Updated: 12/17/19 —
If you’ve lived in Memphis, Tennessee all your life you’ve doubtlessly seen the sign for Chucalissa Indian Village on I-55 about a gazillion times. But before you could consider what you were seeing and what this so-called Indian village was all about, chances are your thoughts quickly wandered over to (also for the gazillionth time): “What are they making in all those factories?” ⇠ Another unsolved Memphis mystery, no?
Chucalissa Indian Village is one of those places you know is there, but that you’ve probably never visited and don’t know anything about. And why is that exactly? For the same reason almost no one I know in Memphis has ever visited Graceland or why people in Boston laugh at me when I want to walk the Freedom Trail or visit Plimoth Plantation, again. (#historynerd) These are safety net attractions—museums and such that you’re in no hurry to visit because they’ve always been there and therefore will always be there. They’re your “If we’re not married by the time we’re 40…” backup plan, tourism version. Ironically, that’s probably the same age you’ll finally break down and visit.
They also tend to be field trip destinations—somewhere you probably visited during elementary school when you cared about historical artifacts about as much as you did the federal deficit or butternut squash recipes. But guess what? Those places that you visited because you had to once upon a time, they’re actually interesting as grown ups! Instead of concentrating on marching in a single file line through a building where your biggest task of the day was to keep your mouth shut and your hands to yourself, you’re now free (and willing) to actually learn something. Spread the word—knowledge is cool! Also, no one is threatening to wipe boogers on you!
WHAT IS CHUCALISSA INDIAN VILLAGE?
Chucalissa Indian Village is made up of the C.H. Nash Museum, an archaeology laboratory, the prehistoric Native American mound complex, nature trails, and a fully certified arboretum (tree zoo, if you will). The site centers around a Mississippian village (mound town, if you will) that is believed to have been inhabited between 1000-1500 AD. These Mississippian villages consist of mounds of earth (ground mounds?) that were built to elevate temples and residences of high-ranking officials, a flat central plaza, and all the other residential homes and gardens.
Here’s a mock-up of what the site at Parkin Archaeological Park is believed to have looked like, to give you an idea ⇣⇣⇣
The mound town known as Chucalissa (“Abandoned House” in the Choctaw language) was discovered in 1938, opened as a museum in 1956 after 16 years of archaeological excavation, and, I’m guessing, probably became a top-notch 3rd grade field trip shortly after that.
9 REASONS YOU SHOULD VISIT CHUCALISSA INDIAN VILLAGE ALREADY!
Not being one of the few who ever visited on a school field trip, I finally visited Chucalissa Indian Village on my recent trip back home to Memphis. Was it because I had nothing else to do and no one else with whom to do anything with? Umm, yeah. Was it because I’ve always been curious about this place that seems, by name alone, so unlike every other Memphis attraction? Absolutely. And was it because I’m super interested in learning about Native American cultures? Totally. (Other reasons include: it was a beautiful, sunny day and admission is cheap as hell.)
Being bored and lonely aside, I’m so glad I finally visited Chucalissa Indian Village. I had no intentions whatsoever of writing a blog post about this place or even mentioning to anyone that I went (this one was all for me), but I had a surprisingly incredible day and felt compelled to spread the nerd word!
01 | IT’S ABOUT DAMN TIME, DON’T YOU THINK?
When you reside in a city, the smaller—probably educational—attractions get constantly overlooked in favor of complaining about how lame your city is and how there’s nothing to do. I mean, if those places were cool you would’ve visited already, right? So regardless of how many times you see the highway signs or how many years you deny their existence, these types of places remain forever on your “Maybe Someday” list along with learning how to French braid your hair and finally going through your voicemail messages. (Can y’all just stop leaving those? Thanksss.)
Because these sites have always been there and will never not be there as far as you’re concerned, you become accustomed to ignoring them for ignorance’s sake. However, visiting your hometown as both a travel blogger and as a now out-of-state tourist, you look at your city’s attractions in a completely different light. You look for *things to do* in your hometown just as you would when traveling to Paris or Amsterdam or Tokyo. When I look at the list of top attractions/sites in Memphis, TN (where I lived for the first 26 years of my life), I realize I’ve only visited 20% of them. And only about half of those were visited in adulthood, the rest being school field trips during which the only thing I gave a damn about was that I was not in a classroom. Seriously, I could’ve been anywhere for all I cared as long as I got there via a bus with brown pleather seats and no seatbelts.
