Choctaw (Native Americans of the Southeast)

Choctaw, originally Chahta. An early name for the tribe might have been Pafallaya, or "long hair." They were culturally related to the Chickasaws and Creeks. With the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, they were regarded by whites as one of the Five Civilized Tribes.

Location In the sixteenth century, most Choctaws lived in southern and central Mississippi, as well as parts of Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. Today, most live in southeastern Oklahoma and east-central Mississippi.

Population There were probably between 15,000 and 20,000 Choctaws in the mid-sixteenth century. In 1984 almost 20,000 Choctaws lived in Oklahoma, and roughly 4,000 lived in Mississippi in 1990.

Language Choctaw is a Muskogean language.

Historical Information

History Choctaws probably descended from Mississippian Temple Mound Builders. They may once have been united with the Chickasaw. Early encounters with the Spanish, starting with Hernando de Soto about 1540, were not peaceful, as de Soto generally burned Choctaw villages as he passed through the region.

The French established a presence in Choctaw territory in the late seventeenth century, and the two groups soon became important allies, although there was always a faction of Choctaws friendly to the British. Fighting along with the French and other Indian tribes, the Choctaws helped defeat the Natchez revolt of 1729. Bitter internal fighting around 1750 between French and British supporters was resolved generally in favor of the former.

Intertribal war continued with the Chickasaw and the Creek until in 1763 the French ceded all lands east of the Mississippi to Britain. Choctaws fought the Creeks even after that, until the United States took "possession" of greater "Louisiana" in the early nineteenth century. Small bands of Choctaws began settling in Louisiana in the late eighteenth century. At the same time, alcohol, supplied mainly by British traders, was taking a great toll on the people.

Sam Folsom, a Choctaw. With the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, the Choctaw were regarded by whites as one of the Five Civilized Tribes.

Sam Folsom, a Choctaw. With the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, the Choctaw were regarded by whites as one of the Five Civilized Tribes.

Largely under the influence of their leader, Pushmataha, the Choctaw refused to join the pan-Indian Tecumseh confederacy (see Shawnee [Chapter 8]). However, non-natives continued pushing into the Choctaws’ territory. One strategy that non-natives used to gain Indian land was to encourage trade debt by offering unlimited credit. Under relentless pressure and threats, the Choctaw began ceding land in 1801. Although treaties usually called for an exchange of land, in practice the Indians seldom received the western land they were promised, in part because the United States traded land that was not the government’s to give or that it had no intention of allowing the Indians to have.

By the 1820s, the Choctaw had adopted so many lifeways of the whites that the latter regarded them as a "civilized tribe." Nevertheless, and although the Choctaws had never fought the United States, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, requiring the Choctaw and other southeast tribes to leave their homelands and relocate west of the Mississippi. A small minority of unrepresentative Choctaws signed the Treaty of

Dancing Rabbit Creek, ceding all of their land in Mississippi, over 10 million acres. Articles in the treaty providing for Choctaws to remain in Mississippi were so full of loopholes that most of those who did so were ultimately dispossessed. At the same time, the state of Mississippi formally made the Indians subject to state laws, thus criminalizing tribal governments.

Removal of roughly 12,000 Choctaws took place between 1831 and 1834. Terrible conditions on this forced march of several hundred miles caused about a quarter of the Choctaws to die of fatigue, heartbreak, exposure, disease, and starvation. Many more died once they reached the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Roughly 3,000-5,000 Choctaws escaped to the back country rather than join the removal. Many of these people were removed in the 1840s, but some remained. Although they continued living as squatters in a semitraditional manner, their condition declined. Officially illegal, they were plied with alcohol and relentlessly cheated, and they became disheartened.

The bulk of the people reestablished themselves out west and prospered in the years before the Civil War, with successful farms, missionary schools, and a constitutional government. Most Choctaws fought for the Confederacy; the war was a disaster for them and the other tribes. A relatively high percentage of Indians died in the war, and further relocations and dispossessions followed the fighting. After the war, the Choctaw paid for the removal of African Americans living on their territory, although most were eventually adopted into the tribe.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the General Allotment Act and the Curtis Act were passed over the opposition of the tribes. These laws deprived Oklahoma Indians, including the Choctaw, of most of their land. The "permanent" Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907 (the name "Oklahoma," a Muskogean word for "Red People," was introduced by a Choctaw Indian), at which time the independent Choctaw Nation became subject to U.S. control. The tribe spent decades attempting to reassert control over its institutions.

