want to go. But the trees grow thick around Nanih Waiya, and a remnant of the Choctaw has always found a place to hide there.
How have they outwitted forces so implacable and strong?
They have survived by remembering something that their enemies have forgotten: It is no weakness to love your mother.
on the eve of the Neshoba County Fair,
Mississippi’s Giant House Party
Faye Longchamp had work to do, but it could wait. A tremendous backlog of unfinished tasks seemed to be her lot in life. Taking a weekday afternoon to immerse herself in history and religion simultaneously seemed like an efficient way to use her time. Granted, it was someone else’s religion, but Faye had never been too finicky about that kind of thing.
Joe, on the other hand, had a direct connection to the silent mound of dirt beneath their feet. His Creek ancestors believed that their history began here at Nanih Waiya, the Mother Mound. Or maybe in a cave under a natural hill somewhere across the creek. The issue was murky, as spiritual issues tend to be.
Faye considered Nanih Waiya, constructed at about the time Christ walked the earth, to be a most impressive perch. She and Joe sat atop it, forty feet above the natural ground level, surveying Nanih Waiya Creek and a lush forest and a very ordinary pasture full of cattle grazing just outside the fence surrounding the great mound. She had noticed a sour, familiar smell as she climbed the stairs sunk into the old mound, but couldn’t quite put her finger on its source. The creek’s banks were brimming, so she thought perhaps she was sniffing the musty, peaty smell of a swamp at high water. Either that, or somebody needed to empty the garbage bins at the state park across the road.
Only when her head cleared the top of the mound and she could see the grassy open area beyond did she put a name to the odor. Cow manure.
Did it bother Joe to see this sacred place shorn of its trees and planted in pasture grass? He didn’t look perturbed. Faye thought about cows for awhile. They fed their calves out of their own bodies, then fed the land with their manure. Eventually, they fed the land with themselves. Maybe the Mother Mound liked having cows around.
Not being nearly as spiritual as Joe, she figured her revelation about the holiness of cows was the deepest thought she was likely to have that afternoon.
“Let’s go, Joe. If we hustle, we can get a look at our work site this afternoon. Dr. Mailer said he’d be there to meet everybody as they rolled into town.”
Joe Wolf Mantooth raked a farewell glance over a landscape that had been held holy for centuries. Millennia, in fact. He could see a far distance from up here on top of Nanih Waiya, and he was glad to get the chance to visit the Mother Mound. The afternoon light was already a little softer than it had been at noon, and he knew the quiet summer air would be even quieter soon, as sunset approached.
Perhaps Joe’s senses were sharper than most men’s. Or perhaps Nature revealed herself more fully to him simply because he paid attention.
As he followed Faye down the mound’s flank, he gave one last look at the grassy field and the fecund swamp and the broad sky and, behind him, the towering mound. Was this spot more sacred than the glass-clear Gulf waters around the island home he shared with Faye? More God-touched than the cool, green Appalachians, or the familiar expanses of his native Oklahoma? All those places seemed holy to him. He saw no difference.
It never occurred to Joe that perhaps the holiness lay in a man’s appreciation of Nature’s gifts. Perhaps those places were more sacred simply because he’d been there.
The route from Nanih Waiya to their worksite had led Faye and Joe through a landscape of farmland and pastures and piney woods, without the necessity of passing through Philadelphia, the only town of any size in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Or in most of the surrounding counties, for that matter. Not being a fan of city living, Faye didn’t mind.
She liked the warm and fertile look of the place. She would have preferred to be at home in Florida, but she wanted an education and she needed to earn a living. Joyeuse Island, with its booming population of precisely two, didn’t offer much in the way of opportunity on either count, so she was happy enough for the opportunity to spend her summer here while earning graduate credit and money, too.
The map in Joe’s hands took them directly to a neat brick farmhouse that looked exactly as Faye’s boss had described it. A cluster of people milling around in the field out back looked a great deal like archaeologists. Their worn clothing had the requisite ground-in dirt in all the right places, and their faces were tan beneath hats that provided some solar protection, but not enough. It seemed that Faye had found her co-workers.
As she and Joe approached, she caught snatches of a conversation that sounded a lot more animated and cordial than it looked. An outsider would have interpreted the scientists’ lack of eye contact as unfriendliness, but Faye knew better. These people, out of long habit, rarely lifted their glance from the ground—not when they were standing in a known occupation site, where the soil was peppered with fascinating stuff. The young archaeologist who had found the site thought it might date to the Middle Woodland period, which could make it as old as Nanih Waiya herself.