But the thing is, it’s not like these sites and museums were opened strictly to serve as field trip destinations to kids who don’t care. They opened to educate the masses on a particular subject matter and to preserve priceless historical artifacts—and somewhere along the line that became something we were all too cool for. But now that we’re mostly adult-ish (maybe?) we can actually appreciate places like these. We can read placards and be blown away by the information we’re learning because they don’t actually open museums for things that don’t impress; we can look at ancient artifacts and truly understand their age and significance; and we’ll say things like, “I can’t believe I’ve never been there! 😬” ⇠ Literal Instagram reply from my oldest Memphis friend.
So as with Chucalissa Indian Village and many other oft-passed over local attractions, don’t you think it’s about damn time you finally checked it out? You’re always complaining that you’re bored, so what are you waiting for? What do you have to lose?
02 | LEARN ABOUT PAST LOCAL CULTURES YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT.
Believe it or not, there’s more to Mid-South history than blues and cotton, civil wars and civil rights. Some may believe Memphis history began the day Elvis Presley walked into Sun Studio but, now brace yourself, did you know there’s stuff that happened in the Memphis area long before Elvis was even born? Turns out there’s a whole prehistory to the area we know little about save for our former Memphis Chicks baseball team. *memory swoon*
As with every other inch of the United States of America, various Native American tribes were already here doin’ they thang long before gyrating hips were a conversation topic. “They thang” being stuff like freaking inventing farming and curing diseases with only roots and leaves. What have you accomplished today? Me? Well, let’s just say that “get my expired car inspection updated” remains firmly on my Maybe Someday list.
Chucalissa Indian Village is the perfect place to learn about the history before the history. It focuses not on rock and roll or riverboats, but on the Mississippian Indian civilization that was around being awesome from about 800 – 1600 AD. They built earthen mounds and flat-topped earth pyramids for their ceremonies and leaders; they ate so. much. corn.; they developed the chiefdom; and they made kickass pottery. But mostly that mound thing.
Women in the Mississippian culture had loads of power. They could rule over chiefdoms, lead war parties, fight in battle, and become doctors and shamans. They were responsible for the most sacred duties and, as it turns out, a menstruating woman was believed to have had great sacred power. So you’re saying the symptoms society today considers futile rage and emotional instability, the Mississippians considered divine? *steps into time machine never to be seen again*
Chucalissa Indian Village covers every aspect of Mississippian life from food and hunting to agriculture, crafts, sports, beliefs, gender roles, and a full historical timeline. It also dedicates a great portion of itself to the cultures that emerged from the Mississippian civilization that you’re probably more familiar with—the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw, and Cherokee tribes that still occupy the area today.
Museums like Chucalissa Indian Village are not just great ways to learn about new-to-you topics, but they are the best ways to get accurate information—something we both lack and desperately need today. The same could be said for time machines, as a matter of fact.
03 | THE AFOREMENTIONED “CHEAP AS HELL”
Admission to Chucalissa Indian Village, as of this writing, is $6 for adults. The Sonic slush I drank on the way there cost $3, to put that into perspective. That admission fee goes directly back into the maintenance and upkeep of the site and, I should mention, that’s $6 for regular walking-in-off-the-street Joe Schmoes like myself–students, faculty, and staff of the University of Memphis (of which Chucalissa is part) get in fo’ free! Sundays in January are also free! On the day I went there was a visiting PhD student from Tulsa researching the museum. For completing her survey I received a $5 Wal-Mart gift card and a Chucalissa postcard so… basically my admission was also FREE!
04 | THE VIP TREATMENT
Because it lacks the popularity of more musically-focused attractions, there’s a good chance you’ll have the entire Chucalissa Indian Village to yourself. With the exception of about three minutes when one guy showed up, ran from informational sign to informational sign like he was in last place of some sort of strange adult scavenger hunt, then disappeared (some people are just in it for the Wal-Mart money, I guess), I spent my time there all alone and it was glorious.
No crowds to push through, no idiot’s opinions to unwillingly be forced to hear, no kids and their booger hands, total silence, and the staff putting on informational videos just for me. This must be how actual royalty feels.
05 | THEY LET YOU TOUCH THINGS!
