views updated May 08 2018


by D. L. Birchfield


The Choctaw nation occupies several non-contiguous blocks of land east of the Mississippi River. Larger than Massachusetts, the land area is located primarily in east-central Mississippi, site of the Choctaw ancestral homeland, and in a large contiguous block of land west of the Mississippi River, where the majority of the Choctaws were moved in the early 1830s. Here, the nation takes in the southeast portion of Oklahoma that encompasses ten and one-half counties. Choctaw communities are also located in Louisiana and Alabama.

The Choctaw nation is divided into separate governmental jurisdictions, each operating under its own constitution. The largest of these, and the only two formally recognized by the U.S. government, are the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Other Choctaw groups, such as the Mowa Choctaws of Alabama, are seeking federal recognition. Since the United States proposed Article IV of the Treaty with the Choctaw in 1820, the official policy of the United States has been to attempt to abolish the Choctaw nation, confiscate its land, and assimilate its people. Article IV states that "the boundaries hereby established between the Choctaw Indians and the United States, on this side of the Mississippi river, shall remain without alteration until the period at which said nation shall become so civilized and enlightened as to be made citizens of the United States." By 1907, when Oklahoma achieved statehood, the federal government had adopted the position that the Choctaw nation had ceased to exist. Not until the present generation did the courts begin to uphold some of the Choctaw claims to national sovereignty. Making rulings about Choctaw claims has been complicated by competing claims of several state governments and those of the U.S. government.


During the 1890s and the first years of the twentieth century, the U.S. government forcibly moved the Choctaws and other Indian nations into the region that is now the state of Oklahoma. Each nation was forced to accept individual allotments from a tribal land base, their nations were dissolved, and they were forced to become citizens of the new state.

The Choctaw paid a high price to maintain sovereignty. In an 1820 treaty with the United States, the Choctaw acquired new land west of the Mississippi to replace the ancestral homelands east of the Mississippi from which they had been removed. The nation bargained for its right to security within its own government, on its own land in 1830, giving the U.S. government more than ten million acres of landall of the nation's remaining land in Mississippi and Alabamain exchange for that right.

In Article IV of the 1830 treaty with the Choctaw, the nation secured this guarantee from the U.S. government: "The Government and people of the United States are hereby obliged to secure to the said Choctaw Nation of Red People the jurisdiction and government of all the persons and property that may be within their limits west, so that no Territory or State shall ever have a right to pass laws for the government of the Choctaw Nation of Red People and their descendants; and that no part of the land granted them shall ever be embraced in any Territory or State."

Few Americans know about the treaty or its contents, and those who do are not eager to acknowledge it. The Oklahoma public education system, for example, does not include this aspect of the state's history in its public school curriculum. Prejudice against indigenous people runs high in Oklahoma, where its citizens do not like to be reminded that their state was founded upon land guaranteed to "Indians."


Choctaws are an ancient people, but by their own account, they were the last of earth's inhabits to appear. According to Choctaw belief, the first people to appear upon the earth lived a great distance from what would become the Choctaw homeland. These people emerged from deep beneath the earth's surface through a cave near the sacred mound, Nanih Waiya. They draped themselves on bushes around the cave to dry themselves in the sunshine, and then went to their distant homes. Many others followed the same pattern, finding homes closer and closer to the cave. Some of the last to emerge were the Cherokees, Creeks, Natchez, and others, who would become the Choctaw's closest neighbors. Finally, the Choctaws emerged and established their homeland around the sacred mound of Nanih Waiya, their mother.

Another Choctaw legend holds that they migrated to the site of Nanih Waiya after a great long journey from the northwest, led by a hopaii who carried a sacred pole that was planted in the ground each evening. Every morning the people continued their journey toward the rising sun, according to the direction in which the pole leaned. Finally, they awoke one morning to find the pole standing upright. They built Nanih Waiya on that site and made their home there.

In another version of the migration story, two brothers, Chahta and Chicksa, led the migration. After arriving at the site of Nanih Waiya, the group following Chicksa became lost for many years and became the Chickasaws, the Choctaws' nearest northern neighbors. Today, Nanih Waiya is a state park near the headwaters of the Pearl River in the east-central portion of Mississippi. "Mississippi," from the Choctaw word Misha sipokni, means "older than time," the Choctaw name for the great river of the North American continent.

It is not known whether there is a connection between the Choctaws, who have a great affection for the sacred mound of Nanih Waiya, and a mound-building civilization that flourished in North America about 2,000 years ago. This civilization constructed approximately 100,000 mounds in the greater Mississippi River Valley, some of which are among the most colossal structures of antiquity. The base of the Great Temple Mound at Cahokia, Illinois, for example, is three acres larger than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Archaeologists believe Nanih Waiya was probably constructed around 500 b.c.

In the early eighteenth century the Natchez, one of the Choctaw's nearest neighbors, were still practicing a temple mound culture when Europeans first made intimate contact with Indians of that area. Many of the mounds were obliterated by farmers before they could be subjected to scientific study, and others were destroyed by eager amateurs. Remarkably, Americans have shown little interest in the mounds, limiting most exploration to hunting for pots.

In her doctoral dissertation on Choctaw history at the University of Oklahoma in 1934 (published as The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic ), historian Angie Debo attempted to summarize the characteristics of the ancient Choctaws: "They seem to have been distinguished for their peaceful character and their friendly disposition; their dependence on agriculture and trade; the absence of religious feeling and meaningful ceremonial; and their enjoyment of games and social gatherings. A mild, quiet, and kindly people, their institutions present little of spectacular interest; but to the very extent that they were practical minded and adaptable rather than strong and independent and fierce, they readily adopted the customs of the more advanced and more numerous race with which they came in contact."


The Choctaws were one of the great nations of the western hemisphere, with an estimated population of 20,000 people living in more than 100 agricultural centers. The Cherokees and the Creeks were of similar size. Choctaw territory encompassed more than 23 million acres in present day Mississippi as well as portions of Alabama and Louisiana.

Choctaws enjoyed the reputation of a peaceful, agricultural people. Their large numbers provided them with a measure of security from attack by their neighbors, and they are not known to have been disposed to seek military conquest. In fact, disputes among tribes in the region were sometimes settled by a game of ball. In one famous recorded instance, the Creeks and the Choctaws agreed to settle a disagreement about hunting rights to a watershed that lay between them based on the outcome of a game of ball. Tragically, the game ended in bloodshed and may have marked the last instance in which such disputes were decided in that manner. It is said that a Choctaw player became enraged and grabbed a weapon during play. When he attacked some of the Creek players, everyone took up their weapons. Many of the best players from both nations lay dead before elders could intervene. Because outbreaks of violence were unheard of in such games before this incident, it has been said that the Creeks and Choctaws were in shock that such an event could occur.


The Choctaws entered European historical records when the Spaniards of Hernando De Soto's expedition encountered them in the 1540san unhappy encounter for both parties. DeSoto, who had been Francisco Pizarro's cavalry captain in Peru, came to the southeastern portion of North American seeking another civilization as rich in gold and silver as the Incas. When he demanded women and baggage carriers of chief Tuscaloosa at the Choctaw town of Moma Bina, a battle ensued, and the Spaniards' baggage train was burned in a fire that also destroyed Moma Bina. The armored Spanish war horses struck terror in the Choctaws, who had never seen horses before, and Choctaw losses in the battle were heavy. The Choctaws nonetheless inflicted a reported 644 arrow wounds on the Spaniards, piercing their skin wherever armor did not protect it. After a period of rest and recovery, DeSoto's expedition passed through Choctaw country without further incident and wintered among the Chickasaws, who trapped them in a fire so hot that the Spanish had to build a forge and re-temper the steel in their swords before crossing the Mississippi and leaving the lands of the southeastern Indians.


Following the establishment of Louisiana in 1700, the Choctaws and the French became acquainted and maintained an amicable relationship until 1763, when the French were expelled from North America at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. The Choctaws were the pivotal Indian nation with whom the French had to maintain good relations for the security of the Louisiana colony. The French were helped immeasurably in this regard by the depredations of English slave raiders who operated out of the Carolinas and took thousands of Choctaws into slavery in the early eighteenth century.

Choctaw relations with other Indians in the region were greatly affected by the presence of the French. In the 1730s the French waged a war of extermination against the Natchez, close neighbors of the Choctaws. The surviving Natchez fled to the Chickasaws for protection, and the Choctaws were drawn into a war against the Chickasaws that would rage on and off until the French left Louisiana.

The Choctaws experienced the devastating Choctaw Civil War of 1747-1750 when the nation was divided between those who wanted to maintain trade relations exclusively with the French and those who wanted to enter into trade relations with the English. Along with the removal of the Choctaws to the west, the civil war ranks as one of the most catastrophic events in recorded Choctaw history. The war's depopulation of entire villages severely weakened the Choctaws. Eventually, they realized that only the European colonial powers benefited from this infighting and concluded a peace.

An argument about who was responsible for failing to adequately supply the English faction of the Choctaws has come down to us from the eighteenth century by people deeply involved in attempting to persuade the Choctaws to trade with the English. Among them are James Adair, the English trader among the Chickasaws, in the 1775 British publication History of the American Indians, and his one-time business partner Edmond Atkin, in "Historical Account of the Revolt of the Choctaw Indians," a 1753 manuscript in the British Museum.

After the French were expelled from North America in 1763, the Choctaws maintained relations with the British and Spanish, both of whom courted their allegiance. One result of the Choctaw Civil War was that the Choctaws became very cautious, skilled diplomats at dealing with European colonial powers, an attribute of Choctaw political life that would carry over to dealings with the Americans.

During the Revolutionary War, the Choctaws sided with the Americans, providing scouts for Generals Morgan, Sullivan, Wayne, and Washington, and in 1786, entered into their first formal treaty with the Americansa treaty of peace and friendship. In their second treaty with the Choctaws in 1801, the Americans secured Choctaw permission to build a wagon road through the Choctaw nation. Shortly afterward, Americans began appearing in Choctaw country in increasing numbers and demanding land, by treaty, with a frequency that alarmed the Choctaws. In 1805, at the negotiations for the Treaty of Mount Dexter, the Americans began pressuring the Choctaws to accept President Thomas Jefferson's idea of removing themselves to new homes west of the Mississippi River.

Despite these pressures, the Choctaws maintained friendly relations with the United States. In 1811, the Choctaws expelled Tecumseh from their nation when he tried to enlist them in his Indian confederacy, and fought against the Red Stick faction of the Creeks in the ensuing war between the United States and the Creeks, who had chosen to join Tecumseh's alliance. The Choctaw war chief Pushmataha led 800 Choctaw troops, who became a part of General Andrew Jackson's army. Pushmataha also led Choctaw troops against the British in support of Jackson's army at the Battle of New Orleans. Despite Choctaw loyalty, the United States demanded further land cessions in 1816.

In 1820, the Choctaws finally agreed to trade a substantial portion of their land for a huge tract of land west of the Mississippi River; however, they retained more than ten million acres of their original homeland east of the Mississippi River and did not agree to remove themselves to the west. But in 1830, after Andrew Jackson had become president, the Choctaws were forced to cede the remaining land east of the Mississippi River in a treaty with the United Statesalso known as the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, or the Choctaw removal treatyand remove as a nation to the West.

In Chief Pushmataha, American Patriot, published in 1959, historian Anna Lewis, revealed that General Andrew Jackson secured the signature of Chief Puckshenubbee, of the Okla Falaya Choctaw division, to the treaty of 1820 by means of blackmail. Puckshenubbee's daughter had married an American soldier who had deserted. When Jackson learned of this, he threatened to have Puckshenubbee's son-in-law shot if Puckshenubbee did not sign the treaty. The Americans candidly reported the blackmail to the U.S. State Department. The reports were preserved in the State Department files where Lewis eventually found them.


The Choctaws were the first Indians to be removed as a nation by the U.S. government to new land in the West. For the most part, the removal was accomplished in three successive, brutal winter migrations during which 2,500 Choctaws died, many from exposure and starvation. In 1831, the newly created Bureau of Indian Affairs conducted the first removal. The government decided that the removal had been too costly, even though by the terms of the removal treaty the Choctaws were to pay the cost of removal out of profits from the sale of their lands in Mississippi. The U.S. Army was placed in charge of the 1832 and 1833 removals, they cut costs by severely reducing both rations and blankets. When the Choctaws ran out of food and attempted to purchase supplies, the citizens of Arkansas reacted by raising the price of corn. By 1834, 11,500 Choctaws had been removed to the west.

