Dancers, ceremony say y’all come’ to Spanish royalty

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 23, 2000

Duke of San Carlos Spain Alvaro Fernandez-Villaverde is welcomed during the opening of a ceremony on Fort Hill Sunday afternoon. At his right is Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

A river bluff once the basis of a Spanish-Choctaw alliance is again a symbol of unification between the two cultures.

Fort Nogales was established by Spain in 1791 at the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers to control river traffic and block land expansions by other settlers. The area was populated by the Choctaw Indians, who officially “allowed” the Spanish peaceful access through the Treaty of Nogales. The pact was signed Oct. 28, 1793, some 207 years before a Sunday afternoon ceremony recognizing the agreement and an upcoming Spanish art exhibition.

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“I think it was really emotional to remember those old times when people from Spain and people from Choctaw came together and they agreed on the Treaty of Nogales,” said Jose G. Nunez-Iglesias, the Consul General of Spain. “It was really emotional to remember today what happened so many years ago. … That was the end of the 18th century, so there’s been a lot of rain pouring down the Mississippi since then.”

Nunez-Iglesias was part of a Spanish delegation, including the Duke of San Carlos, Alvaro Fernandez-Villaverde, who traveled to Mississippi in anticipation of “The Majesty of Spain” exhibition. The display of paintings, sculpture and other art objects, the first of its kind outside the European country, will be shown exclusively March 1-Sept. 3 at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion in downtown Jackson.

The ceremony at Fort Nogales, known locally as Fort Hill and now part of the Vicksburg National Military Park, featured brief remarks from Fernandez-Villaverde, president of the government agency that oversees Spain’s royal collections, and Tribal Chief Phillip Martin of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

“It’s good sometimes to go back and look at history,” said Martin, who extended an official invitation to Spain’s King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia to attend the exhibition’s spring inauguration. He noted “there were no hostilities” between the Spanish and Choctaws 200 years ago, and Sunday’s action continues “a good relationship.”

The Spanish had been in what is now Mississippi long before 1791. On May 5, 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto was the first European to see the Mississippi River. During Colonial days and until 1798, the area was controlled by the French and English before Spanish rule resumed in Revolutionary years.

The promontory where Sunday’s ceremony occurred no longer overlooks the Mississippi River, which changed course 140 years ago. It still overlooks the Yazoo.

Martin brought with him several Choctaw dancers, many of whom selected partners from the ceremony’s 200 or so guests. Among those asked to dance were former Mississippi first lady Pat Fordice; Contesse Isabelle de Beaumont of Belgium and France, a member of the the duke’s party; Jack Kyle, executive director of the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange, which is bringing “The Majesty of Spain” to Jackson; and Mayor Robert Walker.

Walker read portions of a proclamation recognizing the area’s Spanish history the present city of Vicksburg traces its roots to the establishment of a settlement that became known as Walnut Hills and he and Aldermen Gertrude Young and Sam Habeeb gave mementos including small American flags to the Spanish delegation.

Following the presentation, which included recognition from the Warren County Board of Supervisors, Fernandez-Villaverde was whisked away to meet a helicopter that would fly him to the Jackson airport. “He was called back to Spain on official business,” Kyle said, explaining why the ceremony, originally planned for 12:30, was pushed up a half-hour. “We were able to include everything in the itinerary for the duke other than the visit to Natchez.”

Fernandez-Villaverde arrived Wednesday in Mississippi, where his stops included Cleveland and Hattiesburg. “The duke’s overall reaction was that he was very pleased,” Kyle said, adding that Sunday’s visit in Vicksburg “was the most solid gesture” recognizing the historical ties among Spain, the Choctaws and Mississippi. “He indicated he felt very content with Spain’s decision to stage this exhibition in Mississippi.”

Kyle remains hopeful that the duke, who is friends with the king and queen, can persuade them to visit the state during the exhibition. Meanwhile, Nunez-Iglesias will work through his diplomatic channels to invite the monarchs. “I will not fail to report to the ambassador,” he said, adding that, “This exhibition … will be a big, big event, and I think it’s going to attract a lot of visitors, which will be a good thing for Mississippi and a good thing for Spain.”

In light of Fort Nogales’ new role, Walker, too, hopes for a tourism boost. “It’s been viewed in the context of a fortification where you would want to defend the city. Now it’s a significance of people coming together.

“It’s still a historical point, but it shows how time to time their use can be very different,” he said. “It isn’t any longer don’t come.’ We’re using this very historical point in this city to say y’all come.'”