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Blue Highways: Philadelphia, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe stop in Philadelphia.  Not the city of brotherly love, but a city in Mississippi that lies on top of a former Native American village and which has a troubled racial past.  While we reflect, take a peek at where we are by clicking on the map thumbnail located to your right.  Leave a comment if you are so inclined, or like what you see.

Book Quote

"Here, too, the old, sad history.  The town, like others in the area, was built over the site of a Choctaw village.  The Choctaw, whose land once cvered most of Mississippi, earned a name from their skill in horticulture and diplomacy; they were a sensible people whose chieftains attained position through merit.  In the early nineteenth centery, they learned from white men and began building schools and adding livestock to their farms.  Later, whites would refer to them as one of the 'five civilized tribes.'  Nevertheless, as pressure from white settlement increased, the Choctaw had to cede to the government one piece of land (in million-acre increments) after another....With the treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, held in the woods northeast of Philadelphia, the Choctaw gave up the last of the land and reluctantly agreed to leave Mississippi forever.  They walked to the arid Indian Territory where they set up their own republic modeled after the government that had just dispossessed them."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 6


Downtown Philadelphia, Mississippi. Click on photo to go to host site. 

Philadelphia, Mississippi

An age-old story and one that helps define our history as a nation, and in a way, defines European settlement around the globe.  Indigenous peoples face encroachment by alien peoples on their territories.  Some of the indigenous try to accommodate, with disastrous results as agreements are made and then nullified by the encroachers.  Other indigenous peoples turn to war to defend their lands, only to be brought into submission by the superior weaponry of the invaders.  This story is not an isolated one.  It is repeated in histories ranging from Latin America to Australia, Africa to North America.  It coincides politically with the rise of colonialism, and economically with mercantilism and then its successor, capitalism.  Lands outside of Europe were places to be exploited, and indigenous peoples in those lands at best were seen as unenlightened savages who could be "tamed" and "civilized" and "Christianized" in the European manner, turning them into "people of reason" (the Spanish view), or at worst they were seen as annoyances, useful in wars against other colonizing powers but otherwise impediments to expansion (the British and French view).  Either way, the indigenous peoples were less than human unless they could be made human.

I've written in this blog both about the heroism associated with the settlement and taming of the American continent (blogs on Fort Raleigh and the Star Fort), and the dark underside of the colonizing of America (Fort Raleigh).  However, the noble actions and conduct of a few do not diminish the fact that the overall effect of the European colonization of the Americas amounted to a decimation of the peoples and the cultures that were here when the European colonists first arrived.

We see the effects of that decimation to this day.  Native American tribes confined to a fraction of their traditional lands.  Some tribes, like the Oklahoma Choctaws that LHM references, or the Seminoles, on reservations that they were moved to.  In Arizona, the Navajo were removed by the U.S. Army at gunpoint away from their native lands to New Mexico around 1863, only returning to their homes five years of the few instances of the United States allowing a native tribe to return to its own lands with its traditional boundaries.

Many reservations, wholly within the United States, face problems associated with developing countries.  Poverty, as well as educational and social problems like alcoholism and drug abuse sap reservations' ability to develop and to promote traditional lifestyles.  Therefore, many Natives are still dependent on the U.S. government and its social programs.  While many reservations have had economic success by developing casinos, the benefits of these enterprises can lead to corruption.  In any event, development based on gambling, unless the revenues are channeled effectively, do not make a viable long-term growth strategy.

Yet, the vitality of Native American cultures can be seen every day.  In Albuquerque, where I live, The Gathering of Nations brings together thousands of Native Americans from tribes across the United States and Canada for North America's largest powwow in late April.  Native American culture is kept alive and fostered through music, and radio stations that celebrate Native music and creativity.  Native art is kept alive through pottery, jewelry, and painting.  Many people of European descent adopt certain Native customs, buy Native wares, and even try to live through Native tenets.  Despite the best efforts of the European colonizers and their successors, Native American culture lives on.

Philadelphia, Mississippi, LHM informs us, stands on what remains of a Choctaw village.  Many other towns and cities across the United States can probably also claim that they stand on the remains of other Native American villages and settlements.  The inference could be that Native America has been buried under European progress and manifest destiny.  But Native America is not gone but recovering from the blow it was dealt with the arrival of colonization.  The United States should consider itself fortunate that these peoples with their millenia of connection to the land we all now call home recall the best and worst of our collective history.  They are living reminders of how our founding and early history fell short of our ideals, and how we might reach them.

Postscript:  Philadelphia was the site of a notorious killing of three people in 1964.  James Chaney, a black man from Mississippi, was shot to death along with two activists from New York, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.  The killings inspired the movie Mississippi Burning.  In 2009, the town, which is 55% white, elected James Young as the first black mayor by 46 votes.  Young described his election in a town where he grew up in a neighborhood harassed by the Ku Klux Klan as "an atomic bomb of change."  Wounds always leave scars, but they can heal.

If you want to know more about Philadelphia

Neshoba County Fair - Mississippi's Giant Houseparty
The Neshoba Democrat (newspaper)
Philadelphia Community Development Partnership
Wikipedia: Choctaw
Wikipedia: Philadelphia

Next up:  Ofahoma, Mississippi

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