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Mississippi Miracle Robbed of their land, forced into poverty, victims of racism, decimated by killer flu: How in the world did the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians emerge as one of the state's largest employers?
Part II of Mississippi's Indians
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CHOCTAW NATION PART II
MULTIMEDIA & PHOTOGRAPHY
Mrudvi Bakshi Taylor Bennett Will Crockett Mitchell Dowden Lana Ferguson Kate Harris Tori Hosey Zoe McDonald Anna McCollum Tori Olker Slade Rand Josie Slaughter
Mikki Harris, Editor
LEFT TO RIGHT: Ariel Cobbert, Mrudvi Bakshi, Taylor Bennett, Lana Ferguson, SECOND ROW: Tori Olker, Josie Slaughter, Kate Harris, Zoe McDonald, Anna McCollum, THIRD ROW: Bill Rose, Chi Kalu, Slade Rand, Mitchell Dowden, Will Crockett. Not pictured: Tori Hosey PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING COVER PHOTO: Alan Martin gets ready to plunge into a rowdy stickball practice with his Beaver Dam team. "You look good, you play good," he says. PHOTO BY CHI KALU THIS PAGE: The illuminated Golden Moon atop a casino help light the way on the highway through the Choctaw reservation. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
Ariel Cobbert Chinonyeranyi (Chi) Kalu
PUBLICATION DESIGNER Emily Bowen-Moore
The peaceful waters of Lake Pushmataha beckon on a beautiful spring day. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
How a downtrodden tribe picked itself up and became one of Mississippi’s largest employers.
In Teen Court, teenagers serve as prosecutor, defense counsel and jury.
Native languages are slipping away as youth become more interested in what lies outside the reservation.
At the tribe’s new state-of-the-art health center, even the wallpaper screams Choctaw.
The Race to Rescue an Ancient Tongue
Taking Care of Their Own
The inspiring tale of the first female chief of the Choctaw.
When a white man commits a crime on the reservation, why shouldn’t he be tried in tribal court?
The Chief Who Righted the Ship
The Struggle for Self-Rule
Phillip Martin’s evangelical brand of self-reliance transformed the Choctaw.
Pushed off their land, surviving in swamps, mired in poverty, crippled by racism, reborn as a major business empire. You can’t make this stuff up.
The Prophet of Profit
A Culture of Learning
At Choctaw Central High, ACT scores have risen, dropout rates have plummeted and kids feel safer.
The Tribe That Never Quit
Finally, Native Americans start to get some respect.
In Peacemaker Court, the judge focuses on bringing the two sides together.
This is sacred soil, an ancient engineering marvel that towers above the landscape. Welcome to the mystery of Nanih Waiya.
A Different Kind of Justice
The Mother Mound
Table of Contents 70
So you think football is rough? Wait until you see the Choctaw play stickball.
“When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me.”
Clack! Whap! Thunk!
The Dress Maker
Dora Nickey pines for the past, a time when everyone wore colorful custom-made Choctaw dresses.
The Basket Maker
Choctaw artisans produce baskets that sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
The Generous Bead Maker
Trudy Jimmie sells beadwork. Sometimes she even gives it away.
Hunting the Old-Fashioned Way
The Choctaw know you don’t need a gun to kill a rabbit. All you need is a stick.
Traditional Choctaw Recipes
Life On the Reservation
The Word Warrior
The Chief Who Ran for Congress
A traditionalist, Mushulatubbee embraced change when necessary.
Chief of Controversy
Was Greenwood Leflore a traitor or a savvy negotiator?
Home Town Hero
Ole Miss’ first Choctaw softball player has become one of the nation’s best.
Give Me That Mainstream Religion
On Sundays, you might just hear a hymn sung in Choctaw.
Give Him the Old Ways
To Doc Comby, spirits are all around us. You just have to look for them.
Getting Down to Business
The Choctaw encourage entrepreneurs.
Flags of the United States of America, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and the state of Mississippi hang at the Chahta Enterprises Metal Fabrication plant.
How a downtrodden tribe picked itself up and became one of Mississippi’s largest employers. By Will Crockett Photos by Chi Kalu
t’s just before 5 p.m., and even though some of the lights have already been switched off, the electric hum from the large overheard fluorescents can still be heard as they slowly cool down. Even in the darkness, three flags can be seen hanging vertically from the rafters. In the center, the American flag. To its right, the state flag of Mississippi. To its left, the flag of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. This is no ordinary metal fabrication facility. Sure, sparks fly brightly as the intense heat from a welding torch makes contact with what will one day be part of an American-made flatbed trailer, an image that could just as easily be seen in industrial cities such as Detroit or Buffalo. Here at the Chahta Enterprises Metal Fabrication Operation, however, the man behind the mask as sparks cascade around him is a Choctaw Indian. Twenty years ago, he might not have had the opportunity to hold a job like this. But here he is, part of a workforce more than 5,750 strong, all of them employed by the Mississippi Choctaw. As the few remaining workers finish up on a bright orange trailer, another man emerges
from behind a translucent yellow eye-shield. He’s tall and stocky and stands out even among the large machines that fill the room. He has dark skin and even darker, somewhat curly short black hair. His name is Mark Patrick, and he has been Director of Quality and Sales at Chahta Metal Works since the plant opened in 2014. Patrick is quiet at first. Then I ask if he has any children. Patrick perks up a bit. He tells me that he has two sons. One recently graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi, using the tribe’s generous college scholarship program to pay for his education. His other son works here at the plant. In a sense, Patrick embodies the remarkable resurrection of the Mississippi Choctaw, a group that a century ago was nearly extinct and a little over three decades ago suffered in seemingly hopeless poverty. Today the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is one of Mississippi’s largest employers, one of the nation’s most successful Indian nations, a glittering example of what can happen when government loosens its hold and allows a
tribe to run its own affairs. It is a miraculous transformation, one of the greatest minority success stories in American history. But how? How is it that now, a Choctaw like Patrick is able to send one son to college and give the other son the opportunity to work and sustain himself when just over one generation ago most of the tribe was living in utter poverty, barely making $2,000 a year? The Choctaw tradition of business can be traced back to the 18th century, back when the Choctaw people had a strong economy based on communal ownership and responsibility. At one time in the South, pidgin Choctaw was the language of commerce. The Choctaw favored business over warfare, the sharing of goods over the shooting of arrows. Marveling at their affinity for trade, Robert White, author of Tribal Assets, wrote that the Choctaw “were the late 20th-century Japanese of the pre-European South.” After a series of treaties gradually tore land away from the Choctaw beginning in 1786 with the Treaty of Hopewell, tribal members who were able to avoid Removal, the Choctaw's preferred term for the “Trail of Choctaw Nation Part II
| Mississippi Miracle 7
Mark Patrick, behind the welder's mask, finishing up work on a flatbed trailer.
