Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Legend of the Singing River

Refer to caption
Legend of the Singing River by Lorin Thompson
Pascagoula, Mississippi Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Lorin Thompson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1911. After being awarded the commission to create the New Deal-era mural Legend of the Singing River in Pascagoula, Thompson, would gain most of his artistic recognition later in life. His name became recognized for the character “Ranger Rick” that he created for the National Wildlife Federation’s youth publication titled Ranger Rick. Thompson also had his works of art displayed at the Chicago Art Institute and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. among other prestigious collections.

The Pascagoula River runs through modern day Pascagoula, Mississippi located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. “The Legend of the Singing River” is actually a collection of legends and myths about the origin of the strange musical sounds coming from these waters when the conditions were right. For hundreds of years visitors and locals have experienced and attempted to describe the eerily beautiful sound seemingly rising from the water. This has been typically described by locals as “a mysterious humming sound that rises from the waters of the river.” The stories contain historical truths, but are romanticized versions and include mythical creatures like mermaids or sirens, who have enticed people to follow them, resulting in their death. In this version it focuses themes of sacrifice not of fear, but the inevitability of change and the way it’s accepted. In the painting one sees parents comforting children and children comforting pets creating a somber mood set by the dark colors and overhanging trees.

The history of the Pascagoula people is shrouded in as much mystery and legend as the river itself. Although the origin of the Pascagoula people is unclear, they were one of many smaller bands, like the Biloxi, who lived together along the riverine systems of Mississippi and Louisiana spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. They are thought to be of Choctaw affiliation, as the word Pascagoula translates to “bread-eater” in the Choctaw language. During the 16th through18th centuries, the Pascagoula people were visited and their history influenced by other tribal groups, Spanish and French explorers named them arbitrarily, further adding to the confusion or their origin. The artist chose to use the historically acceptable portrayal of unclothed, seemingly wild natives perhaps to show their vulnerability to the elements.

According to legend, the Biloxi and Pascagoula Tribes had co-existed over centuries before a split between the tribes resulted in the disappearance of both tribes from the region. Altama, Chief of the Pascagoula, was in love with Anola, a Biloxi princess who was promised to the Chief of the Biloxi, going against traditional protocols. Altama and Anola wanted to be together regardless of the outcome. In response, the Biloxi made war on the Pascagoula killing and taking them as slaves for the decision Altama had made. The Pascagoula were outnumbered and feared what the future held for them. Loyal to Altama, they decided as a group that it would be better to die at their own hand than become slaves. In the afterworld they would be reunited and live in a perfect world. Altama, Anola and the Pascagoula people chose to drown themselves in the river, and while singing their death song, they joined hands and walked into the waters. According to local legend, the disappearance of the Pascagoula people has a direct connection with the sounds which they hear coming from the water. Thompson captures the image of Indians with their hands in the air as if they were offering themselves for a sacrifice to the river. There appears to be a sense of peace about the scene and as the people give themselves up to the river.

Throughout nautical history there have been tales of creatures and monsters in the water, among them the legend of the mermaids and sirens who enticed travelers to their death lured into the water by their songs. Along the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the bayous of the southeastern United States, the tribal legends also involve mythical water creatures and the sounds which come from the rivers. One of the first written accounts of the “Singing River” was that of Governor Perier of French Louisiana on his visit to the Pascagoula Tribe. “…while among the Pascagoulas or ‘Bread Eaters,’ he was invited to go to the mouth of the river of that name and listen to the mysterious music which floats on the waters. The water formed itself into a towering column of foaming waves, on the top stood a mermaid.  As the Indians and missionary looked on, the mermaid began to sing ‘Come to me, come to me,’ where upon they walked into the water never to be seen again.” There are similar stories in other parts of the bayou, such as the Singing River located in modern-day Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which is also links the strange sounds emanating from under the water’s surface with the disappearance of the local tribe.

Although it is believed that all the Pascagoula committed suicide by drowning, according to the Journal of American Folklore, “there are several versions of such a mass-drowning in print all mentioning…either the Biloxi tribe or the Pascagoula, who were closely associated with, and perhaps absorbed by former.” Oral traditions of the Biloxi tell a similar story of their migration to Louisiana and Texas and intermarrying with other tribes further clouding the truth. Local residents preferred to adopt the more romanticized version of the river’s history because it “makes the Pascagoula the victims of aggression and the participants in mass-suicide, and the Biloxi the aggressors; the cause of the war is the traditional emotional attachment between a prince and one of the rival tribes and the princess of another.”

The history of the Pascagoula people is unclear. The myth of the Singing River continues to draw people to Pascagoula and the rivers romanticized identity creating tourism in the region. The river has instilled a sense of communal pride in local residents with a number of businesses adopting the title of Singing River into their names. In 1985 a county resolution formally renamed a stretch of the Pascagoula River, the Singing River.

By Reuben Noah (Choctaw, Kickapoo, and Iowa Nations)


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