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Footnote: What is the difference between Chiaha, Ychiaha and Olameco?

Footnote: What is the difference between Chiaha, Ychiaha and Olameco?


Those of you who have read the four versions of the chronicles of the Hernando de Soto Expedition and the Juan de la Bandera’s report on the two Pardo Expeditions probably noticed that the Spanish seemed to use three different words for the same town in the Great Smoky Mountains . . . or were they different towns?   The authors of The Desoto Chronicles and Knights of the Cross, Warriors of the Sun provided no explanation.  They skipped over this enigma by suggesting that perhaps these are different towns in the same “chiefdom.”  That’s because they had no clue about the meaning of any of the Native American town names in these 16th century documents.  Well,  Charles Hudson said that “Chiaha meant “highlanders” or perhaps was an ancient Cherokee word, whose meaning had been lost.”

The word for “highlanders” in the Creek languages is hiwalsi, but apparently Hudson could not afford the $24 for a Creek dictionary back then.  The Muskogee-Creek dictionary defines Chiaha, Cheaha and Chehaw as a proper nouns and the alternate names of an important Hitchiti-speaking tribal town of the Creek Confederacy.  However, it does not provide a meaning, because the word is not Muskogean.

Actually,  the description of Chiaha in the Spanish archives is one of the most important proofs that Itza Maya refugees settled in Southeastern North America.  They practiced many cultural traditions, straight from Chiapas State, Mexico . . . but POOF will get into that as part of the December 2017 series on the Mayas in North America.

(1) Chiaha is an Itza Maya word which means, “Chia (grain salvia) – River.   The Spaniards observed large fields of salvia growing along the rivers in the mountains of North Carolina.  Chiapas means “Salvia – Place of” in Itza Maya.   In the case of the Province of Chiaha, this ethnic name could have a double meaning.  Chi’a-ha means “Beside the River” in the Itza language.

(2) Ychiaha is the Castilian (Spanish) way of writing Ichiaha or Echiaha.  Y is how the Castilian alphabet expresses an Ē sound.  Both Itza Maya and Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek place a long Ē in front or at the end of proper nouns to state that the words are the principal or most important entity with this name.  In front of a province’s name, the Ē means that it is the capital.

Muskogee Creeks use this Maya grammatical tool without knowing it today.  Talwa is a town.  Etalwa is a principal or tribal town.  Mara is an Itza word for a town or warrior council member.  Both among the Itza and Creeks,  Emara, was the name of a principal council member, who represented the Great Sun at diplomatic meetings or was a chief advisor to the Great Sun.  By the late 1700s Emara had evolved in the Muskogee-Creek language to Emathla.

Cherokees, who took over former Muskogean towns, also use this Maya grammatical tool without knowing it.   When the town of Choi’te (a Maya People in the Tabasco Lowlands of Mexico) was taken over, the Cherokees initially called it Chote.  You can see that phonetic spelling in early 18th century maps. When Chote became the seat of the the

(3) Olameco is the Medieval Spanish misspelling of T’ula-māko,  the Itza Maya and Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek word for a provincial capital.  In both languages, Tulamako means Town-Great (Leader). Both Itza and Hitchiti frequently use single consonant sounds as syllables.

 A mako was the highest official (king) of a town or single province.   Among both the Mayas and Itsate Creeks a High King was entitled Hene-mako, which means “Sun-Great”.    That’s where we get the title of “Great Sun” today, when describing the High King of a culturally advanced Muskogean or Natchez state.

Multiple island towns in Chiaha visited by the Spanish?

Yes,  that is a possibility.  I carried photocopies of the De Soto Chronicles and Pardo’s Report with me as I explored and hiked the terrain of Graham and Swain Counties, North Carolina in the spring of 2010.  I noticed subtle differences in the description of the geography between the capital of Chiaha, where De Soto’s expedition first went and the Chiaha, where the conquistadors camped for several weeks to recondition their horses and fish.   There are also differences in the description of where Juan Pardo first went and the second location named Chiaha, where Pardo built a fort.   However, none of these descriptions match Zimmerman Island, Tennessee, where the late 20th century academicians, who didn’t know Creek, Maya or Spanish, placed Chiaha.