TOP: Upon completion, a flatbed trailer gets a sticker that shows Chahta Enterprises Metal Fabrication worked on it. BOTTOM: Franklin Taylor (white shirt) and Toby Steve process bed sheets and table cloths at the tribe's busy commercial laundry.
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Tears,” made their living sharecropping. “Made their living” is a bit of an exaggeration, as thousands of Choctaw sharecroppers were forced into bitter poverty and wretched lives. On its website, the tribe’s own economic development history quotes a congressional investigator’s description of the Mississippi Choctaw in the early 1900s as “the poorest pocket of poverty in the poorest state in the country.” By 1910, the number of Choctaw in the state had dwindled to just 1,253. In 1918, one-fifth of the remaining population was killed in a flu epidemic. For years, the survivors barely existed in the poor red clay farmland of hill country Mississippi. In 1945, this tattered remnant finally won tribal recognition from the federal government. But it took more than federal acceptance for the tribe to emerge from its economic doldrums. During the 1950s, tribal leaders had seen little to no improvement in the desperate living conditions of their people, even with what help they were able to get from the forever financially strapped Bureau of Indian Affairs. Average annual
income was $600 per family, with most lucky to make more than $2.50 a day on farm wages. The tribe needed a savior. It found him in Phillip Martin, whose knack for economic development has since become legend to Native Americans across the land. Martin started out on the Tribal Council but became chief in 1978. From the beginning, he was convinced that the tribe would never be successful depending on the federal government to save it. With 80 percent of the Choctaw unemployed, Martin knew what the tribe desperately needed most: jobs. In 1969, Martin led the tribe to seize upon the one opportunity he could see at the time, federally funded housing. The tribe launched Chahta Development, a construction company. Instead of letting the feds continue to pay contractors to build low-income housing on the reservation, the Choctaw got the feds to pay Chahta Development to build the houses. The tribe didn’t just begin a construction company that day. It began an economic
resurgence that would expand to provide almost 6,000 permanent, full-time jobs and a payroll of more than $100 million. The tribe became one of Mississippi’s major employers, with enough money to establish a scholarship program that pays for a Choctaw’s college education and gives students a stipend to live on as well as a laptop, ultimately preparing them to hold more specialized jobs. In the two decades ending in 1999, household income on the reservation jumped from $2,500 to $24,000, while unemployment fell to about 2 percent. Between 1985 and 2000, life expectancy in the tribe rose 20 years. It’s only gotten better from there. Talk to anyone on the reservation about how the tribe was able to pull it off and the conversation goes right back to Phillip Martin. He is revered much like a saint, a Moses figure leading his people out of a wilderness of poverty and into the promised land of prosperity. “He was a natural-born leader,” John Hendrix, the tribe’s economic development director, says about Martin as we sit in the
The day starts early at the greenhouses.
conference room of Chahta Enterprises. We’re sitting in building A of the TechParc, a campus of multiple buildings that house Choctaw business and industry. Martin hired Hendrix in 1993 after he had acquired a business degree from Millsaps College. He got the job even though he is not a Choctaw, a regular occurrence at the time, considering more than half of their employees were not Native Americans. “I think what got (Martin’s) spark was that he was stationed over in Europe after World War II,” Hendrix says. “So he saw Europe rebuild itself after the war, and he came back and said, ‘Well, we can do that, too.’ He wasn’t a micro-manager; he just intuitively knew what needed to be done and he hired the right people for the job.” Unlike some bosses, Martin was always open to letting people work on new ideas that had potential to better the tribe. “He had a very entrepreneurial approach to management, and he discouraged red tape and bureaucracy. “If somebody had an idea, even if it wasn’t directly their job, Martin would let them try it,” Hendrix says. “And if it didn’t work, he didn’t fire them. He had a very flat management structure, and it worked.” Martin’s Mississippi miracle was nothing less than a revolution. In time, it would inspire other tribes across America to subscribe to his self-help philosophy. In a state that regularly ranks at the bottom in terms of per capita income, the
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scope of the Choctaw's economic influence is impressive. The tribe has 12 businesses, ranging from Defense contracting to growing organic vegetables to commercial laundry services. They have a brand-new health center and three casinos that since the first one opened in 1994 have provided thousands of jobs. Martin kicked it off with sheer force of personality. He coaxed the tribe into springing for an industrial park with no tenants in sight. Then he criss-crossed the country for years, buttonholing business executives and trying to sell them on moving to the reservation. Finally, he lured a plant that hired Choctaws to install the spaghetti-like tangle of wiring in automobiles. He got American Greetings, a billion-dollar player in the lucrative greeting card industry, to move into a 120,000-square-foot plant on the reservation. He talked the neighboring town of Philadelphia into using municipal revenue bonds to help pay for it. He made the tribe a powerful lobbying force in Washington, D.C., where he was a familiar figure in the offices of senators, congressmen and federal agencies. And with that, the empire began to grow. So did the tribe’s reputation, which made it that much easier to recruit industry and key employees. In 1988, Congress approved the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allowed tribes to get into the casino business. Indian gaming took America by storm.