After the Reconstruction period, the Mississippi and Louisiana Choctaws lived by sharecropping, subsistence hunting, some wage labor, and selling or bartering herbs and handicrafts. Their community and traditions were kept alive in part by the retention of their language and their rural isolation, both from Euro-Americans, who branded them nonwhite, and African Americans, with whom the Choctaw refused to identify.

The government finally recognized the Mississippi Choctaw in the early twentieth century, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs began providing services, such as schools and a hospital, during the 1920s and 1930s. It began purchasing land for them as well. Reservations were created in 1944, and the tribe adopted a constitution and by-laws in 1945. Educational and employment opportunities remained severely limited until the 1960s owing to the Mississippi’s Jim Crow policies.

Religion Choctaws worshipped the sun and fire as well as a host of lesser deities and beings. They celebrated the Green Corn ceremony and other festivals, mainly in late summer and fall.

Government Three or four districts were each headed by a chief and a council. Also, each town had a lesser chief and a war chief. The power of these chiefs was relatively limited, and the Choctaw were among the most democratic of all southeastern Indians. Although there was no overall head chief, a national council did meet on occasion.

Customs The people placed a high priority on peace and harmony. Lacrosse, played with deerskin balls and raccoon-skin-thong stick nets, was a huge spectator sport as well as a means for settling disputes. Rituals and ceremonies began days before a game. There was always gambling; sometimes the stakes included a person’s net worth. Players were assisted by shamans who tried to use spiritual power in the service of their team. Games could be quite dangerous, as they were played with few rules regarding physical contact. There were both male and female teams. The people also played chunkey and other games of chance.

Women adulterers were severely punished; some contributed to a class of prostitutes. Both men and women observed food taboos when a child was born. Infants’ heads were generally shaped at birth. Maternal uncles taught and disciplined boys. At puberty, boys were tattooed, and some wore bear claws through their noses. Homosexuality was accepted.

Corpses were wrapped in skins and placed on a scaffold along with items the deceased might need, including food and drink, on the way to the land of the dead. Their skulls were painted red. A dog or, later, a pony might be killed to accompany the person in the afterlife. A ritual mourning or crying time took place at designated periods throughout the day. Paid mourners were also used. A person’s house was burned and the possessions sold. After some one to six months, special bone pickers scraped the bones clean with long fingernails, disposed of any remaining flesh, and then placed the bones in a coffin that they returned to the family. Periodically, the people of each village buried their people’s bones under mounds.

The tribe was organized into two divisions. Many people wrote music and poetry; new songs were often introduced at festivals. Names often referred to the weather. Healing techniques included bleeding and cupping. Both men and women used herbal and plant remedies to cure illness, many of which were quite effective. Doctors also chanted, danced, and used magical formulas.

Dwellings Perhaps 100 or more Choctaw villages (summer and winter) existed in the seventeenth century. Border towns, especially in the northeast, were generally fortified, whereas interior towns were more spread out. Towns, which were groups of villages and houses surrounded by farms, usually contained a public game/ceremonial area.

Men built pole-frame houses roofed with grass or cane-reed thatch and walled with a number of materials, including crushed shell, hide, bark (often pine or cypress), and matting. Doors may have faced south. Summer houses were oblong or oval with two smoke holes. The winter houses were circular and insulated with clay. Water poured over hot rocks provided steam for internal moisture.

Diet Choctaws farmed bottomland fields along the lower Mississippi. They often realized food surpluses. Women, with the assistance of men, grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco, and later potatoes and melon. Also, in the eighteenth century they grew leeks, garlic, cabbage, and other garden produce, the latter strictly for trade. Corn was also made into bread, as was sweet potato seed.

Large game, such as buffalo, deer, and bear (killed mainly for their fat), were particularly important when the harvest was poor. Men hunted deer with decoys and costumes. Small game included squirrel, turkey, beaver, otter, raccoon, opossum, and rabbit. Other foods included birds’ eggs, fish, and wild fruits, nuts, seeds, and roots. Sassafras root was used for tea and as a thickener.

Key Technology Fields were cleared using slash-and-burn technology. People fished using spears, nets, stunning poison, and buffalo-hide traps. They carved bows, mortars, and stools of wood; made skin-covered gourd and horn pouches; and wove bags from twisted tree bark. Women wove and dyed baskets. Spun buffalo wool was also used as a fabric. Cane, another important raw material, was used for such items as knives, blowguns, darts, and baskets. Musical instruments included drums of skins stretched over hollowed logs, rattles, and rasps.