About 6,000 Choctaws remained in Mississippi where, by the terms of Article 14 of the removal treaty, they were to be allowed to choose individual land holdings of 640 acres for each head of household, 320 acres for children over the age of ten, and 160 acres for younger children; however, only 69 Choctaw heads of households were allowed to register for land in Mississippi. Finding themselves dispossessed of everything they owned, they became squatters in their former land. Many took to the swamps where they lived as furtive refugees until they were finally provided with a small reservation near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the early twentieth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, Mississippi Choctaws continued to remove to the West, often at the urging of official Choctaw delegations sent from the West to induce them to join them.


In 1820 (modified by the treaty of 1824) the Choctaws purchased from the United States what amounted to the southern half of the present day state of Oklahoma, an area that included at its western edge the very heartland of the Comanche nation. Upon their arrival in the West in 1834, the Choctaws immediately adopted a written constitution. The constitution was modified in 1837 when the Chickasaws once again became a part of the Choctaw nation, having been removed from their homeland and allowed to choose homes among the Choctaws. They were given a quarter of the votes in the Choctaw legislature. In 1855, the Chickasaws became a separate nation again, purchasing from the Choctaws what is today the central section of southern Oklahoma.

In the West the Choctaws soon recovered from the trauma of removal and established a republic that flourished for a generation. During this generation of peace and prosperity, the Choctaw nation built a stable economy, established its own public school system, governed itself under its own laws, and adopted many of the habits of its American neighbors.

The Choctaw remained largely free from the encroachments of the advancing American frontier until they were caught between warring Americans factions and drawn into the Civil War. At its outbreak, the Union removed its troops from Indian Territory, leaving the Choctaws defenseless. The Choctaw were surrounded by Confederates and held long-standing grievances against the United States. In addition, a small percentage of the population, predominantly wealthy mixed-blood Choctaws, owned some slaves. Therefore, the Choctaws entered into formal, diplomatic relations with the Confederacy, at which point the United States considered them in rebellion.

The Choctaw nation was little touched by the war. Two minor engagements were fought within the nation, but it was never occupied by troops. Very few Choctaws participated in the war on either side. The nation was overrun by refugees from the Creek and Cherokee nations, however, which were occupied by troops. As a result, they all suffered severe food shortages.

In their last treaty with the United States in 1866, the Choctaws were forced to sell their western lands as punishment for having sided with the Confederacy. The Choctaws also adopted a new constitution, which they patterned explicitly after the American form of government. It provided for a bi-cameral legislature, an executive branch, and a judicial branch.

The most profound effect of the treaty of 1866 was its granting of a railroad right of way, which had the same effect on the Choctaw nation in the last half of the nineteenth century as granting a right of way for a wagon road had in the early part of the century: Americans flooded into the country. By 1890, the Choctaws were outnumbered by Americans within their own country by more than three to one. The Americans did not have the right to own land, were not allowed representation within the nation, and were not allowed to send their children to the Choctaw public schools. They were required to pay taxes, which the Americans considered intolerable. Rather than leave, they clamored for Congress to abolish the Indian nations.

The U.S. Congress had already decided, unilaterally, that the government no longer needed to enter into treaties with Indian nations and that the Congress would legislate Indian affairs. In 1893, Congress authorized the president to seek the dissolution of the nations of the Five Civilized Tribes by persuading them to either allot their land to their individual citizens or cede it to the United States. Under the auspices of the so-called Dawes Commission that resulted, the government spent three years attempting to pressure the Indians into agreeing to allot their lands. Finally, under the threat that Congress would allot the lands for them, the Choctaws negotiated and signed the Atoka Agreement of 1897, providing for the allotment of the tribal estate. In this way they avoided being subjected to the much harsher terms they were being threatened with if they did not negotiate. In 1906, enrollment of tribal members for allotment was closed by the Congress, and in 1907, the Choctaw nation was absorbed into the new state of Oklahoma.


The U.S. government virtually ignored the Choctaws, who had remained in Mississippi until after the turn of the century. Then, in 1908 and 1916, the U.S. Congress commissioned studies on the people's condition. Although these Choctaws had remained isolatedliving on the margins of the dominant society for generationsthey retained their language and culture.

In 1918, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the Choctaw Indian Agency in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with an initial budget of $75,000. The agency established schools in Choctaw communities and, in 1920, began purchasing land, which totaled 16,000 acres by 1944.

For the Choctaws in Oklahoma, allotment proved to be disastrous. Within a generation, most of the allotted land passed from Choctaw ownership to white ownership, often by fraudulent means. Enrolled Choctaws did not receive payment for the sale of the nation's public land until 1920, and for the sale of mineral resources until 1949. The President of the United States appointed a chief for the Choctaws until 1948, to administer these last remaining matters of tribal affairs.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Throughout the twentieth century, Indians have been both overwhelmed and ignored in Oklahoma. In the 1930s, Angie Debo completed the manuscript of her book And Still the Waters Run, which details the fraudulent acquisition of Indian land by people then prominent in Oklahoma politics. Debo reported that the dispossession of Indian land allotments was often achieved under the guise of guardianship. Although the University of Oklahoma Press refused to publish the work, it was finally published in 1940 by Princeton University Press. Shortly before her death, Debo read from the University of Oklahoma Press a rejection letter for a documentary film, quoting a characterization of one of her chapters as "dangerous." In fact, the fraud Debo reported was so widespread and perpetuated so openly, that hearing such cases made the Eastern District federal court of Oklahoma the second busiest federal district court in the United States.

Oklahoma has attempted to project the self-image of a state infused with a "pioneer spirit" that sets it apart from other places. Whether in Oklahoma or Hollywood, Americans usually refer to Indians in the past tense and as being apart from contemporary American culture. For most of the twentieth century, the media in Oklahoma has ignored Indians altogether, with the exception of an occasional piece deploring high rates of alcoholism among Indians or focusing on Indian dances as a means of attracting tourist dollars to the state.

The changes in media focus that have begun are in large part due to recent court rulings that allow Indian nations to operate gambling facilities on tribal land within Oklahoma: the mass media could not ignore the state's vigorous opposition to these rulings. Ironically, such attention has contributed to Oklahomans' slowly growing awareness that Indian nations are still intact and maintain their rights as sovereign nations.


Observers have characterized the Choctaw attitude toward life as one that illustrates their belief that they do not exist for the benefit of any political, economic, military, or religious organization. Choctaws also did not favor spectacular ceremonies, religious or otherwise, showing a nearly complete lack of public display, except in the area of oratory.

Choctaws relished and excelled in public oratory, causing some observers to draw comparisons between the Choctaw communities and the small republics of Greek antiquity. When an occasion for public debate presented itself, a large brush arbor was constructed with a hole in the center of the roof. Whoever wanted to speak stood beneath the hole in the full heat of the Mississippi sun while the audience remained comfortably seated in the shade. The Choctaws said they could bear to listen as long as the speaker could bear to stand in the heat and speak.

Oratory skill provided an avenue to upward mobility in Choctaw society. Each district chief appointed a tichou mingo as the official spokesperson. The tichou mingo had a more visible presence in official life than did the chief. Aiahockatubbee, spokesman for the Okla Falaya district chief Moshulatubbee, is recognized as one of the greatest orators in Choctaw history. It is said that in the 1820s, when Christian missionaries had only been among the Choctaws for a few years, Aiahockatubbee gave them eloquent enunciations of traditional Choctaw beliefs, much to their consternation, although Choctaws gathered from far and wide to hear him. His presence is largely credited with enabling the missionaries to make headway among the Okla Falaya, where district chief Puckshenubbee was an early convert.

Choctaw chiefs were also skilled orators. Okla Hannali war chief Pushmataha was the most persuasive Choctaw public speaker of his generation, with only Aiahockatubbee as his peer. In open debate, Pushmataha persuaded the Choctaws not to join Tecumseh when Tecumseh visited their country seeking their enlistment in his pan-Indian alliance in 1811. The debate was witnessed and later recalled by John Pitchlynn, United States interpreter to the Choctaws.

A brief speech by Homassatubbee, district chief of the Okla Tanap, was recorded by the Americans at the negotiations for the Treaty of Fort Adams in 1801: "I understand our great father, General Washington, is dead, and that there is another beloved man appointed in his place, and that he is a well wisher of us. Our old brothers, the Chickasaws, have granted a road from Cumberland as far south as our boundary. I grant a continuance of that road which may be straightened. But the old path is not to be thrown away entirely, and a new one made. We are informed by these three beloved men that our father, the President, has sent us a yearly present of which we know nothing. Another thing our father, the President, has promised, without our asking, is that he would send women among us to teach our women to spin and weave. These women may first go among our half-breeds. We wish the old boundary which separates us and the whites to be marked over. We came here sober, to do business, and wish to return sober and request therefore that the liquor we are informed our friends have provided for us may remain in the store."

In traditional Choctaw society, serious personal disputes were resolved by an institution called a Choctaw duel. In such a duel, the disputants faced one another while their assistants, usually a brother or close friend appointed for the occasion, split their heads open with an ax. Both died, the dispute was resolved, and the community was spared the incessant bickering of people who could not get along with one another. One could not decline the challenge to a Choctaw duel without suffering everlasting disgrace within the community. Needless to say, Choctaws became adept at getting along with one another.

Observers of Choctaw habits consider ball play the most important social event in the life of the Choctaws. Called Ishtaboli, the game has been described in greatest detail by H. B. Cushman, the son of Choctaw missionaries who grew up among the Choctaws in the 1820s. Men and women had teams, and when two villages met on the field of play, every item of any value in the villages was riding on the outcome.

The object of the game was to sling a ball made of sewn skins from the webbed pocket at the end of a kapucha sticka slender, stout stick made of hickoryand propel it so that it struck an upright plank at the end of the playing field, which was often a mile long or longer. There were dozens of players on each side, and there appeared to be no rules. Whatever means one might employ to stop the progress of the opponent toward the goal, including tackling, was allowed. Although Choctaws preferred that each player use two sticks to play the game, the Sioux used only one. The games demonstrated great skill at handling, throwing, and passing a ball, but the rough game often resulted in serious injury or death, for which there was no punishment. Today a version of Ishtaboli, called stickball, is still played by the Choctaws.


Linguists classify the Choctaw language as Muskogean. It is closely related to the Creek language of the same classification. The Muskogean languages belong to the great Algonkian language family. Of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokees), only the Cherokee, whose language is classified as Iroquoian, speak a non-Muskogean language. Unlike the other tribes, the Cherokees migrated to the southeast from the north, and over time their culture became similar to that of the southern neighbors with whom they have come to be identified among the Five Civilized Tribes.

Linguists theorize that many of the native peoples of the Southeast who had separate identities had at some time in the past been Choctaws. For example, the language of the Alabamas of the Muskogee Confederation (Creeks) is still identifiably Choctaw, although it is a distinctive dialect. The same is true of a number of smaller groups who lived in the region, many of whom did not survive contact with Europeans and the endemic diseases that accompanied European colonization. It appears that groups of people began leaving the Choctaw and establishing separate residences and separate identities many years ago, a process that has continued into recent times. The Chickasaw language is still so similar to Choctaw, for instance, that linguists surmise that the separation of the two could not have occurred very long ago.

Language is also a key to gaining some understanding of how influential the Choctaws were among the native people of North America at the time of early European contact. Ancient trading paths radiated throughout the continent, facilitating commercial intercourse between greatly distant peoples. A pidgin version of the Choctaw language was used along many of the trading paths as the universal medium of trade communication among a wide assortment of diverse peoples. The trading paths were spread over a vast region that encompassed most of what is now generally referred to as the South and extended to other areas.

The missionaries used the Okla Falaya dialect of the Choctaw language to translate ancient myths of the Hebrews for hymns and other proselytizing materials, which in time made the Okla Falaya dialect the standard dialect of the Choctaw language among the Choctaws who were removed to the West. Within 20 years after the missionaries' arrival among the Choctaws, their printing activity had become feverish. In 1837 alone, Presbyterian minister Cyrus Byington published 576,000 pages of text in the Choctaw language. The effect was comparable to the way in which the printing activity of Thomas Caxton helped to make the dialect of London the standard dialect of the English language.

Family and Community Dynamics

Europeans and Americans universally failed to appreciate or report the powerful and predominant role of women in Choctaw traditional life. Choctaw culture is matrilineal and, in many respects, matriarchal. Choctaw males were conspicuous in their roles as warriors, and war chiefs exercised a good deal of authority in time of war and conducted the diplomatic business of the nation. Likening such practices to those of their own patriarchal models, European observers failed to appreciate that the real decision-making power in times of peace was found among the women within the nation. Modern Choctaws have adjusted to the expectations of their colonizers regarding gender roles in visible positions of leadership, but in Choctaw family and social life, and in many organizations, a mature female is found at the very center of the life of the group, whether visible to outsiders or not.