Faye recognized a few faces from school. Dr. Sid Mailer, the principal investigator and her former lithics professor, stood, as he always did, in the center of a knot of his graduate students. Not for the first time, she missed her mentor, Dr. Magda Stockard, who might have directed this project if she hadn’t been recovering from the difficult delivery of her first child. Faye liked Dr. Mailer, but she wished she could work for Magda again.
A tall, sunburnt man in his late forties, Dr. Mailer’s prematurely white hair made him stand out in any crowd. Bodie Steele, a freckle-faced country boy who might someday take Dr. Mailer’s place as a leading expert on Middle Woodland lithics, hung back until Faye flashed him a quick smile. He responded with a nod and a small smile of his own. Toneisha MacGill, who was as good at ceramics as Bodie was at lithics, belted out a “Hey, Faye!” that could be heard across three counties.
A man Faye didn’t know stood at Dr. Mailer’s elbow. Another stranger crouched near the professor’s foot, poking at something embedded in the soil. Dr. Mailer stepped over him, extending a hand to squeeze Faye’s elbow.
“Welcome, Faye. You, too, Joe.” He reached around her to grasp Joe’s hand warmly. “Oke and Chuck, meet our last two team members.”
The crouching archaeologist rose to his full height, which wasn’t all that much. Barrel-chested and stocky, he was a few inches taller than Faye, but she herself hardly cleared five feet. A smile lit his dark rugged face. “I understand Faye and I have a lot in common. We were both lucky enough to grow up surrounded by our ancestors’ junk. Welcome to my playground.”
So this was Dr. Oka Hofobi Nail, who grew up pulling stone tools and potsherds out of his family’s vegetable garden. His first act as a Ph.D. had been to secure funding to excavate in his own back yard.
A sad truth of archaeology was that sites were not excavated merely because they were interesting, or because they held the potential to explain something important about humanity’s past. Archaeology is labor-intensive. Earth doesn’t turn itself over. Artifacts don’t leap out of the ground unassisted, then clean and catalog themselves. Those artifacts don’t explain themselves, and they don’t document that explanation in a publishable report, either.
Dr. Nail had found a fascinating site, no question, but he would still be working it himself if the state of Mississippi hadn’t wanted to do some road construction. In the course of straightening a bad curve, those road crews would wipe out this occupation site. Faye and her colleagues had been contracted to document it before it was destroyed, which she found depressing when she allowed herself to think about it too much. So she tried not to.
When she set those mixed feelings aside, Faye actually had very high hopes for this project. Oka Hofobi had been politically and financially savvy enough to team with Dr. Mailer, whose reputation was sufficient to secure the client’s trust and whose horde of graduate students was sufficient to get the work done cheaply.
Even better, the makeup of this project team represented a real chance to begin healing the long-standing rift between Native Americans and the archaeological profession. Oka Hofobi, a Choctaw, would have the insight to keep them from stubbing their toe when dealing with the Mississippi Band of the Choctaw Indians, who were a powerful force in this neck of the woods.
Joe, who was mostly Creek, should add to their credibility in the Choctaws’ eyes. Toneisha, an African-American from Memphis, and Faye, whose ancestry was best described as “all-of-the-above,” would do their part to dispel the white-bread atmosphere that typically clings to archaeological crews. Given what she knew about the relaxed personalities of her co-workers, there was even some danger that this job might be fun.
Faye had chosen to spend several years of her life virtually alone on the island passed down to her by her family. Naturally introspective, she had thrived on the work of restoring her ancestral home, so much so that she hadn’t minded her isolation much, but she’d been lonely until Joe came to live with her. Going back to school to earn the education she craved had thrown her into contact with a whole world of youthful, vital, energetic people. She loved her work, and she enjoyed her colleagues, even though she was invariably the quietest member of any team.
“I don’t think either of you have met Chuck Horowitz,” Dr. Mailer gestured to the blond man beside him, whose craggy features matched his angular body. “I expect he’ll be working very closely with you, Joe, since I hear you’re the best flintknapper around. Chuck’s a crackerjack lithics analyst. He can take a pile of flint flakes and reassemble them into the rock somebody used two thousand years ago to make a projectile point. Well, minus the projectile point. But if we dig that point up, Chuck could match it to the flakes of the original rock and rebuild it, no problem.”
