Numbering about 5,000 in 1600, the Chickasaw were much less numerous than at least two of their neighbors, the Cherokee and Choctaw, which both had populations in excess of 20,000. The Chickasaw, nevertheless, were able to claim vast hunting grounds in western Kentucky and Tennessee and northern Alabama and Mississippi. According to tribal traditions the Chickasaw and Choctaw were once one tribe; and the close similarity of their Muskogean languages seems to bear this out. The Chickasaw language was still spoken in the 1970's.
The Chickasaw were divided into two moieties, or divisions, which were in turn divided into numerous clans. A person inherited the clan of his mother and was forbidden to marry within that clan. The head chief, or High Minko, was chosen from the Minko clan, and was aided by a council of advisers made up of clan leaders and tribal elders. Other leadership was provided by the hopaye, the two head priests, one from each division of the tribe. These presided at all religious ceremonies and helped the tribe interpret life in spiritual terms.
The supreme deity of the Chickasaw was Ababinili, a composite of the Four Beloved Things Above: Sun, Clouds, Clear Sky and He That Lives in the Clear Sky. There were other lesser deities and a whole range of witches and evil spirits. The aliktce, or healers, were in charge of dealing with the latter with the aid of potions, teas and poultices derived from various herbs, roots and berries.
The Chickasaw believed in a hereafter in which the good would go to their reward somewhere in the heavens while the evildoers would wander forever in the land of the witches. When a person died, a grave was dug under a house; and the body , with its face painted red, placed in a sitting position surrounded by his worldly possessions. The deceased would face west, since in that direction lay the path to judgment.
Chickasaw towns and villages were laid out compactly in times of war, but were spread out in peacetime. A council house in the central area was used for meetings and ceremonies, along with the council ground which was used for open-air gatherings and ball games. Each family had a summer house, winter house and storage building for corn and other supplies. The summer houses were rectangular, with walls of woven mats and a thatched or bark roof. The winter houses were circular, about 25 feet in diameter, and were excavated three feet below the surface of the ground. The pine log or pole framework was plastered with a mixture of clay and dried grass, which was then whitewashed inside and out. Furnishings included beds and seats, wooden dishes, utensils and clay pots.
The division of labor in Chickasaw society called for men to do the hunting, fishing, house building, boat building, tool making and war making. Women were responsible for agriculture, food gathering and household chores. The Chickasaw, due to their great success in warfare, often had help with work in the form of numbers of slaves taken as captives in their battles.
The men were competent hunters, ranging far and wide and employing great skill in tracking, trapping and using animal calls and decoys. Deer was the most favored game after the buffalo were gone from the southeast; bear was prized for the skins and fat. The men caught fish by throwing a poison made with buckeye or green walnut hulls into a deep hole in a stream and spearing or grabbing the drugged fish when they came to the surface.
The women collected wild strawberries, persimmons, nuts, acorns, honey and onions. They also dried grapes and plums to make raisins and prunes, and made tea from sassafras root.
Chickasaw men painted their faces for ceremonies or making war. They shaved the sides of their heads leaving a roach which they soaked in bear grease. The breech clout was the main item of dress, supplemented with deerskin shirts or bearskin robes in colder weather and high deerskin boots for hunting. The women wore dresses of finely tanned deerskin and had their long hair tied up neatly.
In the winter of 1540-41 the Chickasaw had an unwelcome visit by an expedition of Spanish treasure seekers led by Hernando DeSoto. After finally driving them away the Chickasaw managed to avoid European contact for the next hundred years or so. In the late 17th century English traders began working their way into the Mississippi valley with their cotton cloth, metal tools, knives, guns, iron pots and other goods. As the Chickasaw became more dependent on these appurtenances of civilization, they widened their hunting grounds to obtain more and more skins for trade, which resulted in war with the Choctaw and other neighboring tribes.
In the early 18th century the French, moving north from the Gulf of Mexico tried to establish their control over the Mississippi valley. The next 60 years saw constant warfare between the British backed Chickasaw and the French with their Indian allies, with the Chickasaw usually getting the best of it. This period, however, took its toll on the once powerful tribe. Many warriors were lost in battle; and , although their numbers were replaced by captives taken in war, the Chickasaw spirit was diluted. Some 200 Natchez were adopted after being nearly wiped out by the French in 1729. Other new blood came into the tribe by way of the many English traders who took Chickasaw wives. The children of these marriages, inheriting the clan status of their mothers, often became very powerful in tribal affairs because of their ability to deal with both worlds.
By the late 18th century the scene had changed and the Chickasaw found themselves caught between American and Spanish interests. The Louisiana Purchase and the Spanish cession of Florida made it clear that it was the Americans that the Chickasaws and other eastern tribes would have to deal with eventually.
By the early 19th century the Chickasaw, finding game growing scarce, had settled down to being successful farmers. Some started cotton plantations with field labor performed by black slaves, of which the tribe owned more than a thousand.
White settlers flooding into the area at the time coveted the Indian lands. Between 1801 and 1832 the Chickasaw signed a series of treaties giving up their lands and agreeing to migrate to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), where some 5,000 Chickasaw and 1,000 slaves were subsequently settled on land bought from the Choctaw Nation. Concentrating on agriculture, the Chickasaw were producing a surplus by 1843. By the 1850's they had set up sawmills, blacksmith shops, newspapers and schools.
During the Civil War, the Chickasaw fought on the side of the Confederacy. After the war white settlers began pouring into Indian Territory. In 1906 the tribal governments of the Five Civilized Tribes were dissolved, preparatory to the admission of Oklahoma to statehood the following year.
By the late 1970's the Chickasaw were well assimilated into non-Indian society, with about 7,000 (including 300-500 full-bloods) living in Oklahoma. The tribal headquarters was at Ardmore, and about 1,261 acres of tribally owned land remained, with about 95,000 acres of allotted land. There was growing interest in Chickasaw arts and crafts, and Chickasaw language classes were being held.