Geographic divisions among ancient Choctaw tribes were roughly decided according to the crests of watersheds. In present-day east-central Mississippi, the headwaters of three rivers can be found: the Pearl, which drains toward the southwest before turning south to empty into the Gulf of Mexico near Lake Pontchartrain, where the Pearl forms the border with Louisiana; the Chickasawhay, an upper tributary of the Pascagoula, which flows toward the south into the Gulf of Mexico near the Alabama border; and the Noxubee, an upper tributary of the Tombigbee, which flows southeast before turning south to flow into Mobile Bay.

The villages of the Okla Falaya (Long People) lived along the headwaters of the Pearl on the western side of the nation. On the eastern side of the nation, along the headwaters of the Noxubee, lived the Okla Tanap (People of the Opposite Side). And the villages of the Okla Hannali (The Six Town People) were along the headwaters of the Chickasawhay at the southern side of the nation.

The Okla Falaya's relations with the Chickasaws, their nearest northern neighbors, were more congenial than those of other Choctaw divisions. Likewise, the Okla Tanap were generally on good terms with their eastern neighbors, the Choctaw-speaking Alabamas of the Muskogee Confederation, and the Okla Hannali enjoyed frequent contact with the Indians around Mobile Bay. In addition, the Choctaws had chiefs within their nation who served as spokesmen and apologists to neighboring tribes. Called fanni mingoes, or squirrel chiefs, they provided individual Choctaws with an opportunity to seek redress for some grievance or an injury caused by an outsider from the fanni mingo, rather than seek revenge against the offending tribe. The fanni mingo held counsel with the tribe whose interests he represented and tried to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of all parties.

Choctaw towns were divided into peace towns and war townscalled white towns and red townsand chiefs were either peace chiefs or war chiefs. Neither Europeans nor Americans became well enough acquainted with the inner workings of Choctaw society to accurately describe the duties of the various participants in Choctaw public life. Most observers made assumptions based on models from European government, which were frequently at great variance with Choctaw practice.

Tribal divisions of the Choctaw nation operated with virtual independence. The republic was, in fact, a loose confederation. Within tribal divisions, villages also exercised a great deal of local autonomy. And individual Choctaws exercised such a large degree of personal freedom that the system bordered on anarchy. It was able to function successfully only because Choctaws exercised remarkable restraint regarding encroachment upon the rights of others within the group.


The premiere annual event of the Mississippi Choctaws is the Choctaw Indian Fair, a four-day event in July. Established in 1949, the fair draws more than 20,000 visitors each year and features the Stickball World Championship, national entertainers, and traditional Choctaw costumes and food (Choctaw Indian Fair, Choctaw Reservation, P.O. Box 6010, Philadelphia, Mississippi 39350).

The largest annual celebration in the Oklahoma nation is the four-day Labor Day Celebration at Tuskahoma, which dates from the early 1900s and now draws thousands of Choctaws each year. It includes a viewing of the tribal buffalo herd; softball, horseshoe, volleyball and checkers tournaments; national entertainers; a mid-way carnival and exhibition halls featuring dozens of crafts booths; all-night gospel singing on Sunday night; and a parade, a State of the Nation address by the Principal Chief, and a free barbecue dinner on Monday.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The Mississippi Choctaws have lured industry to the reservation in recent years. With the construction of an industrial park in 1973, at the Pearl River community, a division of General Motors Corporation established the Chata Wire Harness Enterprise, which assembles electrical components for automobiles. Shortly thereafter, the American Greeting Corporation's Choctaw Greeting Enterprise began production, and the Oxford Investment Company started manufacturing automobile radio speakers at the Choctaw Electronics Enterprise. These companies and others currently employ more than 1,000 Choctaws on the reservation.

Recent decades have also brought a construction boom to the reservation of the Mississippi Choctaws. In 1965, the Choctaw Housing Authority constructed the first of more than 200 modern homes on the reservation. In 1969, the Chata Development company, which builds and remodels homes, and constructs offices and buildings for the nation, was established. The Choctaw Health Center, a 43-bed hospital, opened in 1976.

The Oklahoma Choctaws have built community centers and clinics in towns throughout the nation. The Choctaw Housing Authority has provided thousands of Choctaws with low-cost modern homes. The nation operates the historic Indian Hospital at Talihina, which it acquired from the Indian Health Service; it purchased the sprawling Arrowhead Resort on Lake Eufaula from the state of Oklahoma and operates it as a tourist and convention facility. Tribal industries include the Choctaw Finishing Plant and the Choctaw Village Shopping Center in Idabel, and the Choctaw Travel Plaza in Durant.

The buildings and grounds at the historic Choctaw Council House at Tushkahoma, in the center of the nation, have been restored, and the stately three-story brick Council House has been converted into a museum and gift shop. The Choctaw Tribal Council holds its monthly meetings in the new, modern council chamber nearby. Also constructed on the grounds were a large, roofed, outdoor amphitheater, and softball fields for the tremendously popular fast-pitch softball tournaments. Exhibition buildings, a cafeteria, showers and toilets, campgrounds, and parking facilities have been added.

By far the greatest economic gain in the nation has been through the inauguration of high stakes Indian bingo. Charter buses bring bingo players daily from as far away as Dallas, Texas, to the huge Choctaw Bingo Palace in Durantto.

Politics and Government

In 1945, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior granted the Choctaws formal federal recognition, approving a constitution and bylaws for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The constitution provided for the election of a tribal council, which then appointed a tribal chairman. The land that had been acquired for them became a reservation.

The reservation remains outside of the political and judicial jurisdiction of the state of Mississippi. A 1974 revision of the Choctaw Nation's Constitution provides for the popular election of the chief to a four-year term. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, allowed the Choctaws in Oklahoma to elect an advisory council, and in 1948, they were allowed to elect their own principal chief. Impetus toward reorganizing the nation met another shift in federal policy in 1953, when the U.S. Congress enacted House Concurrent Resolution 108, under which the federal government sought to terminate its relationship with all Indian nations in the United States. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 finally allowed the Choctaws a measure of self-government within the state of Oklahoma.

In 1976, the Choctaws purchased the campus of the former Presbyterian College in Durant, Oklahoma, as their national capitol and in 1978 adopted a new constitutiontheir first since the constitution of 1866 had been abrogated in 1906. Designating themselves The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, they adopted a tribal council form of government led by a principal chief elected by popular vote of the entire nation and council members elected by popular vote of council districts.

Since the mid-1970s, the tribal estate has steadily increased, along with the nation's administrative activities, enabling the Oklahoma Choctaw to exercise more vestiges of sovereignty. A recent federal court ruling stated that the state of Oklahoma could no longer exercise police powers on Indian land within the state. As a result the Choctaw Nation Police were organized. The Choctaw nation and the state of Oklahoma signed a pact to cross-deputize all law enforcement officers of both governments for the welfare and protection of all citizens.

Individual and Group Contributions


Anna Lewis was an historian, whose doctoral dissertation, Along The Arkansas, is a study of French-Indian relations on the lower Arkansas River frontier in the eighteenth century; in 1930, Lewis became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma; she pursued a distinguished teaching career at the Oklahoma College for Women, now the University of Science and Arts, in Chickasaha, Oklahoma, while devoting her life to researching a biography of Pushmataha (a war chief of the Okla Hannali Choctaw tribal division and the most influential Choctaw leader of the early nineteenth century), Chief Pushmataha, American Patriot, published in 1959. Clara Sue Kidwell, formerly a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, now works for the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution; she coauthored the invaluable study The Choctaws: A Critical Bibliography in 1980. Muriell Wright was the granddaughter of Allen Wright, Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation in the nineteenth century; for two decades, she served as editor of The Chronicles of Oklahoma, the quarterly historical scholarly journal of the Oklahoma Historical Society; in 1959, she produced A Guide to the Indian tribes of Oklahoma, which provides a summary of the history, culture, and contemporary status of the 65 Indian nations that were either original residents of, or were removed to the area before statehood.


Linda Lomahaftewa (1947 ) is an accomplished Hopi/Choctaw artist and art instructor. Her work, which reflects the spirituality and storytelling traditions of her background, has garnered numerous awards and exhibitions. Film producer, director, and writer Phil Lucas (1942 ) creates realistic images of his people in an effort to combat the stereotypes.


M. Cochise Anderson is a poet whose work has appeared in World of Poetry Anthology (1983) and in Nitassinan Notre Terre (1990). Jim Barnes is a poet and editor of Chariton Review at Northwest Missouri State University, Kirksville, Missouri; Barnes won the Oklahoma Book Award for his The Sawdust War (1993), a volume of poetry. He was awarded a Ful-bright fellowship to the University of Lausanne in Switzerland (1993-1994); among Barnes' other verse collections are American Book of the Dead (1982), A Season of Loss (1985), La Plata Cantata (1989), The Fish on Poteau Mountain (1980), and This Crazy Land (1980). Roxy Gordon has published more than 200 poems, articles, and short fiction in Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Texas Observer, Greenfield Review, Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News ; his fiction has appeared in anthologies including Earth Power Coming, edited by Simon J. Ortiz in 1983; Gordon's poetry is collected in Unfinished Business, West Texas Midcentury, and Small Circles. Beatrice Harrell has contributed memoirs of her mother's experiences in the Choctaw boarding schools in such publications as The Four Directions: American Indian Literary Quarterly. The Choctaw Story of How Thunder and Lightning Came to Be is one of several books in which Harrell recounts traditional Choctaw stories. LeAnn Howe is a widely published poet, essayist, short story writer, and playwright; her poetry has appeared in anthologies such as Gatherings IV: The En'owkin Journal of First North American People and Studies in American Indian Literatures; her short stories have appeared in many collections, including A Stand Up Reader (1987), Coyote Papers (1987), and the anthology Earth Song, Sky Spirit: Short Stories of the Contemporary Native American Experience (1993); Howe is perhaps best known for her saucy essay, "An American in New York," in Spider-woman's Granddaughters, edited by Paula Gunn Allen and published in 1989; a recent radio broadcast of her play Indian Radio Days (co-authored with Roxy Gordon) was transmitted by satellite to stations as far away as Alaska. Gary McLain's nonfiction works include Keepers of the Fire (1987), Indian America (1990), and The Indian Way (1991). Louis Owens is a novelist and co-editor of the American Indian Literature Series of the University of Oklahoma Press; currently an English professor at the University of New Mexico, Owens formerly taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz; his novels include Wolfsong (1991), The Sharpest Sight (1992), and Bone Game (1994); Owens' Other Destines: Understanding The American Indian Novel (1992) is a critical study. Ronald Burns Querry, a descendant of Okla Hannali Choctaws, was an English professor at the University of Oklahoma and was former editor of horse industry magazines; a professional farrier (horseshoer); and the author of The Death of Bernadette Lefthand (1993), which received both the Border Regional Library Association Regional Book Award and the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association Award as one of the best novels published in 1993; Querry is also the editor of Growing Old at Willie Nelson's Picnic, and Other Sketches of Life in the Southwest (1983), and author of his "unauthorized" biography, I See By My Get-Up (1987). In 1992, Wallace Hampton Tucker became the first three-time winner of the Best Play Prize of the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muscogee, Oklahoma, for his play Fire On Bending Mountain; Tucker also won the first two prizes awarded by the biennial competition in 1974 and in 1976.


Judy Allen is a long-time editor of Bishinik, the official monthly publication of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, which is mailed to every registered voter of the nation. Len Green, the late newspaperman, was the first editor of Bishinik, where he set a high standard for others to follow; Green was also managing editor of the McCurtain Gazette, in Idabel, Oklahoma, for 30 years; early issues of Bishinik contain his scholarly writings about Choctaw history and treaties; for the bicentennial celebration, Green published 200 Years Ago In The Red River Valley (1976), a study of Choctaw country in the West two generations before the Choctaws moved there. Scott Kayla Morrison collaborated with LeAnn Howe on the investigative article "Sewage of Foreigners" (Federal Bar Journal & Notes, July, 1992), a detailed exposé that focused on contract negotiations by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to allow for toxic waste dumps on Choctaw lands in Mississippi. Morrison has worked as a legal services attorney among the Choctaws in Mississippi and as director of the Native American Office of Jobs in the Environment; in the summer of 1993, Oklahoma Today named her in its "Who's Who in Indian Country" in recognition of her environmental work; her short stories and essays have appeared in publications including The Four Directions: American Indian Literary Quarterly and Turtle Quarterly (Native American Center for the Living Arts, Niagara Falls, New York), and in the anthology The Colour of Resistance (1994).