The Choctaw met initial resistance from state government but in 1994, with the help of a new governor, Kirk Fordice, a towering hotel and casino complex rose from the red dirt on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of state highway in rural Neshoba County. The Silver Star Hotel and Casino is an elaborate gambling palace with four restaurants, entertainment venues, first class hotel and a sea of slot machines and card games. If the Silver Star is not enough excitement, a covered walkway soars guests over the adjacent highway and into a sister casino and hotel complex, the Golden Moon, which opened in 2002. (A third, Bok Homa, is a two-hour drive from the first two.) Along with two championship golf courses and a water park, they make up the multi-milliondollar Pearl River Resort, which quickly became the tribe’s major source of revenue. An economic impact statement prepared by Mississippi State University once estimated that the resort businesses generated more than $180 million in wages alone. All of this has given the tribe the ability to take care of itself. And it does. But not, as some tribes do, by giving large annual payments to rank-and-file members. The latest semi-annual check the Choctaw sent to each member was a demure $500. The total annual payment is limited to $1,000 per member. Instead, they do something much more valuable for fellow Choctaws. All that money from this self-made empire gets plowed back
into programs and services that are the envy of poorer tribes — a 120-bed nursing home, subsidized housing, transportation, day care, Head Start, food programs for the elderly, programs for those struggling with substance abuse and addiction. If a tribal member needs a job or a house, the tribe can help. It is a business juggernaut and miniature Great Society rolled into one. And, most remarkably, the Choctaw were doing it even before casino gambling came along. ◊ It’s a rainy St. Patrick’s Day in Tucker, not far from Choctaw, where the tribal government is headquartered. The Tucker Elementary School, one of eight reservation schools, is having its annual spring festival inside a gymnasium. The program has “Halito!” written across the top in dark green. It means “hello” and is heard multiple times as Choctaw children in brightly-colored traditional garb begin to fill forest-green bleachers. Some of the girls’ dresses cost upward of $800. Some are homemade. Many conceal at least 40 safety pins, needed just to hold everything together. The Choctaw Princess, Emily Shoemake, is here, almost at the end of her year-long term. The princess is beautiful, her dress covered in rose print, a crown atop her head and a hand-woven basket held in the crook of her left arm. Shoemake almost wasn’t able to fulfill her
duties as princess. As a mechanic in the 91 Bravo Humvee unit, she was supposed to go off to Army basic training a few weeks into her term. Current Chief Phyliss Anderson wrote a letter pleading her case, and the Army allowed her to report immediately after she finished her term. The spring festival is meant to showcase the children and traditional Choctaw dances, as well as celebrate their culture. I look inside the program and see a few dances I recognize, like the “Snake Dance,” which mimics the slithering of a snake as dancers hold hands and weave in and out of an ever-changing line. As I scan further inside, I see a name I recognize: “Invocation — Mark Patrick” Sure enough, Mark Patrick emerges shortly after the start of the festival to say a prayer in Choctaw. The only words I recognize are “Jesus Christ” and “Amen.” He’s wearing a green shirt for St. Patrick’s Day. “It’s my day, Patrick,” he jokes after walking over to where I’m leaning up against a padded gym wall. Patrick is anything but quiet here. He’s a fixture in the Choctaw community. He knows everyone. Speaks to everyone. Waves at everyone. He spots a 14-year-old girl and asks how her driving test is coming along. He asks where her mother is and says he needs to talk to her. “What did I do?” the girl snaps back. She’s heard this question before.
Field Coordinator and Greenhouse Manager Daphne Snow with her precious cargo of fresh produce.
The Choctaw also supply organic vegetables to commercial markets like Whole Foods as far away as Jackson.
I ask Patrick how he knows everyone so well, and he tells me he likes doing a lot of community outreach. When he grew up, he says, he had no idea who his father was. His grandmother raised him and wove baskets to support him. “I just know everybody,” Patrick says. “A lot of the kids look for that father or mother figure or influence in their lives, and it means a lot to me.” Patrick watches as children perform the Raccoon Dance. “Some of these kids have no clue what they’re doing or why they’re out there,” he says. “But they’ll realize it soon enough.” It’s true, and these children don’t know it yet, but the opportunities they have even at this age already outnumber what their parents and grandparents had. An older Choctaw teacher in a magenta zip-up jacket watches her class dance on the Dreamsicle-orange basketball court. She won’t reveal her name. She’s there to watch one of her last classes in 40-plus years of teaching school.
“I feel like I’m watching my grandkids out there now,” she says. “Things have changed so much.” When I ask how she’s seen the opportunities for children in her classes change over the years, she finally turns to look at me. She says she’s seen countless children grow up without having a chance. She’s seen kids whose only job opportunities were spending their years behind the wheel of a school bus, kids used to having no hope of a better life. Things are different now. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has more jobs than they do working-age Choctaw these days. Average income has risen, education has improved, anyone who needs a home gets one, an economic impact report once pegged the tribe’s contribution to the state GDP at around $1.2 billion, and the chances to succeed have never been higher. The children dancing and laughing in the middle of this gym on a rainy St. Patrick’s Day are no longer just Choctaw kids. They’re comeback kids.
