“Whenever I introduce Choctaw culture, I am reminded of our Tribal ancestors who still live in our collective memory. The stories of their lives, full of both triumph and tragedy, remind us of our strong Choctaw heritage, and they are the background against which our current renaissance of Choctaw cultural arts, educational achievements, and progressive economic developments are illuminated. What it means to be Choctaw is deeply rooted within each of us. Our identity, ultimately defined by our blood, continues from generation-to-generation. Our strong inner spirit that has sustained us throughout history manifests itself again and again in beautiful and creative ways outwardly towards others.”~Tribal Chief Bealsey Denson~Choctaw Nation (Excerpt from a Welcome Speech –2004)
The Choctaw are a proud people with an arduous history. Like their neighbors the Cherokee, the Choctaw were forced to move from their land. Theirs is also a history of intrigue and glory. One reason is that their forefathers played an important role during World War I in this country! In the following pages you’ll learn the meanings of: Code talkers, head flattening, and the Green Corn festival.
The antecedents of the Choctaw people were part of a very large group of Indians which inhabited the southern and middle Mississippi valley region as much as 4,000-8,000 years ago. Several Spanish expeditions in the early 1500’s might have contacted the Choctaw, but there is no question that Hernando De Soto’s 1540 expedition encountered them. The Choctaw inflicted a significant loss on De Soto’s men in a battle near present-day Mobile, Alabama in 1541, and De Soto’s expedition never recovered from the violent confrontation.
As with all of the other American Indian tribes, the Choctaw had always had conflicts with the various neighbors, most notably the Chickasaw. But the coming of the Europeans greatly intensified the wars and battles. Beginning about 1700, both British and French traders vied for trade relations with the tribes, with the Choctaw ending up allied with the French, and the Chickasaw allied with the British.
Besides direct conflicts between the British and French (due to their European wars), the traders stirred up many additional wars between the Choctaw and the Chickasaw tribe. The traders also caused conflict between the Choctaw and the Creeks. When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the Treaty of Paris removed the French from east of the Mississippi River, and the Choctaw became part of Britain’s empire. During the American Revolution, some Choctaw fought for the colonists under Washington and other generals, while other Choctaw fought on the side of the British.
Following the American Revolution in 1783, the Choctaw signed the Treaty of Hopewell with the new United States, placing the tribe under the protection of the new government. However, pressure from the white settlers steadily increased, and by 1800, the Choctaw were beginning to cede some of their lands. In 1811, the noted Shawnee chief Tecumseh was attempting to establish an Indian Confederacy to resist further encroachment. He asked the Choctaw to become part of the confederacy, but the Choctaw chose not to join him and attempted to live in harmony with the U.S. Yet throughout this time, pressure on the Choctaw to leave their traditional grounds steadily increased.
In 1830, then-President Andrew Jackson forced the Choctaw to be the first tribe to be removed from their homelands and relocated in Oklahoma. Almost 15,000 traveled, while about 5,000 remained behind in Mississippi. Many died along the path, victims of disease, exposure, and malnutrition. The newly removed Choctaw tribe set about building new lives in Oklahoma, establishing schools and churches, drafting written laws and a constitution, and taking on many of the white settler’s ways.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), most of the Choctaw sided with the Confederacy and several Choctaw battalions were raised, though none saw extensive battle. During World War I (1914-1918) many Choctaw fought, and 14 Choctaw men became Indian “code talkers”, using their language for military communications, which could not be deciphered by the German enemy.
Tribalpedia’s Questions for Comprehension and Discussion
Directions: Read each of the following statements concerning the reading and decide if it is true(T) or false (F). If the statement is false, correct it. In each case, locate the appropriate part in the reading to confirm your answer.
1. The progenitors of the Choctaw lived 4,000-8,000 years ago.
2. The Choctaw won the battle against DeSoto and his men.
3. The battle occurred near what is today known as Georgia.
4. De Soto recovered from the battle.
5. The Choctaws never had conflicts with other tribes until the Europeans arrived.
6. After the French and Indian War ended, the Choctaw remained allies with the French.
7. During the American Revolution, some Choctaws fought on the side of the Americans, while others fought on the side of the British.
8. The British won the Revolutionary War.
Choctaw Culture Then
The Choctaw men were hunters using bows and arrows which they made themselves to hunt deer, wild turkey, rabbit, and other small game animals. In addition to hunting, they were also expert fishermen. They used dugout canoes, which were fashioned from hollowed-out logs by the men. The Choctaw used other handmade tools such as nets and fishing spears. Choctaw women were responsible for the farming. They planted and harvested corn, beans, squash and sunflowers. At first, the men and the women wore clothing made from the skins of the animals they hunted. After meeting the Europeans, they adapted clothing such as full skirts, shirts and cloth jackets. Everyone wore moccasins.
The Choctaws were known especially for their beautiful river cane baskets and wonderful woodcarvings. However, when they were forced to move from their homes to Oklahoma, the materials that they once used for their traditional crafts were no longer available. To compensate they switched to making beads, creating beadwork belts and similar items.