Chuck looked at Joe without speaking, then turned his attention to Faye. His gaze started somewhere near her nose, then wandered downward while Dr Mailer continued speaking. “Faye’s lithics skills aren’t too shabby, either. She was the top student in my class last semester.”
Chuck’s eyes had reached her chest, where they lingered a few thoughtful seconds before heading south again. In her peripheral vision, Faye caught a flicker of motion as Joe’s relaxed hand became a fist. He was leaning forward, prepared to get in Chuck’s face, but she put out a hand to stop him.
Dr. Mailer wasn’t blind. He demonstrated his superior management skills by smoothly putting himself between Joe and Chuck, who was never remotely aware of his peril. “Chuck, I left my cell phone in the truck. Would you go get it for me?”
“Sure.” Chuck shifted his eyes toward the driveway where the truck sat, displaying almost as much interest in the blue pickup as he had in Faye’s shapelier parts. His stride was so long that he was out of earshot within thirty seconds.
“It takes an, er, ‘special’ kind of brain to do the kind of detail work Chuck does every day,” Dr. Mailer offered awkwardly. “Social graces aren’t a big part of his skill set.”
Joe was not mollified. Faye noticed that Toneisha and Bodie sported clenched fists and jaws themselves. Having dealt with problem employees, she felt for Dr. Mailer.
“It’s okay,” she said. “He’s clearly not stupid. Just explain to him that he’s got to keep his eyes to himself.” Toneisha’s firm nod said that Faye wasn’t Chuck’s first victim.
“I wish I could see these things coming,” the professor said. “Then I could just sit Chuck down and spell things out for him all at once. But he just keeps finding new ways to be inappropriate. Maybe it would help if I bought him an etiquette book.” There was a moment of silence while the group pondered the ineffectiveness of that approach. “Well, no time like the present.” He crossed the distance between him and Chuck at a slow trot.
Eager to distract her colleagues from a problem that centered on her breasts, Faye dropped to a squat to get a better look at the soil that Oka Hofobi had been examining when she walked up. “What did you find here?”
“Just a potsherd,” he said, bending down to show her a thumbnail-sized object that would have looked like a chunk of raw clay to most people. Faye’s friends gathered around it like kids goggling over a new video game. “I’ve been finding stuff here since I was five years old. Want to see?” Four open grins said that his colleagues most assuredly did.
He led them through the back door of the farmhouse, through a kitchen where a stout middle-aged woman with Oka Hofobi’s broad face hovered over a frying pan. Covering her gray business suit, she wore a blue gingham apron trimmed with chicken-scratch embroidery. A pair of black pumps had been kicked into a corner.
“Ma, I didn’t know you were home from work. Meet my friends. Toneisha, Bodie, Faye, Joe—meet my mom. And her cooking.” He dodged her spatula, snagging crispy yellow rounds of fried squash off the serving platter at her elbow and handing them around for everybody to taste. “This is why I live at home in my old age.”
“You live at home because you can step out the door and dig up a career’s worth of my ancestors’ house goods before breakfast. Then, because I don’t have good sense, I scramble your eggs before I go to work.” She shoved the platter in the general direction of her guests and handed them all forks. “Invite your friends to stay for dinner. Right now, I need to get out of this skirt.” She picked up her dress shoes and headed down the hall.
“Stay for dinner?” he asked the group. “I don’t know what she’s cooking, but most of it will be fried. And it’ll taste really great.”
“Sounds like your cooking,” Faye muttered to Joe, but no one else heard her because they were all accepting the offer with the enthusiasm of poor, hungry students.
A screen door slammed, and a tall Choctaw man with stooped shoulders and a lined face walked in. Mrs. Nail’s kitchen was spacious, in the old-timey farmhouse style, but it was crowded with chattering young people. Faye was struck by Mr. Nail’s economy of movement as he navigated through the crowd without brushing up against anyone, without making eye contact, and without speaking. Loosening his tie as he walked, the older man disappeared down the hall.
Faye looked uncertainly at Oka Hofobi, wondering what to make of his father’s behavior. The young archaeologist seemed determined to give her no clue.
“Come see my treasures,” he said, jerking his head toward a door that led into the farmhouse’s front room.
“I dug those up when I was a little kid,” he said, gesturing toward a stupendous collection of spear points and scrapers, “and I mistreated them royally. One of my favorite things was to strap the points to sticks and spear roly-poly bugs with them. I feel pretty bad about the bugs, these days. Good thing most of them were too fast for me.” Opening a glass-fronted display case, he pulled out some exquisitely incised potsherds. “Then I grew up a little, and I started reading about the right way to do archaeology. And I developed some taste.”