John Hendrix became the tribe's director of economic development in 1993 after getting a business degree from Millsaps College.
Choctaw Nation Part II
| Mississippi Miracle 13
The Race to Rescue an Ancient Tongue By Tori Hosey Photos by Ariel Cobbert
Twenty tenth-graders filter a few at a time into an aging trailer at the far edge of campus. The last bell has already rung, but the students dawdle outside, reluctant to take the final steps out of freedom and into learning.
Montel Jordan, 18, a senior at Choctaw Central is slowly learning to speak the ancient tongue of the tribe.
nside, laminated posters of Choctaw words like “Halito” (hello) are stuck to wood paneled walls, and an assortment of mismatched chairs make a square around the room. The Choctaw language classroom at Choctaw Central High School is not by any means modern, but teacher Farrell Davidson does the best he can with what he has to preserve a dying language. Davidson begins by addressing each student in Choctaw, a language that to an outsider is almost impossible to describe, other than fast and rhythmic. Some of the more advanced students answer him with ease, while others meet his questions with wide, blank eyes, like baby deer caught in headlights. Neshoba leans back in his chair, a sly smile on his face as he pointedly responds, “I know what you’re saying, but I don’t want to answer.” According to Davidson and other Choctaw elders, this is precisely the problem. Davidson is on the front lines of a battle Native American tribes across America are waging with varying degrees of success. As the outside world encroaches on what were once fairly isolated communities with few resources, native languages are slipping away as youth become more interested in what lies outside the reservation. It is an uphill struggle, trying to engage students in a difficult language that is being spoken less and less at home. Once a tiny band relatively detached from outside society, the Mississippi Choctaws managed to maintain fluency for longer than most. As late as 1990 many members of the tribe spoke the language frequently. However, as time passed and industry
Farrell Davidson tries to teach Choctaw children to be proud of their language.
moved in, English slowly became the first language of the younger generations. Now, before it is too late, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is on the offensive to preserve what remains of their native tongue, wary of the sad example of other tribes who have all but lost theirs, and with it, a sense of their culture. The question now is not why to save an imperiled language, but how. In order to preserve it in its entirety, the language would once again have to become the first one spoken by most tribal members. But that is no small feat, trying to convince an entire generation to switch English, their first language, for an ancient tribal tongue that many have only begun learning in their teens. It is like asking a group of high school students at most any
“Anyone can play stick ball, anyone can make baskets, but our language is what gives us the distinction of who we are from any other tribe.”
other school in America to stop speaking English and switch entirely to Spanish, a language they have only studied for two or three years, tops. The key, according to North Carolina State University linguistics expert Walt Wolfram, is to find a way to give the children a sense of identity attached to Choctaw. “The fact of the matter is it is not needed economically,” Wolfram said. “It is not needed for social advancement. It doesn't really have the socioeconomic base in terms of its motivation that other languages do. That has to be compensated for by really strong connections with identity so that little kids have to think, ‘This is who I am. This is my language. This is my own language,’ and so forth.” Farrell Davidson understands this better than anyone. “I always look at, for our tribe and our language, everything from a traditional point of view,” he said. “It’s understanding the full history of our tribe, and trying to retain our language, trying to get our students to be proud of who they are. You can still do that with this society and this world… Anyone can play stick ball, anyone can make baskets, but our language is what gives us the distinction of who we are from any other tribe.” In Davidson’s opinion, his students do not resist Choctaw out of laziness or apathy, but rather from an adolescent fear of not conforming in an outside world that values fitting in. “It's not resistance, but getting them to see that it's good and proud to speak your own language. It's not something to be embarrassed about; it's nothing to be shameful about. That you can do it and… deal with this part of your life and also what you're living in this part with this other society, you can still do
both, and you can still retain them,” he said. “They haven't grasped that concept just yet,” he said. But he is optimistic that they can, and once they understand they won’t be so skittish about what the world thinks. Children and teenagers are not the only ones who need a crash course in Choctaw. Their teachers do too. Or rather, their teacher assistants. There is a noticeable lack of Choctaw instructors in tribal schools – only one at Choctaw Central. However, many assistant teachers are tribal members, and like the youngest generation, seem to have lost much of the native tongue of their ancestors. This is where the language program organized by coordinator Roseanna Thompson comes in. Held once a month at Choctaw Tribal Schools headquarters, it tries to help employees achieve enough proficiency to adequately teach Choctaw. This month’s lesson includes crafting stickballs. Stickball is a traditional tribal sport, roughly similar to lacrosse, only more ardently aggressive, and decidedly more dangerous. The balls, not much bigger than a golf ball, are hand crafted and woven together using leather string. Today, the class resembles a mixture of Farrell Davidson’s conversational methods and an elementary art program. Balls of painter’s tape are scattered precariously around the tables, and groans of frustration can be heard as students realize they have woven their balls in the wrong direction. The teacher’s assistants have grouped themselves together by age, chitchatting amongst themselves in English, except when asked a question by one of the instructors. “We're doing a lot with the mixture of immersion and
A poster on a classroom wall provides the Choctaw words for rat and cow.
