My first glimpse heading east on Highway 16 from Carthage was of a large metal sphere hanging in the sky above the treeline on our left. The Golden Moon Casino in Philadelphia, Mississippi, is exactly that–a huge gleaming sphere. While trees obscure your view of the remaining structure, it really does seem to float in the sky.
The main structure is, of course, the casino hotel, and it curves up from the ground to the solar–paneled mass at its zenith in a red–brown arc as though the earth itself were rising to meet the moon. Not exactly what one might expect to see on the side of a highway in central Mississippi.
This is the land of lush pastures, of densely forested miles of prime hunting ground, of kudzu, kudzu, and (did I mention?) kudzu.
It is also the land of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The tribe owns and operates the Golden Moon Casino, and on Saturday, July 15th, I experienced my first visit to Philadelphia, MS, for the 68th annual Choctaw Indian Fair.
As a native Mississippian, I have known about Mississippi’s Native American Indian culture all of my life. That is to say I’ve known that Mississippi has a Native American Indian culture. I confess, however, that for most of my life the term Native American Indian has conjured in my mind ideas and images that are distinctly Southwestern–Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi–primarily, I think, because of my passion for southwestern native art and jewelry.
On Saturday, I learned first–hand about Choctaw Indian culture in Mississippi. I learned about fry bread (which is delicious) and about Indian tacos. I learned about the Iron Warrior competition and watched the women’s final. I wandered through three separate tents of Choctaw craftsmen, and I witnessed the delicate and pains–taking process of beading the elaborate designs for earrings, bracelets, pendants and rings that represent a predominant Choctaw Indian craft.
I met people and heard their stories. Justin Notah, a vendor from Tohatchi, New Mexico, told me that the Choctaw Fair in Mississippi is an annual event for him. “I’m here every year, in this exact spot!” A silversmith by trade, Notah helps his brother run the business that their parents began in 1970. He makes rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, including a substantial bracelet made by tufa casting and
featuring a stunning piece of deep blue turquoise. His craftsmanship speaks for itself, but his dedication to the event and the local Choctaw culture it supports also impresses.
A nearby vendor from Chicago, Illinois, agreed. A cousin had made the trek to Mississippi with her to help man the booth where they sold pieces of a collection assembled by her father. According to the vendor, her father started out by taking the things that he made to pow–pows and trading with other artists. Eventually, he had amassed enough to become a vendor at the pow–pows. Ultimately, he opened a store in Chicago.
The store closed in 1998 when her father was no longer able to run it. Now, she travels with various family members each year to support the Mississippi fair and to continue her father’s tradition of trading (now selling) at native cultural events. “My mother says he provided for her when he was alive and he’s still providing for her.” I purchased a beautiful onyx ring from her booth. I love it and the idea that in a small way I’ve helped them to celebrate his legacy.
The fair offered many other events and showcases–headliner musical acts and the annual stickball championship–that we weren’t able to see. I’ve mentioned the Iron Warrior competition we did catch. We grabbed our Indian tacos on fry bread and a shady spot under a canopy to watch the women’s final.
Warriors is the right description. These women were tough. And strong. The winner of the $500 cash prize for first place was the defending champion, and she did not fail to impress completing the course in 3:07. The second place winner, equally impressive, clocked in at 3:43.
On our drive into Philadelphia, I was talking briefly with my brother–in–law and mentioned our plans for the fair. He’s a fellow Mississippian who visited the fair years ago as a child. “All I remember is red dirt and heat.” We had plenty of both, but I will remember much more.
I will remember people. Fierce competitors and dedicated craftsmen. I will remember their stories, shared with open hearts and genuine pleasure to be in Philadelphia, MS, at the Choctaw Indian fair talking to me. I hope one day that we’ll go back. I’d like to see the traditional dances and watch a live stickball match. I’ll remember my sun hat and sunscreen next time because my brother–in–law wasn’t lying about the heat.
Next time you’re in Mississippi, or next summer if you’re a magnolia state denizen, take a drive up, down, or over to Philadelphia and sample some fry bread. You may find you’ll collect some stories of your own!