Unlike most other museums which are strictly hands off (like 99% of them in my very loudly alarmed experience), Chucalissa Indian Village is quite the opposite. Besides being able to climb the earth mounds and go into the replica house, they have a working hands-on archaeological laboratory where you can touch all the ancient things: arrowheads and other weaponry, animal skins and skeletons, pottery and other crafty things.
06 | IT’S A NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK.
With a capital N, a capital H, and a capital L, that is.
In 1994 Chucalissa Indian Village was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Parks Foundations and the U.S. Department of the Interior, having been upgraded from its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places where it sat since 1974. It’s now one of just four National Historic Landmarks in Memphis, Tennessee, the others being Beale Street, Graceland, and (you guessed it) Sun Studio—all of which you’ve probably been to. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks in all of the US today, a distinction for only the best examples of historically significant sites that adequately illustrate American history and culture. So, sorry—that place where you had that killer BBQ sandwich doesn’t count (yet, but feel free to nominate it).
07 | FEEL LIKE YOU’RE A MILLION MILES FROM THE CITY.
Though Chucalissa Indian Village is well within the Memphis city limits, even the drive there will have you wondering what state (or century?) you’ve ventured into. The trip there is only about ten minutes from the I-55 exit but it’s down wide open, lonely roads you never knew existed in Memphis. And then into the forest you go.
Chucalissa Indian Village is situated high on a bluff of its own, overlooking the Mississippi River. It’s located inside the vastly wooded area of T.O. Fuller State Park and the only sign of life you can see from atop the Mississippian earth mounds is the smoke stacks from the factories producing lord knows what. (Somebody once told me it was dog food?)
The Chucalissa site includes, and is surrounded by, various nature trails and their fully certified arboretum (tree zoo) showcasing a variety of plant species used for medicinal, dye, and other past purposes. It’s nature-y, it’s quiet, and you won’t believe you’re just a short 15-minute drive from Beale Street and the rest of Downtown Memphis.
08 | IT WON’T TAKE UP A LOT OF YOUR TIME.
If you’re worried a visit to Chucalissa Indian Village will eat up your day, think again Jack. Because I had the whole place to myself, I was able to read every single display and sign in the place, watch the introductory video, walk every inch of the outdoor space, work on my selfie game, touch all the ancient things, browse the gift shop, and complete two research surveys all in about 2.5 hours. And that was me trying to stretch the hell out of my time because: bored, lonely.
09 | CHUCALISSA IS JUST A DROP IN THE MISSISSIPPIAN BUCKET.
I admit that even being from the area, I knew SQUAT about these civilizations and their earth mounds. I thought Mississippian culture meant aqua-colored Polos tucked into salmon-colored shorts? Turns out these mound-building tribes were located all over the Eastern United States and there are countless sites you can visit—who knew!?
There’s Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park—the largest and most influential Mississippian settlement with about 80 mounds—just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri.
There’s Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park just outside Jackson, TN (about 90 miles east of Memphis) which predates Chucalissa by about 1,000 years.
There’s the Parkin Archaeological State Park in Parkin, Arkansas that existed late in the Mississippian period and is believed to have been visited by Hernando de Soto himself in 1542. (It’s because of de Soto’s observations that we know so much about the Mississippian culture in the first place so… big deal.)
There’s Moundville Archaeological Site (looks like I named this one) near Tuscaloosa, Alabama who, along with Cahokia, is said to be one of the two most important Mississippian sites.
…and loads and loads more to add to your Maybe Someday list.
Two days after my visit to Chucalissa Indian Village I visited the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville where there was yet another endless display of information on Mississippian culture and another really long canoe. (I highly recommend the prehistory section of this museum—a museum that is totally free for everyone all the time, by the way. The pictures below are from the Tennessee State Museum.)
CHUCALISSA INDIAN VILLAGE
⇢ WEBSITE: memphis.edu/chucalissa
⇢ ADDRESS: 1987 Indian Village Drive, Memphis, TN
⇢ PHONE: (901) 785-3160
⇢ ADMISSION: Children under 4, free | Children 4-11, $4 | Adults 12-59, $6 | Seniors 60+ $4 | University of Memphis students, faculty, and staff, free
⇢ HOURS: Mondays, closed | Tuesdays – Saturdays, 9 am-5 pm | Sundays, 1 pm-5 pm |
Closed on holidays
⇢ SOCIAL: Facebook