conversation, and we do a lot of hands on. When they're making the stickballs, we walk around and ask them what they're making,” Thompson said. “What is leather in Choctaw? When you weave a pattern, how do you say that in Choctaw? They've learned the words, and they've learned to make a sentence, like if I ask them, ‘What are you making?’ They're going to say, ‘I am making a stick ball,’ in Choctaw, which they couldn't do before, so they're learning how to do that,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at a table of young assistant teachers who have a tendency to get distracted. When asked why even young educators are so wary of speaking Choctaw, Thompson says her students regret that they don’t already know the language. “The younger generation, some understand the language, but they can't speak it,” she said. “That table,” Thompson points to the same group of young women in the back, who are giggling loudly now, “they don't understand it, and they can't speak it, so they are resistant because they feel like they should have learned it, and they hate it that they don't know it. They’re impatient with themselves, I would say. They say, ‘Oh, I'm supposed to know this. I need to be on it now.’ They get frustrated.” There are still some young, native Choctaw speakers, such as Stacey Billy, an artisan for Choctaw Cultural Affairs. Billy, an expert in crafting hand carved wooden clubs, or “rabbit sticks” for traditional hunting trips, learned Choctaw as his first language. He says he makes a point of speaking it at home with his wife and stepdaughter. “I think it basically boils down to family. How much ever your family speaks Choctaw to you is how much you’re going to learn and try to use it in the household,” he said. Billy tries to teach his stepdaughter as much Choctaw as possible while she is still young. After all, the older you get, the harder it is to learn a language. “I try to throw some words in there when I’m talking to her. Like when you say, ‘It’s time to eat,’ I say the English ‘time’, but I say ‘Time to ipa.’ They do pick up on it. I hear her say it. You get a certain satisfaction out of it because you know that you’re passing it on,” he said. It is possible that the most important opinions come from the students themselves. In the end, they must decide whether Choctaw means enough to them to preserve. Back at Choctaw Central, five tenth graders gather in the library. They are all “Mikos” (chiefs), or honor roll students in
Farrell Davidson’s class. But despite being star students, all but one say they only speak a few words of Choctaw a day at home. When asked why some of their fellow students are hesitant to speak the language, they say they are embarrassed. Like all adolescents, they fear criticism from their elders and their peers. “They get scared. You laugh at them and they get scared. Personally, whenever I try I mess up here and there,” said one student. “It’s really tough,” adds another. According to Davidson, it is not characteristic of the Choctaw to ask questions. “I call it a generational gap,” he said. “You just don't ask questions because you are expected to already know.” Every language learner knows it is impossible to master a language without asking questions. Learning is all about trial and error. It is frustrating, emotional, and often embarrassing. In an environment where mistakes are frowned upon, it is easy to see how Choctaw students could resolve to just leave the language alone. “I went through that, and I try not to put that on them,” said Davidson. “I tell them to ask questions. I will share it with you. I'm not going to school you. I said, ‘We used to ask questions but we got schooled.' We got told, 'You should already know your Choctaw.' I've argued with even my mom and my aunts about that this generation has to change a little bit." I said, "You want them to maintain it, you've got to let them ask questions. You've got to want to share it with them.” It is not a question of whether or not these students want to learn Choctaw. They are smart and determined. They each have unique goals that stretch far outside their small Mississippi town. Respectively, they aspire for careers in neonatal nursing, engineering, the National Guard, pathology, and criminal justice. However, they all share one thing in common: they want to leave the reservation. “I want to explore the world,” Teegan smiles. All of the students nod in agreement. “My mom. Our elders. They tell us to go, because (the reservation) … It’s always going to be here.” And that is perhaps the biggest challenge for the Choctaws. And for Farrell Davidson. If the best and brightest leave, who will be left to carry on the legacy of the Choctaw? RIGHT: Senior, Kayla Joe, 18, is tackling the difficult task of learning to speak Choctaw.
18 Mississippi Miracle
| Choctaw Nation Part II
Chief Who Righted The
The inspiring tale of the first female chief of the Choctaw. By Anna McCollum Photos by Chi Kalu
hyliss Anderson grew up without running water or electricity. Money, like everything else, was scarce. But she knew some of her friends would get new dresses for the Red Water School Christmas program and she wanted one too. She was the baby of seven girls born to a single-parent mother in a single income home. She knew her mother was doing her best, but a new dress for each occasion just wasn't possible. Then her mother handed her a neatly wrapped Christmas package. She looked up with dark, hopeful eyes. “Open it,” her mother said. Her small fingers untied the string and peeled back the paper. Inside was a plaid dress in red, blue and green. “There’s one catch, though,” her mother said. “You have to rewrap it after your program so that you’ll have something to open on Christmas morning.” ◊ Anderson, now chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, tells this story, one of her favorites, over lunch with her staff and guests around a polished table in her tribal
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| Choctaw Nation Part II
office boardroom. From here, she commands a multi-milliondollar business empire, making the tribe one of Mississippi’s largest private employers. Anderson defeated former Chief Beasley Denson in 2011 to become the first female chief. Last fall, she won re-election. She has brought her people a new, state-of-the-art, tribally-run health center, improved schools that drew glowing praise from U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and even established a relationship with the President of the United States. ◊ She couldn’t sit still. She’d spoken to crowds of thousands and braved the public eye on a daily basis, but this was different. “I was a nervous wreck,” Anderson said. She was preparing to introduce President Barack Obama at the 2011 White House Tribal Nations Conference. She’d only been in office two whole months, and the White House had chosen her. “It's not every day that you do something like that,” Anderson said. “Everyone was very
Chief Phyllis Anderson fans herself on a hot July day at the fair.