Each artifact was numbered, just as it would be in a museum. The stack of field notebooks stored with them gave Faye a weird pang of familiarity, as if she’d run into her best friend while traveling in a foreign land. She had display cases just like Oka Hofobi’s, filled with artifacts dug from her own family’s property. He even used the same brand of field notebook that she did. Except he’d spent his childhood digging up relics from the dawn of his own civilization, and she’d spent hers unearthing the slave cabins where her ancestors had been held captive.
Oka Hofobi’s mother showed Dr. Mailer and Chuck into the room, and the newly formed team enjoyed a good half-hour fondling the goods in anticipation of finding some treasures of their own.
When Faye noticed Joe moving toward the window, she wasn’t sure whether he’d reached the end of his attention span, or whether he was feeling crowded in a room with so many people, or whether the outdoors was simply calling him. Since she was the one who kept coming up with reasons for Joe to leave their Florida home on Joyeuse Island and be with strangers, she sidled over to make sure he was okay.
It turned out that Joe had been called to the window by a sunset made more splendid by a blue-black thunderhead that roiled bigger by the minute. But it wasn’t the colorful sky that held him there. Pointing with his chin, he silently called Faye’s attention to the flat-topped mound that rose from the property across the road from Oka Hofobi’s house. It stood on the far side of a soybean field at the edge of a heavily wooded area. Unlike Nanih Waiya, it had not been cleared of the trees that rose through its flanks. The underbrush covering the mound served as camouflage, so that it could hide in plain sight. In full view of the rural highway that wound through this area, many people surely saw this large and ancient structure every day without paying it much attention.
Oka Hofobi saw them peering out the window. “One day, I’d love to excavate that. My neighbor, Mr. Calhoun, caught me sneaking around over there when I was fifteen and he told me to get the hell off his land. It was a good thing he didn’t think to ask me to empty my pockets. Check these out. I found them in the rootball of a downed tree.”
He opened another case and pulled out two nondescript clay balls. They weren’t molded into a complex shape or thrown on a wheel. They weren’t incised with intricate patterns. They weren’t even pretty, but Faye took in a sharp breath while everyone around her erupted with exclamations like, “Hey!” and “Look at that!” and “No shit!”
The two brown lumps were cooking balls typical of the Poverty Point culture, which meant that they could be fifteen hundred years older than the Middle Woodland site that Oka Hofobi had mined for the other artifacts in the room. The cooking balls were so ubiquitous at Poverty Point sites that archaeologists called them PPOs, short for Poverty Point Objects.
Oka Hofobi handed one of the balls to Faye. It felt warm and comfortable in her hand. Perhaps three and a half millennia had passed since someone leaned down and scooped up a lump of clay, squeezed it into a ball, then threw it in the fire. She could feel the contours left by that long-decayed hand. Narrow depressions where slender fingers had squeezed the earth were divided by ridges formed where the clay had squished up between those fingers. This was the soul of archaeology for Faye—forging a human connection with the past.
“Now I can’t say for sure Mr. Calhoun’s mound is as old as we’re all thinking it is. All I’ve got is these two cooking balls. Maybe they came from somewhere else…”
“You’re thinking maybe they flew?” Toneisha asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe Mr. Calhoun’s great-grandfather traveled all over the state, building a collection of arrowheads and artifacts. Maybe when he died, his kids spread them over the mound in his memory.”
Every eyebrow in the room was raised in skepticism.
“Okay. Maybe they’re cooking balls and they were made right here, but they’re more recent than we’re thinking. My point is that out-of-context artifacts aren’t likely to tell us what we want to know. We just can’t know how old that mound is.”
Bodie spoke for them all when he lunged for the window, looked out at the mound, and said, “To hell with this site. Let’s go dig over there.”
Oka Hofobi was shaking his head, “Mr. Calhoun wouldn’t—”
“It wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Toneisha pointed out, reaching for the cooking ball in Faye’s hand.
Someone was out walking in the soybean field. Dr. Mailer’s face lit up when he saw the man who owned the coveted mound. “No, it can’t hurt to ask. And there’s no time like the present.” He grabbed his hat and was out the front door.