The Choctaws lived in small villages. Their houses were made from mud plaster and rivercane, with thatched roofs. The men enjoyed sports, so they also allocated space in a field for the game of stickball, including wooden benches for spectators. Within the family, women took care of the home and family members, while the men had the responsibility of protecting their homes against intruders. One interesting note is that before a battle the men painted their faces and bodies with bright colors. Some also had tattoos on their arms and legs. The practices of body painting and tattooing were also executed in preparation for festivals and for certain ceremonies. During these occasions, Choctaw women also painted their faces, but they didn’t paint themselves to the extent that the men did.
The political system of the Choctaw was relatively simple. There was the family unit, with the father as head. There were several clans, and every family belonged to a particular clan. Each clan was comprised of many families with a leader. For important issues the clans leaders would meet and in this way decisions were made for the entire tribe.
In their religion the Choctaw believed in a deity and had many names for him. One of the popular names was Hashi Ikba, which means “Sun Father”. The Choctaw observed many practices; one was called head flattening, which involved attaching a board to the heads of male infants in order to flatten them. This was a common custom among the southeast Indians. The exact reason behind this practice is not clear.
One of the most religious ceremonies was the Green Corn Festival. This festival was both a time of thanksgiving and self-purification. The ceremony took place during the summer. In preparation for the celebration the men would clean all of the public areas, and the women cleaned their homes. First, there was a feast to give thanks for the produce and food from the last year. This was followed by a two-day fast, during which time crimes and social conflicts were discussed with the purpose of allowing them to be forgiven. Finally, there was a fire ritual where all fires were extinguished, the tribe had a moment of silence, and then the religious leader would light a fire that symbolized the beginning of a new year.
Choctaw Culture Today
Although there have been many changes within the culture of the Choctaw, the people work diligently to maintain many of their traditions.
The men still hunt but only at specified times, and the women still cook many of the dishes that the Choctaw have enjoyed for generations such as fry bread and hominy. Today there are many grocery stores and supermarkets. Choctaw women still sew and make clothing, although much of their clothing is bought from stores. Many Choctaw wear still wear moccasins, and during religious ceremonies and festivals the people will wear their traditional regalia.
The art of basket weaving, and bead work are still practiced. There are centers where children attend sessions to learn how to weave, make baskets and do the beadwork of their ancestors. In addition to this, many of the cultural dances are still taught.
The Choctaw live in regular homes and in apartments on tribal land. Within the family both men and women are equal partners. Women still take care of their homes, and many have jobs outside of the home.
The Choctaw have a stable but complex Tribal government. The Tribal governmental structure has been in place since 1945. In that year, a Tribal constitution was ratified, and a representative, democratic form of government was established, with equal representation among all Choctaw communities. The government is headed by an elected Tribal Chief, who serves four-year terms. The current leader of the largest group, located in Mississippi, is Chief Beasley Denson. There are several existing communities within the government, including one that exists in Oklahoma. The Tribe also elects a seventeen-member Tribal Council, with those officials serving four-year terms.
Today the people are engaged in many thriving business enterprises, including a casino. They also boast a large and successful education system. Women are granted the same positions as men in the work force. High-tech industry located on the Reservation includes Choctaw Geo-Imaging Enterprise and joint projects with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. These are just a few examples of the successful business enterprises in which the Tribe is involved. The tribe continues to grow and flourish.
The religious practices of the Choctaw today are complex. Many still celebrate traditional occasions, which include the annual Choctaw Indian Fair that is held each July on the Choctaw Indian Reservation. Spring festivals are also held in each of the Choctaw communities. Thanksgiving brings the annual Choctaw Thanksgiving Feast. All of these events give Tribal members an opportunity to gather as a Choctaw community and celebrate the Tribe’s way of life, including all Choctaw traditions.
A Choctaw Myth:The Gift Of Tanchi (Corn)
Once upon a time there were two Choctaws camped out under a summer moon when they heard a beautiful but sad sound. They walked along the river’s edge following the sound until they came upon a woman standing on a mound of earth.
She was very beautiful, surrounded by light, and wore a dress of white decorated with delicate flowers. Now these two Choctaws had very good manners so they asked her right away how they could help her. “I am hungry,” she said with a small sad voice. The men did not have much food but they gave her their entire supper, and they gave it to her happily. The lovely lady ate only a little and thanked them with a promise.
“If you will go and tell no one you saw me, I will ask my father, the Great Spirit, to give you a great and wondrous gift. Return to this exact spot at the next moon.” A little breeze suddenly blew by and she was gone. The Choctaws returned to their families and said nothing, even though they wanted to.
At the next moon, they quickly returned to the spot but were saddened to see that the woman was not there. But on the exact spot where she stood was a tall green plant with leaves that looked like the swords of the white men. The food this plant gave could be eaten in many different ways, all of which were delicious. The children liked the popcorn it gave best. That plant was the corn plant, of course, a great gift, indeed.
Choctaw Flag Wikimedia Commons