pleasant and good to me, but I still had butterflies in my belly. It was a nerveracking thing for me, because I didn’t want to miss anything.” Not only was the president listening, but her whole tribe was tuned in back in Mississippi. “When the chief was introducing the president, we had it broadcast down here for our kids to see,” said Rae Vaughn, Anderson’s chief of staff. “It caused (our internet) to crash because everybody wanted to see it. They saw some of it, and then it went out. Yeah, it was amazing. It was almost like a day of celebration. We were seeing our chief introduce the President of the United States.” Vaughn, former chief justice of the
Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court, was so proud of the chief at that moment she could barely restrain herself. But the chief herself won’t take credit. “It was a wonderful experience and something I’m very proud of,” Anderson said. “Even to that, I give the honor to the Choctaw people. It was like I wasn't just there representing myself or being the chief — I was representing the whole tribe. That’s why everybody was glued on.” But there is one moment Vaughn will never forget about that day. “The really cool thing after that introduction,” she said, “as the president was coming to the podium, he said, ‘Thank you, Phyliss.' Like he’d known her for a lifetime." Today she sits behind a large wooden
desk in the Office of the Tribal Chief. But half a century ago, the chief was a small girl wearing hand-me-downs in a drafty house. “The only heat that we had in our home was a fireplace and of course the wood stove,” Anderson said. “I was born on New Year’s Day, 1961. We lived in a two-bedroom house. It’s called a tribal frame house. I grew up pretty much working in the fields.” It was a tough way to grow up. And a tough time. Her Choctaw community of Red Water was located in the heart of the Jim Crow South. Anderson grew up there, in Leake County, just west of Neshoba, where the Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964. Blacks were treated as second-class citizens. So were Choctaws. Choctaw Nation Part II
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ABOVE: The pageant to select a new Choctaw Indian Princess kicks off with a ceremony raising the American flag, state flag, and Choctaw flag, followed by a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in Choctaw.
“It was a difficult time,” Anderson said. Anderson’s mother had felt the sting of discrimination firsthand. She taught her daughters that it was wrong. “That's something that Mom always talked about, was that we went through such a difficult time because there was a lot of racism back in that era,” Anderson said. “She taught me that regardless of what was out there and what people would say, that we were all children of God. She said no one person is better than the other.” That lesson pushed Anderson all the way to her post at tribal headquarters. She began working for the tribe under the late Chief Phillip Martin, a visionary tribal leader first elected in 1979 and credited with leading a tribal renaissance. Under Martin's leadership and policy of self-determination,
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the tribe emerged as a leader in advanced manufacturing, technology and economic development. Anderson had known Martin since she was a child, and he became her mentor. After Anderson was elected to the tribal council in 2003, he encouraged her to seek the tribe's secretary-treasurer position. He thought her experience serving as a program director and her knowledge and understanding of tribal budgets would serve the tribe well. She eventually ran for the position and won, serving four years as secretarytreasurer. In 2007, though, things changed. Martin, who had served for 28 years, was defeated by Beasley Denson in the race for chief. “We changed in leadership at that time,”
Anderson said. "There were two very different styles of governance. That was a very difficult time with major adjustments and transitions for the Choctaw people and employees. Basically, being in the tribal council before I came into chief, I saw a lot of finances of the tribe. I knew we were hurting financially. I was very concerned about the tribal employees. I felt that a lot of them were being harassed and intimidated, being picked on. I didn’t want that.” She felt a divine calling to provide new leadership for her people. At this critical time, in the midst of financial turmoil spawned by America’s Great Recession, she considered running for chief. “It took a lot of talks with my pastor, a lot of pros and cons,” Anderson said. “I felt like it was a calling, just as my pastor did. He
says, ‘This is something that's going to have to happen.’ It was a lot of prayer, a lot of discussion, even with my family members. I didn't ever decide to be chief or on the council, but only to follow the Lord's plan for my life. I think I've been blessed with it.” But the journey has been challenging at times. Two days after she won the 2011 election, the Tribal Council overturned it with Denson casting the tie-breaking vote, Anderson had received just over 300 votes more than Denson. Anderson, who had run a campaign calling for transparency and healing, was disappointed. However, a second vote resulted in another victory: the Choctaws had their first female chief. “When I first won back in 2011, people talked about ‘We made history. That’s the first woman chief in the Choctaw history.’ Of course, I’m very proud of that,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t that I wanted to be the first of something when I ran for that office. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to provide leadership, but I wanted to provide leadership with compassion as well as understanding.” So far, that attitude has served her well. According to Anderson, leading the tribe and putting it on firmer financial footing was daunting, but it was her job nevertheless. “I signed up for it, so it didn't matter what the sins of the past were,” she said. “It was on
my plate now. It was something I had to take care of.” And that she did. During the recession, gambling traffic declined and in 2009 the tribe shut down the Golden Moon casino except on weekends, laying off a large part of its work force. In July 2011, Moody’s downgraded the tribe’s bond rating from B3 to Caa2, basically junk bond status. Anderson realized she needed to restructure the tribe’s debt, tighten financial management, and set a course to right the ship. She did all of that, including getting the bond rating restored to B3 by July 2014. During her first year as chief, cash on hand increased by 41 percent and profit increased by 22 percent. When she took office in October 2011, the Pearl River Resort, which includes the Golden Moon and Silver Star casinos, was paying about 8 percent interest on a bank loan and 7.25 percent on bond debt. In April 2016, the tribe obtained approval for a bank loan that will consolidate the existing loan and bond debt at about 2 percent interest, a major cost savings. And the Golden Moon has resumed daily operations. “We had to bring back financial stability,” Anderson said. “We’ve done that. We’re still growing. We still have so much more to do, but we’re in a lot better shape than what I found.” For that, Anderson is well known among
her people. But it’s something else about the chief that draws them to her. “When she goes out to the schools, she’s very approachable,” Vaughn said. “She’s not some figure-head. The kids love running up to her and hugging on her. The Choctaw people have a lot of pride in her; she is the first female chief.” And Anderson is just as proud of them. “I guess that when I look back, the people made history,” she said. “Of course I was a part of it, but had it not been for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s because of their hard work and determination to make sure that I continue to be in this leadership position. As always, I give thanks to them.” She gives thanks for their votes, of course, but also for the many, many other things they give her: drawings or earrings or medallions made with the tiniest beads. Little tokens of appreciation for a chief they respect. “It’s special to me, when people tell me that they want to give me something,” Anderson said. “The other day, I was at a restaurant, eating. A young lady picked up my tab. She’s a student. She’s still in college and probably has a lot of expense. Who pays for the chief’s dinner or lunch? It meant so much to me.” It’s those small gestures, according to Anderson, that remind her why she does what she does — why she works the long hours and makes necessary adjustments to her already packed schedule. Anderson says
Chief Phyllis Anderson with contestants at the Choctaw Princess pageant at the tribe's annual fair.
