Lance Allan Wiedower 0000-00-00 00:00:00
How does a Memphis institution that is a thousand years old reinvent itself? If it’s the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, the museum located on the Southwest Memphis Native American site, the best way is one find at a time. Chucalissa, a Choctaw word for “abandoned house,” is the archaeological site that was home to vibrant and sophisticated Native American cultures from as early as 1000 C.E. The village on the site, which is adjacent to T.O. Fuller State Park in and around Presidents Island, was deserted when Europeans moved through the area in the mid 16th century. It was occupied, abandoned, and reoccupied several times between 1000 and 1500 C.E. At its height at the turn of the 16th century, the museum estimates that Chucalissa was home to between 800 and 1,000 people. The site has seen numerous changes since it became the responsibility of Memphis State University in 1962. In its heyday of the 1980s, annual attendance ran as much as 70,000 visitors. They came to visit the museum and the reconstructed village. Today, the reconstructed parts of that village are gone. “It was very progressive for its time,” says Robert Connolly, an anthropology professor at the University of Memphis — which still operates the historic site —and director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa since July 2007. “Since the 1950s, people would come out here and feel as if they were walking into a bygone era,” he says. “The problem with that, in part, was it was kind of like seeing a John Wayne movie and calling that the real world. A lot of the house reconstructions out there were not really in the places they had been in prehistory.” Those houses gradually fell into disrepair and had to come down, thus beginning the reinvention of which Connolly speaks of today. “Chucalissa has gone through a tremendous evolution,” he says. “Archaeologists have to be accountable to the sites they’re excavating. We don’t just go out and excavate because we want to. We do it in consultation with the people at these sites we’re working with — for example, the American Indians here. That’s been a real shift in archaeology over the past 20 or so years, and it has very definitely had an impact here. We’re not doing any current excavations, and we don’t have any immediate plans to go out and do field excavations.” So with no reconstructed homes and no excavations, the site was in need of a new identity. That identity centers on preservation and education. About one third of the visitors each year are students. But in addition to school groups, the museum caters programs to churches and civic groups — and businesses looking for lessons on diversity. Inside the museum, displays of Native American life in and around the Midsouth include a number of artifacts recovered during the site’s initial excavation, beginning in the 1950s. Guided tours are given twice a day, and an audio guide is available at all times. There is a bookstore and theater, which saw an overflow crowd in the fall — mostly from the surrounding Southwest Memphis community — that came to watch Black Indians, a James Earl Jones film that examines the relationship between African-American and American Indian communities. Then there’s the one aspect of the museum that truly allows visitors to get their hands dirty while learning about the site: the hands-on archaeology laboratory, where young and old alike are invited to handle the very materials archaeologists analyze when interpreting prehistoric sites. And outside, of course, there is the group of mounds and plaza of what once was a village that saw as many as 1,000 people live in the area. There is also the Chickasaw Bluff Interpretive Trail and the Arboretum, which labels 30 trees along the path. The Arboretum, created by the Southwind Garden Club, was certified this past year by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council. But what about the burial exhibit that many remember seeing as a child? “It has been covered over and taken down,” says Connolly. “It was one of these bygone-era things. When folks come up and ask about it, my response is simply, ‘Would you want people gawking at your grandmother for the next 500 years?’” So the question is: What will Chucalissa become? “A real important aspect of our existence here is the uniqueness of Chucalissa,” says Connolly. “For the past 50 years, we have been the public face for American Indians. Oftentimes it has not necessarily been the face they wanted to present. It was more, ‘Be actors on the stage, and do this, that, and the other thing.’ What we’re really shifting on is having the American Indians be the directors and producers here at Chucalissa. It’s less of, ‘Be here and perform’ and more of, ‘What do you want the public to know about Native Americans in the Midsouth?’” An example of that new direction is evident in the new Chickasaw exhibits. The Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma was asked to put the exhibit together based on what they wanted Memphians to know about them and their past. “It’s a radically different approach from what has been done in the past,” Connolly stresses. “It’s less of, ‘What do we think people want to look at — burials and those type things?’ — and instead seeing our mandate as being an educational facility that’s an extension of the University of Memphis.” The U of M’s role is a critical one in the current and future success at Chucalissa. Graduate students and interns create the exhibits and educational programs, centering them on their expertise. That includes a current graduate assistant whose interest is ethnomusicology, the study of how cultures use music. The student is creating an educational program centered on Native American music and weaves it with Memphis’s traditional sound, the blues. “Over the years, University of Memphis students have been involved in field excavations here,” says Connolly. “More recently, the work done here to improve exhibits has been done by students. We’ve started a volunteer Saturday every two to three weeks to process some artifacts, and there are a lot of students involved in that. I’m really pleased with that association.” That association with the university makes the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa — named after the museum’s first director — a uniquely Memphis place. But even more, it’s the only Native American archaeological site open for interpretation in Memphis. Other sites and attractions examine the Native American experience in Memphis — the Pink Palace Museum has some displays, and the National Ornamental Metal Museum is situated on the DeSoto Mounds — but Chucalissa exists solely to educate about the Native American history and experience. The annual Choctaw Indian Heritage Festival in October draws public attention to Native American customs, as do fun runs, Archeology Day, family days, and various demonstrations of crafts and early technologies. “Here, visitors can get the full interactive experience with both the prehistoric and historic periods of Native Americans,” Connolly says. “What I’d like is that we continue taking the leadership role in the Memphis area in providing a forum for the American Indian — the contemporary American Indian community — to tell their story the way they want their story told.” C. H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, 1987 Indian Village, 785-3160, memphis.edu/chucalissa.
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