Trade Traders developed a regional trade language mixed with sign language for wide communication. They traded food, especially to the Chickasaw. In the eighteenth century this food included garden produce such as garlic, leeks, and cabbage; after the mid-eighteenth century it also included fowl and hogs. They imported soapstone pipes from the Minnesota quarries.

Notable Arts There were fine carvings on mortuary houses. Some of the dyed cane baskets were woven tight enough to hold water.

Transportation The people used carved dugout canoes sparingly. Horses arrived as early as the sixteenth century. In time, the Choctaw and other tribes developed their own breeds.

Dress Choctaws followed the general southeastern dress of deerskin breechclouts, skirts, and tunics and buffalo or bear robes and turkey-feather blankets for warmth. Some women made their skirts of spun buffalo wool plus a plant fiber. Both men and women wore long hair except, for men, in time of mourning. Both also tattooed their bodies.

War and Weapons The Choctaw partook less of war than did many of their neighbors, although they did not shirk from defensive fighting. Above all, they did not value victory bought with many of their own dead. Weapons included bow and arrow, knives, clubs, hatchets, and shields. They fought the Chickasaw in the early historical period. Any captured property was divided completely among families who had lost warriors in that battle. Adult captives were regularly burned; others were enslaved. Men tattooed records of war feats on their bodies. Warriors celebrated pre- and postwar rituals.

A widely employed raw material, cane was used to make baskets and mats, arrows and darts, musical instruments, and many other items. This man is using a cane blowgun (1912). Used to hunt smaller animals and birds, these blowguns were accurate up to 60 feet. Animals were shot with darts blown out of long, hollow cane stems.

A widely employed raw material, cane was used to make baskets and mats, arrows and darts, musical instruments, and many other items. This man is using a cane blowgun (1912). Used to hunt smaller animals and birds, these blowguns were accurate up to 60 feet. Animals were shot with darts blown out of long, hollow cane stems.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Choctaw Nation is located in ten counties in Oklahoma. Their headquarters is in Durant, and their capital in Tuskahoma. The land base is roughly 145,000 acres.

The Mississippi Choctaw Reservation (17,819 acres, almost all tribally owned) was established in 1830. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw communities include Bogue Chitto, Bogue Homa, Conehatta, Pearl River, Redwater, Standing Pine, and Tucker, Mississippi. The reservation and trust lands are located in Attala, Jackson, Jones, Kemper, Leake, Neshoba, Newton, Scott, and Winston Counties. The band manages over 500 housing units. The 1990 Indian population was roughly 4,000 of an enrolled membership of roughly 8,000. The tribal government consists of an elected chief and council.

The Mowa Band of Choctaw Indians lives on roughly 300 acres in Mt. Vernon, Alabama. This community is governed by a tribal council.

Economy Oklahoma Choctaws will share with the Cherokee a settlement regarding riverbed resources of the Arkansas River, but this situation is still being argued, and no settlement has been achieved. Other resources include bingo, a finishing company, a factory (Texas Instruments), a travel center, and a cattle ranch.

The Mississippi Band organized a private stock company in 1969 to oversee economic development. The main natural resource is timber. Its projects have included several construction projects and an industrial park. Profits are reinvested in new projects. Other businesses include wire harness, electronics, and several other companies as well as a resort and casino.

Legal Status The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Jena Band of Choctaw (Louisiana), and the Mississippi Band of Choctaws are federally recognized tribal entities.

The Choctaw-Apache Community of Ebard, Louisiana, has petitioned for federal recognition. It is governed by a tribal council and maintains an officially recognized Indian school. The Clifton Choctaw Indians in Louisiana and the Mowa Band of Choctaws in Alabama have also petitioned for federal recognition. The Washington City Band of Choctaw Indians of Southern Alabama was denied federal recognition in 1998.

Daily Life In Oklahoma, most Choctaw children attend public school, although some attend Jones Academy, an Indian school. Most Oklahoma Choctaws are Baptists. The language survives, although mainly in hymns and dictionaries. The annual Labor Day festival features traditional foods, games, and dance. There is also a museum and a monthly newspaper, Bishinik.

The Mississippi Choctaws still play lacrosse. They also hold an annual fair. Many are Baptists. The language remains current, especially among older people. The tribe operates several schools, a small hospital, a radio station, and a monthly newspaper.

The Mowa Band of Choctaw Indians holds powwows and operates two schools.

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