Preservation Perspectives podcast - Interview with C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa Graduate Assistant, Cristina Rose


by Glenn Vaulx, fall 2020 ACHP Intern, Howard University Graduate Student, Architecture

As a lifelong resident of Memphis, Tennessee, I have witnessed the city’s close relationship with history, heritage, and the complexities of their consequences. Throughout the city’s landscapes and communities lies a record of the people and events that have shaped its present circumstances. Memphis’ rich background is widely known primarily for its music and civil rights history. However, the value of such a historical record can be fully recognized in a National Historic Landmark like the Chucalissa Village, located in T.O. Fuller State Park, where more than a thousand years ago, Native Americans built earthen mounds to use for ceremonies and residences of high-ranking officials.

In Chucalissa we have inherited more than artifacts and research material. Passed down through the land is an opportunity for us to better understand their place in the world and in history. With November designated as Native American Heritage Month, Chucalissa provides an ideal opportunity for visitors to socially distance and historically connect with the lives that precede our own.

I first visited Chucalissa and the C.H. Nash Museum as a second grade student with my class. Now, at 23 years old, I revisited the site with greater awareness and appreciation of the efforts to learn about the previous community groups that inhabited this area. Named by archaeologists for the Choctaw word meaning “abandoned house,” the story of Chucalissa and the surrounding area is tied to the landscape. The site of Chucalissa hosted a number of societies and experienced several phases of occupation dating to at least 1000 A.D. Since 1962, the University of Memphis has operated Chucalissa as a center of research and conservation of the materials and landmarks that give insight to the people who once lived here.

During my visit to the museum, I was able to walk the site and observe the ceremonial mound and central plaza. The archaeological site attempts to transport visitors to what an ancient Mississippian society would have looked and felt like with reconstructed dwellings and preserved mounds. In imagining what the site may have felt like as an inhabited space, I began to consider my placement on the site’s timeline. Nearly 1,000 years separate me from the earliest approximate evidence of inhabitance at Chucalissa. This far precedes the founding of the city of Memphis in 1819, when modern Indian tribes such as the Choctaw or Chickasaw inhabited the area. In that moment, my historic world view expanded as I interacted with the physical heritage of Chucalissa.

Furthermore, Chucalissa reinforces modern Native American heritage and culture. Through the exhibit hall, I learned of the past and present work in which communities such as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians engage to honor their heritage.

Through my visit to Chucalissa, I broadened my view of the landscape I consider my home. The preservation of this landmark serves as a reminder of how important physical spaces are to a community’s understanding of heritage.