De Soto: Expedition: The description of the capital of Chiaha (Ichiaha) by De Soto’s and Pardo’s chroniclers match exactly.   However, De Soto’s chroniclers used the term Chiaha, not Ychiaha, for the place where the conquistadors camped.  It was described as an island town in a deep gorge, where a small river met a large river.   On the other hand the capital was described as being immediately down stream from where two large rivers joined and in the vicinity of where four rivers joined . . . the Little Tennessee, Tuckasegee, Nantahala and Oconaluftee.

The camp site exactly matches the Proto-Creek island town of Talasee (Tulasi in Itsate) which is immediately downstream from where the Cheoah River joins the Little Tennessee River.  Most readers are probably very familiar with this location.  It is where Harrison Ford seemingly jumped into a gorge to escape the law in the blockbuster 1993 movie, The Fugitive!   The De Soto Chronicles describe a tragedy in which a hunter overthrew a javelin near the crest of this gorge.  It gored a popular middle-aged member of the expedition, who was fishing for trout in the river.   Tulasi means “Descendants of Etula . . . the first occupants of Etowah Mounds.  This is significant. 

Talasee Island contains modest mounds. It is about 24 miles downstream from the probable capital of Chiaha.

Juan Pardo’s fort in Chiaha: During the 1990s and early 2000s, a professional archaeologist retired in Graham County, NC.   Finding that the state’s archaeologists had ignored the incredibly rich Native American heritage of the Robbinsville, NC area, he carried out his own archaeological survey.  He identified at least 18 mounds, several large Native towns and the probable site of a 16th century Spanish fort under the waters of Lake Santeetlah, which is formed by the confluence of the Cheoah River and Santeetlah Creek.  He identified the pre-Cherokee inhabitants of Graham County as being very closely related culturally to Etowah Mounds in Northwest Georgia.  When the lake was temporarily drained for dam repairs,  he found a concentration of 16th century Spanish artifacts and the probable footprint of a triangular fort.   

The Florida archaeologist’s report was sent to the North Carolina Historic Preservation Office, but ignored.  First, the report negated the claims of the Cherokees as having lived in Graham County for 10,000 years.  It also made the official route of Pardo and De Soto through the French Broad Valley, highly unlikely . . . as if there was any justification for the route in the first place.   To this day, the only mounds in Graham County, that are officially registered by the NC State Historic Preservation Office are in the Tuskeegee Community on Fontana Lake.  There was an 18th century Cherokee village there, so they are called “Cherokee Mounds.”  The 1994 blockbuster movie,  Nell, starring Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson was filmed there.  In real life, Neeson and Richardson fell in love while picnicking near these mounds.

I stayed in a vacation cottage in Tuskeegee, NC during March and early April of 2010.  People there laughed at me when I told them that Tuskeegee was a Creek word and the name of a major division of the Creek Confederacy.   Oh well . . . fiddle-deedee . . . after all,  tomorrow is another day.



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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Richard, you have discovered how little these Universities understand the complex Native story of the South. Your discovery of the alignment of the Georgia Native Temple mounds with the Apalachicola river mouth location might also be aligned down to the newly discovered so called “The white City of gold of the monkey god” in Honduras. This might be a ancient connection with the Paracas (“Paracussis” in North Georgia) people of Peru that created textiles of moneys held in a British museum. Hernando Cortes is supposed to have heard of the city and its wealth. By local lore the lost city’s main temple was designed like a Giant monkey. The Hindu’s of India have a monkey god they call “Hanuman Jayanti” and with the connection of India /Asian type pyramids in Honduras?…perhaps there were some people that migrated from India in the ancient past. Mr. Briggstock noted a very colorful bird (tropical Parrot?) that was part of the Paracussis ceremonies once a year indicating another connection with a Tropical location. Do you know of any tropical artworks found at Georgia sites?,_British_Museum.jpg

    • The bird was the Painted Bunting. It spends the warm months in North America and then in the fall flies down to Mexico and Central America . . . even Central America. I remember seeing them in Waycross as a kid, but I don’t think that I have ever seen one in the Piedmont or Southern Highlands.

      I am fairly certain that Florida has some indigenous, tropical style artworks. I have never seen any in the upper elevations.


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