Official monthly publication of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Contact: Judy Allen, Director.

Address: P.O. Drawer 1210, Durant, Oklahoma 74701.

Telephone: (580) 924-8280.

Fax: (580)924-4148.

E-mail: [email protected]

Choctaw Community News.

Official monthly publication of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Contact: Julie Kelsey, Editor.

Address: Communications Program, P.O. Box 6010, Philadelphia, Mississippi 39350.

Telephone: (601) 656-1992.

Organizations and Associations

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Contact: Chief Gregory E. Pyle.

Address: P.O. Drawer 1210, Durant, Oklahoma 74702-1210.

Telephone: (800) 522-6170; or (580) 924-8280.

Fax: (580) 924-4148.

E-mail: [email protected]


Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Address: Highway 16 West, P.O. Box 6010, Philadelphia, Mississippi 39360.

Telephone: (601) 650-1537.

Fax: (601) 650-3684.

Sources for Additional Study

After Removal: The Choctaw in Mississippi, edited by Samuel J. Wells and Roseanna Tubby. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Choctaw & Chickasaw Early Census Records, compiled by Betty Couch Wiltshire. Carrollton, Mississippi: Pioneer Publishing Company, 1997.

The Choctaw Before Removal, edited by Carolyn Keller Reeves. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

Debo, Angie. "Indians, Outlaws, and Angie Debo," The American Experience, PBS Video, 1988.

. The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, second edition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

DeRosier, Arthur H., Jr. The Removal of the Choctaw Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

Foreman, Grant. The Five Civilized Tribes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934.

Howard, James H., and Victoria L Levine. Choctaw Music & Dance. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Jordan, H. Glenn. "Choctaw Colonization in Oklahoma," in America's Exiles: Indian Colonization in Oklahoma, edited by Arrell Morgan Gibson, 1976.

Kidwell, Clara Sue, and Charles Roberts. The Choctaws: A Critical Bibliography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press for the Newberry Library, 1980.

McKee, Jesse O. The Choctaw. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

McKee, Jesse O., and Jon A. Schlenker. The Choctaws: Cultural Evolution of a Native American Tribe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1980.


views updated May 21 2018



The Choctaw (pronounced CHOCK-taw) traditionally called themselves the Chata’ogla or Chata’. The name cannot be translated.


The Choctaw nation thrived in what is now the southeastern United States, largely east central Mississippi. In modern times, major Choctaw communities are found in southeast Oklahoma and Mississippi; there are smaller ones in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Alabama.


There were about 20,000 Choctaw before the coming of the Europeans. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 65,321 people identified themselves as Choctaw. In 2000 that number had risen to 88,692. A total of 158,774 people claimed to have some Choctaw heritage, making it the fourth largest tribal grouping in the United States.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

The Choctaw ancestral homeland is in east central Mississippi. During the 1830s a majority of the tribe moved to a large block of land west of the Mississippi. A popular theory holds that many of the Native groups of the southeastern United States were once Choctaw.

The Choctaw were known as a peaceful people. Although ready to defend themselves when challenged, they seldom initiated warfare against neighboring tribes. At one time Choctaw territory covered more than 23 million acres in Mississippi and parts of Alabama and Louisiana. As a result of their forced move to Oklahoma in the 1830s, the people now live on two main reservations in Oklahoma and in Mississippi.


A popular Choctaw legend tells how in the distant past a Choctaw leader named Chata led his people on a journey. Chata carried a sacred pole that he placed in the ground at the end of each day’s journey. Each morning they found the pole leaning eastward and they continued on, eventually crossing the Mississippi River. One morning they awoke to find the pole standing upright. There they made their sacred mound by burying the remains of their ancestors, which they had carried along with them. Archaeologists (people who study the cultures of ancient peoples by looking at the things they left behind) believe that the mound was the site of tribal political and religious meetings for centuries up until the early 1700s.

Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto (c. 1496–1542) was the first European known to encounter the Choctaw. De Soto and members of his expedition came upon the Choctaw in the 1540s. De Soto demanded women and baggage carriers of the Choctaw, and a fight broke out. Having never seen horses before, the Choctaw were frightened by those of the Spaniards. Choctaw losses were heavy in the battle, but they inflicted some major wounds on the Spanish as well. Afterwards the Spaniards crossed Choctaw land without further incident.

Important Dates

1540: Hernando de Soto encounters the Choctaw and a battle arises between them.

1786: The Choctaw enter into their first formal treaty with the U.S. government.

1820: Some Choctaw agree to trade a portion of their land for territory west of the Mississippi River.

1830: The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek is signed, resulting in the forced migration of the Choctaw to lands west of the Mississippi.

1918: The Bureau of Indian Affairs establishes the Choctaw Indian Agency in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

1975: Choctaw national administrative offices are established at a historic school building.

1983: The 1860 Choctaw Constitution, by which the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma governs itself, is ratified.

1995: The Jena Band of Choctaw in Louisiana receives federal recognition.

Relations with Europeans and Americans

The Choctaw had a better relationship with the French, who established their colony of Louisiana in 1700. British slave raiders operating out of the Carolinas took thousands of Choctaw into slavery in the early eighteenth century. In the 1730s the French wiped out a neighboring tribe, the Natchez (see The Mound Builders entry). The Choctaw, with a newly wary view of the French, took the survivors in.

A Choctaw Civil War occurred from 1747 to 1750, pitting those tribal members who wanted to maintain trading relations with the French against those who wanted to begin trading with the British. The war was so severe it wiped out entire villages and severely weakened the Choctaw.

During the American Revolution (1775–83; the American colonists’ fight for independence from England)) the Choctaw sided with the colonists. They entered into their first treaty of friendship with them in 1786. After they signed a second treaty in 1801, Americans began to appear in Choctaw country in increasing numbers. In 1805 the U.S. government pressured the Choctaw to move to new homes west of the Mississippi. Despite this pressure, however, the Choctaw remained loyal to the United States. In 1811 the tribe expelled Shawnee (see entry) leader Tecumseh (c. 1768–1813) from their lands when he tried to get them to join a confederacy (alliance) against the United States. They then fought against the Creek (see entry) in a war that arose when a faction of Creek decided to join Tecumseh’s confederacy. The Choctaw also fought against the British in the War of 1812 (1812–15; a war in which the United States defeated Great Britain). Despite all this, in 1816 the United States demanded that the Choctaw people give up a large portion of tribal land.

A painful journey

By 1820 many of the Choctaw agreed to trade some of their traditional territory and move to a large tract of land west of the Mississippi River. About six thousand Choctaw, however, chose instead to remain on the more than ten million acres of original homeland they retained east of the Mississippi River. In 1830, however, under the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the Choctaw were forced to give up those remaining lands east of the Mississippi and move as a nation to the West. Their relocation spanned the years from 1831 to 1834. This was part of a larger forced Native American journey from the southeast that came to be known as The Trail of Tears for the terrible suffering the Native peoples faced. During their journey westward to Indian Territory (land that now forms most of the state of Oklahoma where the U.S. government once planned to move all Native Americans), many Choctaw children and adults endured starvation and bitter cold. Nearly one-half of the tribe died along the way.

During the mid-1850s the Choctaw in the West built a stable economy, started a public school system, and governed themselves by their own laws, in a process similar to that of their American neighbors.

The Promise

The Choctaw were forced to give up the rest of their lands east of the Mississippi River and move as a nation to Indian Territory by the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Article IV of that treaty secured them this guarantee:

The Government and people of the United States are hereby obliged to secure to the said Choctaw Nation of Red People the jurisdiction and government of all the persons and property that may be within their limits west, so that no Territory or State shall ever have the right to pass laws for the government of the Choctaw Nation of Red People and their descendants; and that no part of the land granted them shall ever be embraced in any Territory or State.

Choctaw resettle in Oklahoma

Because they sided with the South during the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery), the U.S. government forced the Choctaw to sell their western lands. The treaty they signed in 1866 granted a right-of-way for railroad companies to build tracks that crossed over the territory where the Choctaw lived. News of a railroad brought more white settlers. By 1890 white settlers outnumbered tribal members on Choctaw land by three-to-one.

Around 1900 the government forced the Choctaw, along with other tribes, to resettle in a different region of the rapidly changing territory. Each person had to accept individual allotments, rather than holding the land in common as was the long-held tradition. By 1907, when Oklahoma became a state, the Choctaw Nation was dissolved and its members were required to become citizens of that state.

Choctaw in the twentieth century

Once they settled in Indian Territory, the language and culture of the Choctaw flourished. However, the outbreak of influenza in 1914–18 killed 20 percent of the Choctaw population in Oklahoma. The country’s allotment policies, which divided tribal lands into individual parcels that could be sold, proved to be disastrous for the Choctaw. Within one generation most of the allotted land passed from Choctaw ownership to white ownership, often through fraud.

The Mississippi Choctaw

While the Indian Removal Act (1830) forced the majority of the tribe to move west, about six thousand Choctaw stayed in Mississippi. Under the terms of the removal treaty, the remaining Choctaw could take individual parcels of land (only 69 Choctaw heads of households, however, were allowed to register for the Mississippi land). Most of the Choctaw in Mississippi lost everything they owned and became squatters in their former land. Many eventually moved west to join the relocated tribe.

In 1918 the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs opened the Choctaw Indian Agency in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The agency established schools in impoverished Choctaw communities and offered other forms of financial assistance. During the early twentieth century the boll weevil (a type of beetle that destroys cotton plants) infested the crops in east central Mississippi, depressing the economy of the region and inflicting great hardship on the Choctaw who lived there. In the second half of the twentieth century wise and dynamic tribal leadership helped improve the economic conditions of tribal groups in both the East and West.

The Choctaw today

During the 1970s the tribe struggled to reestablish the sovereign (independent and self-governing) political authority of the Choctaw Nation. In 1975 Choctaw national administrative offices were established at the historic Presbyterian College building in Durant, Oklahoma, which had once served as a school for Native American youth. In 1981, the federal government finally recognized the 1860 Choctaw Consititution and Choctaw people ratified (approved) it in 1983. In the early twenty-first century the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma provides programs for its people in areas such as economic development, housing, the environment, job training, health, food distribution, recreation, and programs for the elderly. Money earned from tourist facilities helps the tribe survive and flourish.


Although the Choctaw believed in spiritual beings, they did not worship a single Supreme Being. They considered the Sun to be a very powerful force. Tribal members often consulted with certain people who were said to possess special powers. These included healers, rainmakers, and prophets. Medicine men were expected to predict future events, instill bravery in warriors, and help inspire a successful hunt.

The Choctaw believed that two kinds of souls survived after a person’s death. The first frightened survivors at night or assumed the form of an animal. The second was an inner spirit, which began its journey to the afterworld immediately after death.

The afterworld had two sections, a good and a bad, separated by a mountainous barrier. An individual could be damned to the bad section for offenses such as murder, telling lies that led to another person’s committing murder, divorcing a pregnant wife, or gossiping.


The Choctaw language is also called Choctaw-Chickasaw. It is closely related to the Creek language. Both are classified as Western Muskogean and are part of the Great Algonquian language family. The Choctaw language was an oral (spoken) language until the early 1900s. Reverend Cyrus Byington (1793–1868), who spent almost fifty years working with the tribe, wrote a dictionary of the language that was published in 1909. He later translated the Bible and several other books into the Choctaw language, including a grammar book. Some of those books are still used to study the language.

When they were questioned in 1987, half of the Choctaw people (about twelve thousand) said they still spoke their native language. In the mid-2000s there were about nine thousand speakers of the Choctaw language, most of whom lived in southeastern Oklahoma. Others resided on the Pearl River Indian Reservation in central Mississippi.

The Choctaw have always excelled at public speaking. They often indicate their agreement to a proposal by saying “hoka hay.” A popular legend claims that during negotiations with the Choctaw, President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37), imitating this phrase, would frequently say “okay,” and that expression is now used by people all around the world.

Common Choctaw Expressions

  • HO-ka hay … “all right”
  • a-LI-to … “hello”
  • chim a-CHUK-ma … “Are you well?”
  • A, chim-sha-NA-to … “Yes, are you?”
  • Yo-KU-ke … “Thank you”


The traditional Choctaw tribe had many subgroups or bands. The eldest male of each band, or ogla, was recognized as the chief. The ogla provided wisdom and teaching and played a major role in ceremonies and celebrations.