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the time she spends with her own family (a husband, adult children, a teenager and grandchildren) has become even more special because it's so limited. Her job is all day, every day. She runs from appointment to appointment, flying to Washington, lobbying for grant money, dealing with weighty financial issues, negotiating contracts, planning business moves, finding money in the budget for maintaining the tribe’s growing infrastructure, appearing at festivals and lunches and events. It never stops. “Maybe I couldn’t be at a certain game or certain event for my son. I have a son who’s a ninth grader,” Anderson said. “I’ve pretty much made it to a lot of the stuff that he had, but there are some that I had to miss because I was on travel or I had some board meeting that was very important.” But despite the long hours and the pressures, Anderson knows her hard work will be well worth it. “People feel that being chief is this great wonderful thing, and it is. It’s full of honor and full of pride, but it’s also a lot of responsibility,” Anderson said. “Every day, I wake up knowing that the decisions I make affect 10,000-plus tribal members in one form or fashion.” Vaughn says that like Phillip Martin before her, Anderson has a natural talent for building relationships with people who can help the tribe, like local, state and federal officials and leaders across Indian Country. “She has a great relationship with our congressional delegation,” Vaughn said. “She has a great relationship with the President of the United States to some extent. That speaks a lot about her character and the integrity that she brings to the office of the chief.” ◊ There are still critics, of course. And the chief still has a lot of work to do. Improving tribal housing is a top priority, as well as providing new job opportunities on the reservation. “We’ve got long-term plans for the tribe, including school, community and infrastructure improvements. We also have recently launched a $10 million housing plan to build new homes on the reservation," Anderson said. Education is high on her list as well. “I think it's important that we continue to educate our children so that they're ready for the next step,” she said. The tribe’s schools have already improved a great deal. She has been appointed to the National Indian Education Advisory Council by the president. And in 2015, Jewell, the Interior Secretary, toured two of the tribal
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schools. She said they were functioning at such a high level that they should be a model for struggling tribal schools across Indian Country. And under Anderson's leadership, a tribal scholarship program which provides money for tuition and other qualified school expenses to tribal members has increased its funding because of the growing youth population. In addition to education, tribal medical care has taken leaps forward with the completion of a new three-story, 180,000-square-foot health center that includes a 20-bed inpatient facility, 42 exam rooms, 16-chair dental unit, a pediatric dental unit, behavioral health and community and public health services, emergency medical services and more. For the first time, there is a primary care pediatric unit, respiratory therapy unit, eye care services and several new specialists. There is a diabetes unit and Anderson hopes it will accelerate efforts to reverse the diabetes epidemic that has swept through one-fifth of the Mississippi Choctaw. The building's décor incorporates Choctaw cultural elements to celebrate tribal artistry. But best of all, it's located right on the reservation. “That's something I'm very proud of,” she said. “The Choctaw Health Center is an example of governments and communities working together to build something vital for the Choctaw people. It's a formula that works and something we need to continue to build on for future projects on the reservation." According to Vaughn, that long list means federal funding is “never enough.” “The federal government has a responsibility to tribes across the United States,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t get 100 percent of the types of assistance that we need through the federal government, in regards to — for example — construction of schools.” And that’s where the chief comes in. “We don’t have the luxury of a municipality to assess all kinds of taxes and bonds and things of that sort,” Vaughn said. “A lot of things rely on the work that the chief does in regards to the types of grants and things that we can apply for, in addition to what the federal government provides us, also in regards to economic development.” That work on economic development has brought the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians far from when Anderson stepped into office, but there is another beneficiary just a few miles away: Philadelphia, population 7,500. James Young is the mayor, the first
African-American to hold his office. He was elected in 2009 and has watched Phyliss Anderson become a “great asset” to Philadelphia. But the tribe itself is a strong advantage to the area. It is, after all, one of Mississippi’s major employers. And the tribe is a good neighbor, besides. “We are blessed to have a whole other nation within our county and the support that's going back and forth between the two groups,” Young said. “The Choctaw tribe has been a plus for this area for many years, and hopefully, it's just going to get greater.” That $150 million payroll and approximately 5,900 jobs the reservation has created has raised the standard of living for the area. The reservation contributes billions of dollars to the state's GDP, according to the most recent economic impact study. In addition to being a savvy businesswoman, Young said one of
Anderson’s strongest qualities is that she looks ahead. “This next generation of citizens and workers . . . If we don’t do a good job of laying a foundation, the opportunities are dwindling for you,” he said. “So building for the next generation — from housing to economic development to health care to actually preventive health care with the clinics that they have — that’s looking out for the future.” ◊ When Anderson was a girl, she’d follow her mother to a café where the color of their skin meant they had to use the back door. Her mother worked at the café and after school she would help her mother wash dishes. “The good thing about that is I got to eat my hamburgers free,” Anderson said. "After we finished up, there was always great food
to eat. It's a happy memory of my mom because she showed me what hard work is." Nearly five decades later, Anderson says that taught her a valuable lesson. “I think that’s one of the things that has helped me to become the person that I am, is that you learn a lot growing up and you have to work for everything that you have and get,” she said. “It seems to have more meaning.” It also taught her the importance of compassion, a quality she’s carried all the way to become chief of the Choctaw. "My mother always taught us the importance of treating others the way we would want to be treated. While I might not have had a lot of material possessions growing up, I always had the thing I needed most and that was love," Anderson said. "I always wanted to treat people with kindness. Those are impressions and legacies that last," she said.