Oka Hofobi trailed him, explaining why this expedition was a poor idea. “He’s watching birds. That’s what he likes to do every afternoon, and we shouldn’t disturb him. He doesn’t take well to strangers, either, and…”
Faye could see that the poor guy might as well be talking to Mr. Calhoun’s birds. The professor was on a mission.
Faye, like Oka Hofobi, knew how to behave in a rural setting. Dr. Mailer needed to strike up a casual acquaintance with Mr. Calhoun, and he needed to do it when the farmer wasn’t enjoying time alone with his feathered friends. He needed to ask him to recommend a good catfish house, then he needed to go there with him and put away a nice little stack of fried filets, with creamy cole slaw on the side. Before he asked a favor this big, Mr. Calhoun’s dog should wag his tail when he saw the archaeologist coming. Dr. Mailer should know the name of the man’s dog. His wife’s name, too. As things stood, he didn’t even know Mr. Calhoun’s first name, but he was planning to introduce himself then, in the same breath, ask for a major incursion into the man’s property rights.
Dr. Mailer was an intelligent and educated man, but he was born and raised in Houston. When it came to the traditional ways of rural Southerners, he didn’t have a clue. Toneisha, who was urging him on in his headlong quest to alienate the whole countryside, was a city girl from Memphis, so she was just as naïve. Chuck had already proved himself lacking in the most basic people skills, but the rest of them knew an impending train wreck when they saw one. They trailed after their supervisor, unable to stop him and unable to look away.
They crossed the road amid the flutter of multi-colored wings. Mr. Calhoun rose from a lawn chair carefully placed at the boundary between field and forest. Sliding his binoculars into the case hanging by its strap from the chair’s arm, he started walking toward them. A good-sized man in height and breadth, he still carried a lot of muscle mass for a man who looked to be seventy or more. He wasn’t smiling.
“Oka Hofobi,” he said, “You’re a smart boy. I didn’t think I needed to run you off my land but once.”
“No, sir, I learned that lesson a long time ago. I just thought you might want to get acquainted with my colleagues. They’ll be working with me across the road. On my family’s land.”
“It’s your daddy’s business what happens on his land. Though I don’t imagine the Choctaws will be any too happy to have these people mucking around in their ancestors’ bones.”
“I’ve never found a burial in all my years on that land. If I ever do, I know the law and I know my people’s ways. I went to school a long time so I’d know how to do things right.” He didn’t ask for permission to dig on Calhoun’s land, which Faye knew was the right decision. She hoped Dr. Mailer would recognize the wisdom of earning trust slowly.
Her hopes were dashed. The professor stepped forward and grasped the old farmer’s hand enthusiastically. “Sid Mailer here. You’ve got a beautiful place here, and that mound behind you is absolutely stupendous. Is there a chance in the world that we could talk about my crew excavating over there?”
“No.” The monosyllable hung in the damp summer air. The thundercloud overhead rumbled without dropping any rain.
Dr. Mailer rubbed his palms together and cocked his head to an angle that signaled how off-balance he felt. Faye wanted to warn him not to tip his hand, but he was an honest man. Nothing was going to stop him from laying his cards on the table and asking for what he wanted. This was the problem with being forthright. Once a man has forced his adversary to say, “No,” it becomes very difficult to find a face-saving way to get to “Yes.”
Dr. Mailer plunged ahead anyway. “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind if we just walked over the mound? We wouldn’t dig. We wouldn’t take anything. We just want to look at it.”
Calhoun shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe such a smart man had painted himself into such a tight corner. Faye could hardly believe it herself. Surely the professor could see that the answer to this question had to be “No.” But that wasn’t the answer than came out of Calhoun’s mouth. Instead he said only, “If that mound wasn’t standing over there, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, now, would we?”
Then he slung his binoculars around his neck, folded his lawn chair, and walked away.
The archaeologists exchanged uncertain looks before turning to go back to the Nail house. As they skirted Mr. Calhoun’s soybean field, dusk spread through air that was oppressive with humidity. Spreading oak trees threw shadows over the Nail house, and Faye could see something flickering in those shadows. It was a lit cigarette, arcing through the air as Oka Hofobi’s father raised it to his mouth, took a deep drag, and lowered it to his side, again and again. He stood watching until his son led the archaeological crew across the road, then he disappeared into the house. He was nowhere to be seen when they trooped through the front door, and he never reappeared, not for dinner, and not during the high-spirited conversation that filled the dining room afterward. From time to time during that conversation, Faye noticed Oka Hofobi’s eyes stray toward the darkened hallway that must lead to the house’s bedrooms.