In modern times the government of the Oklahoma Choctaw is run by the tribal council, made up of a chief and twelve representatives. A sixteen-member council governs the Mississippi Choctaw Reservation. Their chief, who is also the chief executive, serves for four years and presides over meetings of the council, which take place four times a year.

Choctaw Population: 2000 Census

The U.S. Census reported 88,692 Choctaw in the United States in 2000, with 43,434 living in Oklahoma. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw reported 9,050 Choctaw in its territory in 1995. Choctaw identified themselves as follows:

Choctaw Population: 2000 Census
Mississippi Choctaw7,892
Mowa Band of Choctaw, Alabama1,625
Oklahoma Choctaw12,524

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


For centuries Choctaw men, women, and children cultivated the river floodplains on which they lived. The Choctaw tribe held all their land in common, but individuals could claim a field as long as they could cultivate it and did not interfere with fields already claimed by other members of the tribe. If an individual abandoned a field, control reverted to the tribe.

The tourism and gaming industries employ many Choctaw in the early twenty-first century. The greatest economic gains to the two major Choctaw tribes have been from high-stakes bingo. The Oklahoma Choctaw Nation’s Choctaw Bingo Place in Durant, Oklahoma, draws busloads of bingo players every day from as far away as Dallas, Texas. Begun in 1994, the Mississippi Choctaw tribe’s Silver Star Casino generated about $100 million annually in the early to mid-2000s. The Arrowhead Resort and Gaming Center provides jobs and income as well.

Tribal industries of the Oklahoma Choctaw include a fishing plant, a shopping center, a travel plaza, and the operation of a health center. The Choctaw Nation also runs a tribal newspaper called Bishinik, named after one of the two birds that escaped the great flood in Choctaw oral history. The tribal government is the largest single employer of Choctaw.

In the last decades of the twentieth century the Mississipi Choctaw lived in extreme poverty, but by 2006 they owned many businesses and were the tenth largest employer in the state. In addition to operating casinos, they chose to attract manufacturing firms. One of the advantages for businesses is that operating on reservations is tax-free, so many firms took advantage of the opportunity. The tribe soon had twelve businesses that brought in more than $300 million in 2006. Average family income rose from $2,000 to $13,000 during those years, and the unemployment rate fell from 75 percent to 4 percent.

Daily Life


The rhythm of Choctaw family life was based on the growing season. In midwinter the men cleared the growing fields by burning the underbrush. In spring they planted crops using cedar spades and shovels and hoes made of flint or bone. When they were not farming, the men fished and hunted wild game. Boys learned to hunt with bows and arrows. Children, women, and old people gathered fruits, plants, and nuts.

Mothers brought up their daughters. Sons were raised by their mothers’ brothers because they were the closest of the boy’s male relatives within his clan (a group of related families that forms the basic social unit of the Choctaw society).


The Choctaw lived in circular lodges. The frames were made of sticks, and palmetto thatches covered the tops and sides. Each lodge had one door that generally faced south. There was an open fire in the middle of the structure, and an opening in the roof allowed smoke to escape. Many persons lived in one lodge.

Clothing and adornment

Choctaw men wore belts and loincloths, adding moccasins, leggings, and garments from feathers or mulberry bark in winter. Women wore short deerskin skirts, adding deerskin shawls and moccasins when the weather got colder. The Choctaw wore decorated garments, earrings, and feathers of bright colors. Both men and women wore face paint and tattoos. Below their knees, men wore strings of bells they obtained from traders. Men wore their hair long, with bangs and braids. Women had long hair and wrapped it into a roll on the backs of their heads.


The Choctaw hunted bear, turkey, deer, and other animals. They also caught trout and shrimp, which, along with bear, were eaten fresh or were dried for future consumption.

The Choctaw people also gathered berries that were eaten fresh, and grapes and crabapples that were dried. Their primary crops were squash and corn, which were used in their most common dishes.

Choctaw Acorn Biscuits

Many American tribes, including the Choctaw, harvest acorns. The Choctaw gather the brown-shelled nuts when they start falling from the trees. Sweet acorns, like those from the white oak, can be eaten raw. Other varieties contain a tannic acid, which tastes bitter. It must be leached out of the acorns. You cover the acorns with water and bring them to a boil. Boil them for 30 minutes, drain, add fresh water, and continue the process several times until the boiling water becomes very light in color and the bitter taste is gone. Then dry the nutmeats in the sun or in a 150°F oven. When dried, the nutmeats should be chopped into a coarse meal for use in the recipe.

  • 1/2 cup acorn meal
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 11/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 2 Tablespoons lard, chilled, or 1 Tablespoon each, chilled butter and vegetable shortening
  • About 3 Tablespoons milk

Preheat oven to 400°F.

In a mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. Add lard and crumble with fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in milk. Turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface and pat out until 1/2 inch thick. Cut out 1 1/2-inch biscuits.

Reduce oven to 375°F. Place biscuits on a greased baking sheet and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden.

Serve with jelly. Makes 10 to 12 biscuits.

Cox, Beverly, and Martin Jacobs. Spirit of the Harvest. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1991, p. 37


In earlier times Choctaw boys and girls were trained to use blowguns for hunting small game, such as squirrels, rabbits, and birds. The blowguns were pieces of cane, about seven feet long, out of which they blew sharp cane darts. Until firearms were introduced, Choctaw youth were taught to use bows and arrows to hunt larger game. They also learned to catch fish with traps.

From the mid- to late-1800s the Oklahoma Choctaw group had a thriving school system. Unfortunately, when the Choctaw Nation was abolished in 1907, the Choctaw became citizens of Oklahoma, and their school system ended.

The U.S. government started schools for the impoverished Mississippi Choctaw people in the 1920s. Yet until the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the educational level of the average Mississippi Choctaw remained low. In the late 1970s most students only had a sixth grade education. By 2006 the average educational level had reached twelfth grade.

Healing practices

The Choctaw treated diseases with plants and herbs, sometimes through the aid of medicine men. They boiled various roots to make medicines, wash wounds, treat snakebites, fight pneumonia, treat fever, and guard against smallpox.

The Choctaw wrapped themselves in several layers of cloth and drank hot tea to sweat disease out of the body. To cure stomach pains and arthritis they pressed a small compress onto the area of discomfort. They treated broken bones with wraps and splints.


Choctaw music stresses the importance of living in harmony with nature. Most Choctaw dances took place in an open field to the beat of drums and striking sticks. Three major types of Choctaw dances have been preserved. Animal dances are dances held to honor various birds and animals. The Green Corn Dance, held in late summer, looks forward to a bountiful corn harvest. Both men and women participate in the Choctaw war dance, which in past centuries took place for the eight days prior to a battle. A chanter, often a young man, leads songs for dances. He begins with a shout, and the other dancers join in the dance song.

Collectors prize Choctaw swamp-cane baskets. The double-weave basket, a sort of basket within a basket, is the most favored. Family members usually pass down basketry skills.

For centuries Choctaw women have created a unique style of beadwork design that features double-curved scrolls and other elements of prehistoric Choctaw ceramics and shells.



Traditionally, the Choctaw did not go in for spectacular ceremonies, religious or otherwise. In modern times, though, they host one of the top Native American events in the Southeast, July’s Choctaw Fair, held in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The fair features traditional tribal ceremonies and dances, ethnic foods, stickball games, and a craft fair. It takes place at the historic Old Capitol building that now serves as a Council house and museum. Activities include a princess pageant, cultural ceremonies, Native foods, arts and crafts, sports, and musical entertainment.


Every year in Skullyville, Oklahoma, members of the Choctaw tribe meet to commemorate the forcible removal of their people from their eastern homelands in Mississippi and Louisiana. They honor the thousands of Choctaw people who suffered and died in the early 1830s during the relocation journey that is called the “Trail of Tears.” In addition to a symbolic reenactment of the walk, present-day Choctaw listen to speakers, eat Native American foods, and perform tribal dances.


Choctaw culture was, in many respects, matriarchal (the mother ruled the family). Although men were warriors, war chiefs, and diplomats, women made the decisions during times of peace.


The Choctaw were especially accomplished public speakers. When a formal debate took place, they constructed a large brush arbor with a hole in the center of the roof. Those wishing to speak stood beneath the hole in the full heat of the southern sun, while the audience remained comfortably seated in the shade. The idea was that audience members could bear to listen as long as the speaker could stand in the heat and speak.


Recreation was very important to the tribe. Ishtaboli, or stickball, was (and still is) a favorite sport and was sometimes used to settle disputes. The object of the game was to sling a leather ball from a webbed pocket at the end of a long stick so that it hit the opponent’s goal at the end of the playing field, which was often a mile or longer. Tackling was one way of stopping the opponent. The Choctaw were very adept at handling, throwing, and passing the ball. The games were rough and sometimes resulted in serious injury or death, but no one was punished.

Courting and marriage

According to their courting customs, when a young man found himself alone with the woman he loved, he would come within a few yards of her and toss a pebble. If she smiled, it meant she approved of the courtship. If she disapproved, she gave him a scornful look. Another method a young man might use in courting was to enter the woman’s lodge and lay his hat or handkerchief on her bed. If she approved, she would allow the item to remain. If she disapproved, she removed it from the bed. If both agreed to the union, the couple arranged a time and place for the marriage ceremony.

During a marriage ceremony the families of the couple stood about 100 yards (91 meters) from one another. The brothers of the woman approached the man and seated him on a blanket. The man’s sisters went to the woman and did likewise. Sometimes, for fun, the woman pretended to run away and had to be brought back. The woman’s family set a bag of bread near her, and the man’s family set a bag of meat next to him, indicating the man’s role as hunter and the woman’s as gatherer. Friends and relatives of the man then showered gifts over the head of the woman, which her family members grabbed and distributed among themselves. The gifts usually consisted of clothing, money, and household items. The couple, now man and wife, then rose together, and everyone went to a feast. Afterwards the man took his wife to his lodge.


The Choctaw believed that the soul was immortal, and that the spirit of the deceased person lingered near their corpse for some days after death. In ancient times they wrapped the body in skins and bark and placed it on a platform with food and drink nearby. After some days people who grew long fingernails especially for the task would thoroughly remove the rotting flesh from the bones of the dead person. The bones were then given to grieving relatives, who painted the skull red and placed it in a coffin. The flesh and platform were often burned, or the flesh was buried.

In more recent times Choctaw dressed the deceased in special ceremonial clothing for the viewing. The clothes, handed down from one generation to another, were not buried with the person. Often, a hunter’s gun was placed in his grave next to his body. Mourning periods were based on the age of the deceased and varied from three months for children to up to a year for parents.

Current tribal issues

Although the three Choctaw groups—the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians—have received federal recognition, other Choctaw groups, such as the Mowa Choctaw of Alabama, continue to seek federal recognition. Federal recognition entitles tribes to receive assistance and funding from the U.S. government and allows them to operate as an independent nation.

The Mississippi Choctaw have been successful in attracting industries and businesses to the reservation, since the construction of an industrial park in 1973. Large corporations have opened businesses there that in the early twenty-first century employ more than two thousand Choctaw. The jobs these companies provide and the taxes they generate significantly benefit the state. The Oklahoma Choctaw have also established successful tribal industries.

Both the Mississippi and Oklahoma Choctaw established Housing Authorities that provide the reservations with affordable modern housing. The greatest economic gain on both reservations has been the casinos.

Notable people

Pushmataha (1764–1824) was a Choctaw warrior, statesman, and chief. Pushmataha was very loyal to the United States. He refused to join the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh in a Native American confederacy against the whites and signed a treaty ceding lands in Alabama and Mississippi to the United States.

Rosella Hightower (1920–), an internationally known ballerina, has also directed ballet and opera companies. Educator Linda Lomahaftewa (1947–) is an award-winning painter and printmaker whose works highlight the culture of the Plains Indians. Her artwork has been featured at a variety of exhibitions throughout the country.

Broadwell, George Aaron. A Choctaw Reference Grammar. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Carson, James Taylor. Searching for the Bright Path: The Mississippi Choctaws from Prehistory to Removal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Lassieur, Allison. The Choctaw Nation. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 2001.

Matte, Jacqueline Anderson. They Say the Wind Is Red: The Alabama Choctaw–Lost in Their Own Land. Red Level, AL: Greenberry Pub., 1999.

Ferrara, Peter J. “Choctaw Uprising: Business Acumen of Mississippi Choctaw Indian Chief Philip Martin.” National Review. (March, 11 1996).

Bogue Chitto Elementary School Students’ Choctaw Tribe. (accessed on September 2, 2007).

Carleton, Kenneth H. “A Brief History of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.” Mississippi Band of Choctaw. 2002. (accessed on September 2, 2007).

“Choctaw.” Minnesota State University Mankato. (accessed on September 2, 2007).

“Choctaw Indian Language.” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. (accessed on September 2, 2007).

Choctaw Nation Indian Territory. (accessed on September 2, 2007).

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. (accessed on September 2, 2007).

Choctaw Vision. (accessed on September 2, 2007).

Jena Band of Choctaw Indians. (accessed on September 2, 2007).

George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute

Laurie Edwards

John H. Moore, Ph.D., Anthropology Department University of Florida, Gainesville

Laurie Edwards


views updated May 21 2018


LOCATION: United States (Southeast Oklahoma; Mississippi; Louisiana)
POPULATION: 187,000 (worldwide)
LANGUAGE: English; Choctaw
RELIGION: Traditional Choctaw; Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Native North Americans


The Choctaw, along with the Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seminole nations, were called the "Five Civilized Tribes" by European Americans because they had organized systems of government and education, and many of their ways seemed to reflect European culture. The Choctaw had their first encounter with Europeans in the fall of 1540. The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was making his way west from Florida when he came upon a Choctaw village. Afraid that de Soto and his forces were going to take them prisoner, the Choctaw attacked. Their bows and arrows did little against the Spaniards' armor and guns. The Spaniards won the battle, and more than 1,500 Choctaw died. Fortunately, that was the Choctaw's last encounter with Europeans for more than 150 years.

Throughout the first half of the 18th century, the Choctaw sided with the French in their war with the British over control of the New World. Shifting alliances between the three Choctaw bands and the European forces in the area, however, caused a Choctaw civil war in 1748. One of the bands had decided to side with the British and the nearby Chickasaw tribe. The French helped their Choctaw allies defeat the British and the British-allied Choctaw. The treaty signed at the end of the war made it clear that the Choctaw were never again to ally themselves with the British. They held true to this in the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), when many Choctaws sided and even fought with the American colonists against Britain.

After the United States became an independent country, the Choctaw continued to be on good terms with the government. Often, in exchange for Choctaw land, the U.S. government would agree to pay off Choctaw debts and frequently gave the chiefs gifts. For a large cession of land in 1805, the government agreed to pay the Choctaw an annuity of $3,000, which immensely helped the tribe, providing it with a stable income. The Choctaw sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War in 1861, greatly influenced by the fact that the states of Texas and Arkansas (bordering the tribal lands) seceded from the union. In addition, the commerce and business routes used by the Choctaws were within the states sympathizing with the south. The Union also withdrew its troops from the Choctaw Nation as war threatened. The U.S. government stopped paying the annuity; the agents of the government were southern men. When the Confederacy approached the Choctaws, they were ready to join. After the war, the U.S. government began paying the annuity again, but further Choctaw land cessions required by the government prevented the Choctaw from climbing out of their poverty.


The Choctaw are originally from what is now the northwestern United States, but after hearing good land was plentiful in the east, they emigrated to present-day Mississippi and Alabama. The climate there is very warm and humid, providing them with good farming conditions in the rich soils near the rivers. The land is home to abundant forests, filled with a great variety of wild game, fish, and berries for food.

Traditionally, there were two distinct Choctaw clans, designated by the Creator. Intermarriages between the two clans were forbidden, and Choctaws followed their mother's clan. Today most Choctaw do not know from which clan they are descended.

In 1820 the Choctaw and the U.S. government signed a treaty at Doak's stand in which the Choctaw agreed to cede the remainder of their land in Mississippi to the U.S. government. An article in the treaty promised a blanket, kettle, rifle gun, bullet molds and nippers, and ammunition sufficient for hunting and defense for one year. The Treaty of 1830, signed at Dancing Rabbit Creek, conveyed to the Choctaw Nation a tract of country west of the Mississippi River, in fee simple to them and their descendants. This treaty also gave them the right of self-governance. Of the nearly 20,000 Choctaw living in Mississippi at that time, about 14,000 moved west to Oklahoma. Many of those who stayed in Mississippi were cheated out of their land by a cruel Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employee who refused them the right to register. The 6,000 Choctaw who had stayed in Mississippi consequently fell into harsh poverty, while their kinsmen in Oklahoma became prosperous. The Oklahoma Choctaw quickly rebuilt their tribal structure and began farming, soon producing a crop surplus which they sold to the U.S. government. By 1855, a generation later, about 6,000 more Choctaw had moved to Oklahoma to escape the rough conditions in Mississippi. This left only some 2,000 in the Choctaw's ancestral homeland.

After the Civil War, however, the Choctaw's prosperity in Oklahoma began to change. The U.S. government informed the Choctaw that European and African Americans would be allowed to live on Choctaw land. By 1890 there were 10,017 Choctaw, 28,345 European Americans, and 4,406 African Americans living on Choctaw land in Indian Territory. The Choctaw had become a minority in their own land.

When the General Allotment Act of 1887 was put into effect for the Choctaw in November 1907, the Oklahoma Choctaw lost their tribal designation and were forced to become Oklahoma citizens. While there are Choctaw communities in Oklahoma, there is no Choctaw reservation. There is a Choctaw reservation in Mississippi. The total population of the Choctaw Nation is over 187,000 worldwide.


The Choctaw language is part of the Muskogean language family and is related to Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Miccosukee. The word "Oklahoma" comes from the Choctaw language. When future Choctaw chief Choctaw Allen Wright was asked what he thought Indian Territory should be named if it were to be controlled under one common government, he replied okla homma, meaning "red people" in Choctaw.

The Choctaw have done a good job of preserving their language. In 1819 they requested the assistance of Christian missionaries in translating the Bible and some hymns into the Choctaw language. In addition, missionaries worked with them to create a Choctaw dictionary, as well as a grammar and spelling book using the Roman alphabet. There are book/tape sets that offer instruction in the Choctaw language, available through the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Many Choctaw still communicate in their native language when English is not necessary.


The Choctaw often tell a story about how they ended up in Mississippi. They began in the northwest and, in their search for good farmland, moved in an easterly direction. Every night the chief stuck a pole in the ground, and every morning it was leaning east. So they continued east until one morning they woke up and the pole was sticking straight up. That was where they decided to stay. To celebrate and to thank the Great Spirit, they built a large mound at that spot: present-day Nanih Waiya, Mississippi, which means "leaning mound."


While the Choctaw did not believe in any one, highest being, they did believe that there were spirits everywhere and that all things had a soul. Their medicine men, or alikchi, were traditionally thought of as prophets. When the alikchi saw a good vision, it was considered a good omen for the upcoming battle or raid. A dark vision undoubtedly meant bad luck or even death. Other members of Choctaw society were also seen to have special powers. These healers or rainmakers, among others, were often consulted by members of the tribe to give aid in their particular area of specialty.

The Choctaw believed that every person had two souls. After a person's body died, one soul stayed among the living Choctaw to frighten them. The other soul went to a good or a bad place, depending on how the deceased had lived his or her life. Most Choctaw's souls went to the good, sunny place. Only the souls of murderers were condemned to the dark place.

Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Choctaw religion is its promotion of complete peace and harmony among peoples. The Choctaw almost never attacked anyone throughout their history. They did, however, defend themselves, their loved ones, and their way of life to the death when attacked by others. Today, the majority of Choctaw are Christian.


Every summer since 1949, the Choctaw have hosted the Mississippi Choctaw's Indian Fair in Pearl River, Mississippi. The fair is held on the campus of the Choctaw Central High School and thousands—including both Native North Americans and non-Native North Americans—come every year. The four-day fair promotes tourism in the area and helps the Choctaw maintain their tribal heritage and customs. Another Choctaw festival is held at Tushka Homma, Oklahoma every Labor Day weekend. It is open to the public and free of charge. Close to 100,000 visitors every year enjoy country music concerts in the amphitheater, handmade arts and crafts, sports and children's activities, Choctaw social dancing, stickball exhibitions, a quilt show, War Monument Memorial Services, rides, animal acts, and more. The Chief gives the annual State of the Nation address.


One of the most elaborate ceremonies the Choctaw traditionally performed was when someone died. The deceased person's corpse was wrapped in animal skins or tree bark and then placed on a platform high above the ground, where it was left until it decomposed. During that time, friends and relatives would come by and mourn. When the body had fully decomposed, the tribal official known as the "bone picker" (usually ornamented with body paint and tattoos) would scrape the remaining flesh from the bones with his long fingernails. Once the bones were cleaned, they were placed in a box and stored in the community bone house. After the bone-picker had finished his unsavory task, he would preside over a feast for family and friends of the deceased—with his unwashed bare hands. Once a year, all the bones that had been collected in the bone house during the past 12 months were buried together in a mound, and a communal funeral was held.

This death ritual was abandoned in the 19th century, however. European Americans and mixed-blood Choctaw did not approve of the ceremony, thinking it uncivilized. Consequently, beginning in the 19th century the Choctaw buried the corpse with many of the deceased's valued possessions to accompany his or her soul to the afterlife. Then, after a mourning period, a tribal feast was held. This custom was changed even further as more Choctaw converted to Christianity and Christian elements were added.


Each of the three Choctaw bands was traditionally ruled by a district chief, or miko. The mikos were elected by the men of their district, and together the three mikos governed the entire Choctaw nation. Each village had their own council of elders, which had a chief to preside over the meetings. The Choctaw always elected their public officials and were always very democratic about it. Although women were not allowed to vote, they had a great deal of power in that clan membership was inherited through the mother and, therefore, women were at the head of the all-important clan. The eldest woman of each clan was highly respected by all in the community.

Increased contact with the British and French, and later with European Americans, significantly changed parts of Choctaw tribal structure and society. Many Choctaw women married British and French men, producing a large minority of Choctaw mixed-bloods, who later became fairly influential in the tribe. In addition, the tribe's judicial system was changed to be more like that of the United States. Traditionally, Choctaw who committed a crime were punished by the victim's family. But by the late 19th century, the Choctaw had instituted the "light horsemen," a group of sheriffs and judges that traveled from town to town, holding trials.

In the last 100 years the Choctaw have experienced many changes in their tribal structure. Since 1975 the Choctaw in Mississippi have had a tribal constitution stating that the tribal chief is to be elected by all tribe members every four years. The tribal council meets once every quarter and makes the laws for the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi. The state government legally has no power over those Choctaw living on the reservation. In Oklahoma, there is no reservation; it is considered "Indian Country." The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has its own constitution in place, with three branches of government: an executive branch, a legislative branch (with 12 council members), and a judicial branch. There is a Tribal Court at Tushka Homma, where the council meets monthly.


Traditionally, the Choctaw lived in wood-frame houses constructed by fastening wooden poles together with vines. For insulation, the walls were then packed with mud, and the outside was covered with cypress or pine bark. There was one door three or four feet tall, and two small holes were left in the ceiling to allow the smoke from the cooking fire to escape.

When the Choctaw nation split in two in the 1830s, both groups grew accustomed to living in very different ways. The Choctaw in Oklahoma, who received a $3,000 annuity from the U.S. government, were much better off than the poverty-stricken, landless Mississippi Choctaw. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, their respective conditions began to reverse. In 1907, the General Allotment Act was put into effect for the Oklahoma Choctaw, and many of them were swindled out of their land. In 1918, the U.S. government recognized the severe poverty of the Choctaw living in Mississippi and instituted programs to improve their living conditions.

Recently, efforts have been made to help the Choctaw further improve their housing. In 1965, the Choctaw Housing Authority (CHA) began building modern, sturdy homes for Choctaw living in Mississippi. A few years later, the CHA was established in Hugo, Oklahoma, to improve the standard of living among those of Choctaw descent living in Oklahoma.


Choctaw society is matrilineal (lineage is inherited through the mother). Children belong to their mother's clan. Traditionally, a mother raises her daughters while the mother's brothers, as the closest male relatives in her clan, raise her sons. Marriage between two people of the same clan is prohibited.

In the past, women were not allowed to speak their husband's name but would refer to him as "my children's father." They never dared look upon their son-in-law's face but would avert their eyes when he came into the room. This practice is no longer followed.


In the days before the Choctaw had contact with Europeans, Choctaw men wore a loincloth and a belt in the summer, and in the winter, they added leather moccasins, leggings, and shirts woven from feathers. Women commonly wore deerskin skirts and added moccasins and a deerskin shawl in the winter.

Today's Choctaw wear modern Western-style clothing for everyday purposes. Traditional clothing is sometimes worn for ceremonies and festivals.


The Choctaw, along with the other peoples of the "Five Civilized Tribes," made many traditional dishes, such as the following:

Blue Grape Dumplings

½ gallon unsweetened grape juice
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons shortening, melted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup water

Bring grape juice to a rolling boil with the sugar.

Mix water, shortening, and baking powder. Add enough flour to make stiff dough.

Roll out thin on a floured board and cut into small pieces.

Drop each piece one at a time into the boiling juice. Cook over high heat about 5 minutes, and then simmer for about 10 minutes, covered.

Remove from heat; let stand for 10 minutes, covered, before serving. May be served with cream or plain.

Wild Onions and Eggs

Wild onions, cut up (any amount you want)
1 cup water
1 cup shortening, melted
6 eggs

Cut up enough wild onions to fill a 6- to 10-inch skillet. Add water and shortening to onions.

Salt to taste, and fry until water is almost gone (15 to 20 minutes).

Break eggs on top of onion in skillet, and stir well. Fry until eggs are scrambled. Serve hot.

[recipes contributed by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma]


In the 1810s, the Choctaws asked Cyrus Kingsbury, a Presbyterian missionary, to help them set up a school. With Kingsbury in charge, the first Choctaw school opened in 1818 in Elliot, Mississippi. The school was founded with the interest money from a large annuity the U.S. government had promised to pay the Choctaws for their 1816 cession of three million acres of land. When they were relocated to Oklahoma, again they used their annuity funds to build good Choctaw schools. Because of their fairly high level of education (even compared with most European Americans who lived in Indian Territory in the second half of the century), the Choctaw became better off economically.

Although presently most Choctaw children attend public elementary schools, in 1968 Choctaw Central High School was built in Pearl River, Mississippi. There are currently a number of Choctaw- and government-run programs to increase the educational level of the Choctaw. On the Mississippi reservation, there are adult education programs to help strengthen the Choctaw's English reading and writing skills. The Oklahoma Choctaw Council has established nearly a dozen Headstart centers throughout southeastern Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Nation also runs a Higher Education Vocational Development Program, GED programs, job training, and other assistance programs. Near Hartshorne, Oklahoma, there is a boarding school operated by the Choctaw Nation, called Jones Academy. More than 90% of Choctaw teenagers attend high school, and over 70% of the adult population has attained a high school diploma.


Dancing used to be a very important part of the Choctaw culture, but over the years the traditional dances were not performed as frequently. In recent years, however, the younger generations have regained an interest in their traditional culture and are reviving the traditional dances. In Broken Bow, Oklahoma, the public school offers a Choctaw dance program. Students learn the dances of their ancestors and they often travel to perform at ceremonies and festivals.


Traditionally, the Choctaw farmed and hunted. Choctaw children (mostly boys) hunted with a blow gun, or an uski thompa. A hollow piece of swamp cane through which long, sharp darts were blown, it could kill an animal instantly. Other Choctaw boys hunted with rabbit sticks, which are similar to Billy clubs. They would line up in groups of 8 to 10 boys, cross the field together to flush out the rabbits, and then beat them in the heads with their sticks.

After losing nearly all of their land to European American settlers when the General Allotment Act was put into effect at the turn of the century, many Choctaw went to work in the timber and mining industries.

In 1953 the U.S. government instituted a number of vocational training programs in Mississippi to help prepare Choctaw for jobs in the mainstream industrialized job market. The Chata Development Company was created in 1969 by the Choctaw council to help find and create jobs for Choctaw in Mississippi. In 1977 the Chata Wire Harness Enterprise was established near Pearl River. This factory employs many Choctaw, making electrical parts for cars for the General Motors (GM) company. The GM factory, built in 1973, is located in an industrial park that is also the home of many other industries, such as the Choctaw Greeting Enterprise of the American Greetings Corporation. Despite all these factory openings, however, unemployment on the Mississippi reservation is still at about 20%, well above the national average.

The Oklahoma Choctaw are doing well, though. They have opened bingo parlors in Durant, Pocola, Idabel, and Arrowhead, which has proven to be a very successful business, attracting many tourists. In addition, the Choctaw in Oklahoma run the Arrowhead Resort and Hotel in Canada, Oklahoma, and Travel Plazas in Hugo, Pocola, Idabel, and Durant. The tribe also owns a finishing plant, a trailer manufacturing plant, and tribally-owned and managed day care centers. Profits from all these businesses go to programs for Choctaw assistance.


A traditional Choctaw sport is ishtaboli, or "stick ball," which is similar to modern-day lacrosse. The small ball is made from deerskin or cowhide that is stitched together. The players use two sticks, or kapucha, at the same time. Kapucha are made from hickory wood and are about three feet long. A point is scored when the ball is scooped up in the net of the stick and thrown against the other team's goal post. Ishtaboli games used to be huge ordeals, typically lasting more than 12 hours (or until one team had scored 100 points), with 75–100 players per team. Traditionally, ishtaboli games were sometimes used to settle differences, but generally the Choctaw play just for fun.


The Choctaw often held dances and feasts, frequently centered on an ishtaboli match. Before the match, the women would lay out some of their possessions and bet on which team would win. The players then performed a lengthy dance that lasted all night, before starting the game at dawn. When the game was over, the women who had bet on the winning team claimed their prizes, and there was a great celebration with a large feast. Another common way the Choctaw entertained themselves was with bow and arrow competitions, which they still hold at their annual festivals.


Choctaw women have always been master basket-weavers, which is the Choctaw's most elaborate art. The women make the baskets by cutting sticks of cane from a swamp. They let the sticks dry, and then slice them into thin strips. Different colored strips are created with dyes made from wild berries and roots.


One of the biggest problems of the Choctaw tribe is their lack of unity. While the Choctaw in Mississippi are able to live together and function as a tribe on the reservation, they are separated from their kinfolk in Oklahoma. The Choctaw in Oklahoma, on the other hand, have no reservation and are consequently scattered throughout the state, making it difficult to maintain a sense of unity. However, they keep in touch with a monthly newspaper, Bishinik, which means "newsbird" in Choctaw.

In recent years, health has been a serious problem for the Choctaw as well. On the reservation in Mississippi, many die from tuberculosis and pneumonia. On the reservation, new health service programs teach the Choctaw how to help prevent such diseases by improving their nutrition. In Oklahoma, health clinics have been opened in Hugo, Broken Bow, McAlester, Poteau, and Durant, as well as a hospital in Talihina, to treat those of Choctaw descent. Social assistance programs include a Recover Center for drug and alcohol dependency problems, and Chi Hullo Li, a residential treatment center for women who suffer from addictions as well as abuse. The women in the program may have their children live with them if they wish. More than a dozen sites in Oklahoma serve nutritious lunches, some five days a week. Other Oklahoma programs even offer such necessities as burial assistance.


Choctaw ideology links the activities, roles, and responsibilities of men and women together in maintaining the balance of society and nature. On a large level, the Choctaw notion of reciprocal roles of two pairs can be seen in the Choctaw moiety structure. Choctaw society was divided into two halves, which are called moieties by anthropologists. The moieties governed marriage as well as funerary roles and mourning. An individual could not marry someone who belonged to the same moiety as he or she did. When a person died, it was the members of the other moiety who mourned for the person and prepared the body.

The Choctaw view of men's and women's roles also followed the reciprocal pattern of moieties. While the participation of men and women might differ, the Choctaw believe that both are necessary for the accomplishment of tasks and goals. For instance, during the final days of a woman's pregnancy her husband would fast during the daylight hours and would avoid eating pork and salt, in order not to harm the baby. The father's activities were seen as being as important to the successful delivery of the baby as were those of the mother.

Since the 1960s Choctaw women have moved into more leadership roles in government and church life. At least seven women have served on the Oklahoma Choctaw council since the late 1970s. Only one woman (Harriet Wright James) has run for the office of Chief of the Choctaw Nation (in 1985);although her bid was not successful, it did signal the complete return of Choctaw women to the political arena.


Conklin, Paul. Choctaw Boy. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975.

Kimball, Yeffe, and Jean Anderson. The Art of American Indian Cooking. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1965.

Kwachka, Patricia, ed. Perspectives on the Southeast. Athens: University of Georgia, 1994.

Lepthien, Emilie U. The Choctaw. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.

McKee, Jesse O. The Choctaw. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Pesantubbee, Michelene E. Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Reddy, Marlita A., ed. Statistical Record of Native North Americans, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

—reviewed by J. Allen


views updated Jun 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: Chacktaws, Chaquita, Chat-Kas, Tchatakes, Tchiactas


Identification. The Choctaw are an American Indian group who lived aboriginally in Mississippi. "Chahta," the Choctaw's name for themselves, is probably a term of native origin derived from Hacha Hatak, "River People."

Location. In the eighteenth century, the Choctaw population was centered in central and southern Mississippi. Most Choctaw now live in Oklahoma and Mississippi.

Demography. Historically, the Choctaw were one of the largest tribes in the Southeast. In spite of major population losses through warfare and disease in the early historical period, the population in 1831 was 19,554. In 1980, there were 6,000 Choctaw in Mississippi and 10,000 in Oklahoma. Over 100,000 people in Oklahoma claim some Choctaw ancestry, however. Small numbers of Choctaw have migrated to urban areas in Texas, California, and Illinois.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Choctaw language belongs to the Muskogean family, which also includes Creek and Chickasaw.

History and Cultural Relations

Choctaw origin legends describe a migration of the Choctaw and Chickasaw from farther west, but there is no known archaeological evidence for this. Native groups bordering the Choctaw territory at the time of European contact included the Creek east of the Tombigbee River, the Chickasaw in northern Mississippi, and the Natchez to the west on the Mississippi River. Along the Gulf Coast were closely related Choctaw-speaking tribes: the Pascagoula, the Acolapissa, and the Bayogoula. Choctaw relations with other major tribes were characterized by customary warfare associated with the receiving of young males into adulthood.

The first written account of the Choctaw is in the chronicles of the Hernando de Soto expedition in 1540. Permanent European contact began with French settlements on the Gulf Coast in 1699. The Choctaw were rapidly plunged into a complicated colonial rivalry as European powers sought to utilize Indian allies to carry out their territorial designs and to profit from the trade in guns, deerskins, and slaves. The Choctaw allied with the French operating from New Orleans in efforts to get European goods as well as guns to protect themselves from the English and their allies. With the ending of colonial rivalry and the establishment of the American nation, warfare was curtailed.

The Choctaw joined with the United States in the War of 1812 against their traditional enemies, the Creeks, and the British. But the Treaty of Fort Adams in 1801 had begun a pattern of progressive loss of Choctaw land, which resulted in removal thirty years later. In each treaty, the Choctaw were forced to cede more land and more prerogatives to the United States. Choctaw leaders such as Pushmataha were aware of the threat imposed by the growing number of White settlers in the Southeast and consciously decided to adopt White ways as a means of survival. Missionaries established schools in response to a Choctaw request. With the spread of literacy, the Choctaw adopted formal written rules passed in district councils in the place of customary law. But these changes did not affect the demand for Indian removal that resulted in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1831 requiring the removal of the Choctaw to Oklahoma.

Under this treaty, Choctaws could elect to remain in Mississippi with individually owned lands, but when large numbers attempted to use this provision, the treaty agent deliberately failed to record their claims. In the coming years, the remaining Choctaw were robbed of their possessions, and most eventually were forced to go to Oklahoma. Some Choctaw remained as subsistence farmers on unoccupied marginal lands in east central Mississippi. The descendants of these two groups compose the current Oklahoma and Mississippi Choctaw populations.


The basic Choctaw social unit was the town, usually located along tributaries of major rivers. Approximately ninety towns were divided into three major districts clustered in the upper reaches of the Pearl River, the western tributaries of the Tombigbee River, and the Chickasawhay River in southern Mississippi. Settlements ranged from fifty to five hundred people. Larger towns were fortified and had a physical center including a council house and field for stickball. These larger towns served as social, economic, and religious centers for surrounding settlements. With the end of colonial warfare, the population dispersed from the towns and from the centers of the Districts. Following removal to Oklahoma, the more acculturated mixed-blood Choctaw settled in the rich bottomlands, while the more traditional Choctaw settled in isolated Communities in hill country. The Mississippi Choctaw remained on marginal land protected by hills and swamps. The Purchase of lands for the current Mississippi Choctaw Reservation centered on lands where Choctaw were located, resulting in a dispersed pattern of six major reservation communities. In Oklahoma, the Choctaw are concentrated in what was the old Choctaw Nation in southeastern Oklahoma. Here traditional Choctaw rural communities still exist on more Marginal lands.

The aboriginal Choctaw house was of wattle-and-daub construction, oval or square, with a single door, no windows, and a steeply sloping roof of thatch. This was usually accompanied by one or more open roofed structures, referred to as summer houses, and by granaries. In this century, most rural Choctaw have lived in poorly constructed frame houses, but public housing programs have made great improvements.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In the latter half of the eighteenth century the Choctaw were among the most accomplished farmers in the Southeast, but this was only an intensification of the basic Southeastern pattern of maize, beans, and squash cultivation supplemented by hunting, fishing, and collecting. The arrival of Europeans brought additional vegetables, cattle, horses, and cotton. During the eighteenth century the trade in deer skins resulted in first an expansion of hunting and then an increase in agriculture and cattle as the deer population declined. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rural Choctaw remained Subsistence farmers, often in debt to the cotton sharecropping System. Agriculture was supplemented by work in forestry and agricultural day labor. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Mississippi Choctaw successfully established tribal industries Including construction and electronic component and greeting card assembly. Lacking a reservation land base, the Oklahoma Choctaw have been less successful in establishing Economic enterprises and are largely dependent on employment in forestry, seasonal wage work, and governmental assistance.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included pottery, carving of wood, stone, and shell, and basket and textile weaving. Today basket weaving continues among the Choctaw, but the number of skilled craftspeople is declining because of limited markets. Making traditional nineteenth-century Choctaw clothing to wear at special events remains important.

Trade. The Choctaw participated in the complex of aboriginal trade linking the shell of the coastal areas with stone and related products of the interior. Competition over the trade for deerskins and guns was a major factor in eighteenth-century Choctaw affairs. By the nineteenth century, the replacement of Indians by African slaves and the decline in deer led to an expansion of peaceful trade in agricultural products and cattle.

Division of Labor. Aboriginally, women and children cared for the crops, while the men cleared fields and helped with planting and harvesting. Women prepared food, made clothes, pottery, and baskets, and cared for the children. Men hunted, built houses, and performed ritual activities. Both women and men practiced medicine. Men became more involved in agriculture with the use of domesticated animals for cultivating crops, but subsistence farming involved both men and women in major shared activities. With the rise of an industrial economy, men and women were able to gain employment outside the home.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, individual ownership was Limited to use rights for homesites and lands under cultivation or improvement. Although men cleared land and built houses, these were the property of the wife and her female descendants as long as the land and house were being utilized. Those Choctaw remaining after removal had to register land in the name of the male head of household, but most of these land titles were quickly lost, leaving the Mississippi Choctaw largely without land until the establishment of the Choctaw Agency in 1918. The reservation is held by the federal Government as trustee for the Mississippi Choctaw. Individual homesites are allocated by the Tribal Council. In the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, the traditional land use patterns were lost with the abolishment of the Choctaw Nation and allocation of Choctaw lands to individuals by the U.S. government. Most of this land soon passed to White ownership leaving the Oklahoma Choctaw without a reservation land base.


Kin Groups and Descent. Choctaw society was divided into two matrilineal exogamous moieties and six matrilineal clans. The remaining kinship unit was the locality group similar to the "house names" of the Chickasaw. Members of different clans lived together in the same town. But since Inheritance rules followed the female line, it is probable that residency was matrilocal. With the disruption of removal and increasing White contact, the clan system was undermined, and matrilineality was largely replaced by patrilineality.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional terminology followed the Crow system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the traditional marriage system, exogamy applied to the matrilineally based moieties. Marriages were Usually monogamous, but polygyny was permitted. Marriage required the consent of the bride and her mother, and involved a ceremony involving members of both kinship groups. Divorce was common and could be obtained easily by either party.

Domestic Unit. Until this century extended families were common. While the nuclear family predominates, three-generation families often occur because of poverty and illegitimacy.

Inheritance. Traditionally, all property except individual personal property passed through the female line. After the abolishment of Choctaw governments in Mississippi in 1830 and Oklahoma in 1906, patrilineal patterns of inheritance came to dominate.

Socialization. Children are raised permissively with little direct punishment or direct orders. Ridicule, ignoring, and threat of external forces are used to discipline children. Direct aggression and hostility are discouraged. Parents encourage their children to continue their education, but such encouragement rarely is expressed directly or forcefully.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Choctaw social organization was based on two geographic units: the three districts and ninety towns, and three social units: moieties, clans, and locality groups. The relationships among these units are not completely clear. Early descriptions of the Choctaw show a confusion of names of geographic division, moieties, clans, and locality groups. At all levels, leadership was by older proven warriers called "beloved" men.

Political Organization. The two matrilineal exogamous moieties of the Choctaw resemble the White, or peace, Moiety and the Red, or war, moiety of other Southeastern tribes. The moiety and clan divisions were basic to kinship, Ceremony, and political affairs. The heads of respective clans were responsible for adjudicating disputes. If the principal men in two divisions could not agree on the outcome of a case, it was referred to the leading men of the next larger divisions. Major officials within a town were selected from the leaders of the local groups within the town. Each town had a chief who, with his spokesman, supervised civil affairs and ceremonies. A war chief and his assistants led the men in time of war. The leadership pattern at the town level was duplicated at the District level. Early in the eighteenth century there may have been a central district and head chief for the tribe as a whole, but if so this had been abandoned by midcentury as a result of civil strife. The primary means of achieving consensus on major courses of action was the council. District councils were called by the district chief, and national councils were called by the three district chiefs acting jointly. In 1834, the Choctaw adopted a constitution for the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma that was in force until the Choctaw Nation was abolished as a territorial government by the U.S. Congress in 1906. Nevertheless, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma continues to exist as a nonterritorial organization conducting activities and enterprises for the Choctaw there. The remaining Mississippi Choctaw did not adopt a constitution until 1945, but since then they have operated a tribal government with jurisdiction over the reservation lands in Mississippi.

Social Control. Avoiding direct conflict, gossip, and avoidance have been important forms of social control. Witchcraft declined in importance in the eighteenth century. Tribal judicial authority was ended in Mississippi with removal, and in Oklahoma with the abolishment of the Choctaw Nation in 1906. But local judicial control under Tribal courts was reestablished on the Mississippi Choctaw Reservations in 1978 through a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Conflict. In the eighteenth century the Choctaw were Divided over the proper relationship with European powers. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the expansion of the money economy resulted in conflicts over participation in the White-dominated market economy. While this social class discord involved conflict between mixed-bloods and full-bloods in Mississippi prior to removal and later in Oklahoma, the same dissension exists among the predominantly full-blood Mississippi Choctaw. For the latter a major external conflict arose from the acute racism of surrounding White Society, which did not noticeably improve until the 1970s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Choctaw traditional religion was largely unrecorded before early nineteenth-century Christian missionaries influenced traditional practices. The Choctaw maintain a deep faith in supernatural forces linking humans and other living creatures. The importance of maintaining harmony with nature, fellowmen, and the supernatural world is central to Choctaw beliefs. The status of a supreme being in traditional Choctaw religion prior to the spread of Christianity is not clear. Their belief in numerous animal and anthropomorphic spirits who influenced human affairs continued, however, after the coming of Christianity. Today the Baptist denomination predominates among Choctaw in Oklahoma and Mississippi.

Religious Practitioners. In aboriginal times, the influence of Choctaw prophets and doctors was considerable, and the belief in witchcraft was strong. By the nineteenth century, the influence of Christian Choctaw pastors was important in most Choctaw communities in Oklahoma and Mississippi.

Ceremonies. Choctaw ceremonies were similar to other Southeastern tribes, with the Green Corn ceremonies being most important. Observers noted that the Choctaw held fewer religious ceremonies and more social dances than their neighbors. Both dances and ceremonies were closely associated with the very popular stickball game similar to lacrosse.

Arts. In addition to their industrial arts, the Choctaw were well known for singing and storytelling. In addition to traditional music, the Choctaw enjoy country music.

Medicine. The Choctaw believe serious persistent illnesses to be a product of spiritual evil often associated with witchcraft. Curing consisted of herbal medicines, ritual purifications, and the enlistment of spirit helpers to drive out evil forces. Western clinical medicine is generally used today, but native Choctaw doctors are still consulted.

Death and Afterlife. Death, like disease, could be the result of either natural or supernatural forces. Choctaw believed in an afterworld to which spirits of the dead go and in which individuals experience reward or punishment depending on their life on earth. Funeral ceremonies are the most important life cycle ritual.


Debo, Angie (1934). The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

DeRosier, Arthur H., Jr. (1970). The Removal of the Choctaw Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Kidwell, Clara S., and Charles Roberts (1981). The Choctaws: A Critical Bibliography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peterson, John H. (1979). "Three Efforts at Development among the Choctaws of Mississippi." In The Southeastern Indians since Removal, edited by Walter L. Williams, 142-153. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Swanton, John R. (1931). Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 103. Washington, D.C.



views updated May 23 2018


CHOCTAW. The Choctaws comprise two American Indian tribes whose origins are in central and eastern Mississippi. Their ancestors lived in fortified villages, raised corn, and hunted deer. They first encountered Europeans when Hernando de Soto led his forces from 1539 to 1541 through the Southeast. In the eighteenth century, they traded food and deerskins to British and French traders in exchange for weapons and cloth. Their major public ceremonies were funerals, but otherwise Choctaw religious beliefs were matters of private dreams or visions. They traced descent through the mother's line. The Choctaws settled conflicts between towns or with neighboring tribes on the stickball field, where each team tried to hit a ball of deerskin beyond the other's goal. The game was violent, but its outcome kept peace within the nation. During the American Revolution the Choctaws remained neutral, and they rejected the Shawnee leader Tecumseh's effort to form an alliance against the Americans before the War of 1812. In 1826, to assert their national identity and to show that they were adapting to white civilization, they adopted a written constitution that established a representative form of government. Despite the Choctaws' friendship and signs of adopting American customs, President Andrew Jackson pressed all Indians east of the Mississippi to cede their lands and move west. In 1830, Choctaw leaders signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, and approximately fifteen thousand Choctaws moved to what is now Oklahoma. There they reestablished their constitutional form of government and controlled their own school system. They allied with the Confederacy during the Civil War and afterward were forced to sign new treaties with the United States that ceded parts of their land and allowed railroads to cross their territory. Railroads brought non-Indians to Choctaw lands, and in 1907 the tribal government was dissolved when Oklahoma became a state. Mineral resources, however, remained as communal holdings, and the federal government continued to recognize titular chiefs. Political activism in the 1960s led to a resurgence in tribal identity. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma had over 127,000 members throughout the United States, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, descendents

of those who resisted removal, numbered over 8,300.


Debo, Angie. The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934.

Wells, Samuel J., and Roseanna Tubby. After Removal: The Choctaw in Mississippi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Clara SueKidwell

See alsoIndian Policy, Colonial ; Indian Policy, U.S. ; Indian Removal ; Indian Territory ; Indian Trade and Traders ; Indian Treaties ; Oklahoma ; Tribes: Southeastern ; andvol. 9:Head of Choctaw Nation Reaffirms His Tribe's Position ; Sleep Not Longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws, 1811 .


views updated May 23 2018


The Choctaw were Eastern Woodlands Indians who lived in central and southern Mississippi. They spoke Muskogean, a language in the same family as Iroquoian. Choctaw were known as successful farmers: they enjoyed a long growing season and ample rainfall. The Choctaw were also known as one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, who were so named for their adoption of European customs.

When the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500s, the Choctaw were one of fifteen remaining tribes descended from the Mississippian (Mound Builders). When the French settled the region (by 1699) only the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez tribes remained. In 1830 the Removal Act forced the Choctaw to give up their lands and in 1832 they were moved west into Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

See also: Eastern Woodlands Indians, Five Civilized Tribes, Mound Builders, Native American Policy


views updated May 29 2018

Choc·taw / ˈchäkˌtô/ • n. (pl. same or -taws) 1. a member of a native people now living mainly in Mississippi.2. the Muskogean language of this people, closely related to Chickasaw.3. Figure Skating a step from one edge of a skate to the other edge of the other skate in the opposite direction.• adj. of or relating to the Choctaw or their language.


views updated May 21 2018

Choctaw One of the largest tribes of Muskogean-speaking Native Americans, located in se Mississippi and part of Alabama. An agricultural people, they were generally at peace with European settlers, and remained neutral during the Revolution. As large slave-owners, they supported the South during the Civil War. Some 40,000 still reside in Oklahoma.


views updated May 21 2018

Choctaw the Muskogean language of an American Indian people now living mainly in Mississippi, closely related to Chickasaw and now almost extinct, sometimes taken as the type of an unknown or difficult language.