Phyllis Anderson is the first female chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
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The Silver Star and Golden Moon casinos command attention, towering symbols of the tribe's economic success. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
The Prophet of Profit Phillip Martin’s evangelical brand of self-reliance transformed the Choctaw. By Victoria Hosey
t was in 1948 when Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Martin, future chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, first surveyed the fallen empire of Nazi Germany. Thousands of miles from the dirt roads and pine forests of Neshoba County, Miss., once-pristine cities, the pride of a nation, a people, and a führer, lay in ruin. Buildings that remained after Allied bombings sat gutted. Mountains of rubble, retched from walls turned into gaping mouths, overflowed onto German streets. Children ran barefoot, playing in front of once-stately cathedrals, now crumbling like stepped-on sandcastles. Mothers, desperate to feed these children, sifted and searched through garbage cans for remnants of food. Reconstruction for what remained of Adolf Hitler’s Germany would not come easily. But it would come. The Germans could be found rummaging through each singular pile of debris in their streets, pulling out the bricks and stacking them neatly. They chipped the mortar from decimated houses and offices and carted it away for reuse. Street by street, the piles disappeared, and a new Germany began to take shape, one block at a time. In his mind, Martin was taking notes. This was not the first time Martin had seen barefoot children. It was not the first time he had watched a desperate mother. In fact, as the son
of a janitor, a product of an impoverished Native American tribe in a backwoods, mostly backward part of Mississippi, this was nothing new to him at all. But the stiff German resolve, a badly beaten nation, rebuilding itself piece by piece, brick by brick; this was very new. And it taught him something. If this nation, shamed, shunned, all but obliterated, could start again, who was to say that his own broken tribe could not do the same? With that thought in mind, Phillip Martin would return to the reservation that raised him, designs in hand to resurrect a broken people. One could argue the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians was not just broken. It was shattered. Until Martin’s election as chief in 1979, unemployment rates soared close to 80 percent, with the percentage suffering from alcoholism trailing close behind. After years of living under the hard-handed cultural repression of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal organization once dedicated to the subjugation and assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream society, the Choctaw lived a hardscrabble existence for decade upon decade with almost no means of selfgovernment. They had endured so much that to many, the idea of engineering their own fate, laws, and industry seemed almost an impossible task. Choctaw Nation Part II
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An early portrait of Phillip Martin and his family. PHOTO BY BOB FERGUSON
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But to Phillip Martin, the ability to self-govern as a tribe, or “self-determination” as he branded it, would be the only way to break the cycle of poverty that had gripped his people for the better part of a century. Martin was born into a typically poor Choctaw family in 1926. While he did benefit from luxuries such as electricity, a coveted utility most Choctaw did not possess, his childhood still consisted of the hardship typical for his people at the time. After the hit-and-run death of his father in 1937, Martin and his siblings were mostly separated, with Martin being sent to a boarding school in Cherokee, N.C., one of many designed to bring Native Americans into mainstream American society and keep young Native American boys out of trouble. Martin would bide his time in Cherokee until 1946, when he would decide to join the military. He would not return home until 1955. Fast forward to 1973, and the Choctaw were a little closer to improving their lot. The ability to make one’s own decisions was still very much a new concept to the tribe.
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Nell Rogers, a white graduate student teaching in Philadelphia, was new to the Choctaw as well. During the tense and turbulent early years of school desegregation, Rogers was the kind of progressive, liberal young person many rural Mississippians would have found a terrifying enigma. Martin, who in 1973 was an important member of the Choctaw Office of Tribal Planning, was busy drafting a dream team of both natives and outsiders alike to begin deciphering the best path to Choctaw recovery, an entirely different type of puzzle. Volunteered into teaching the tribe’s new adult literacy program by her husband, Rogers suddenly found herself in charge of the Choctaws’ first-ever attempt at educating its own members, under the guidance of the man who saw education as a critical part of creating a strong workforce. Rogers, who speaks of Martin the way many would speak of a John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, recalls her time with him with obvious reverence. “He was talking to me and he said, ‘What is your vision of the adult education program?’ I was a ’60s person, so I said, ‘I hope that we can help them be happy people.’” “Well,” Martin responded, “I’d hoped they’d be good workers.” According to Rogers, this is the philosophy that would dig a community steeped in unemployment and alcoholism out of the crushing poverty that has plagued many Native American tribes since the Trail of Tears. In 1975, Congress passed the Indian SelfDetermination and Education Assistance Act, allowing eager tribal leaders such as Martin to begin leading their tribes away from the paternalistic policies of the federal government. Martin was elected chief in 1979, and what had started as a few night classes soon began to branch into the creation of dozens of new facets of Choctaw development. “Chief Martin is modern Choctaw government,” said Rogers. “It wouldn’t have existed. The structures of government didn’t exist — courts, judicial systems, and legislative systems. He was the first one of the tribal leaders in the country to embrace self-determination, and to begin to take over the operations of the federal government and have those run by the tribe.”
“To him, self-determination was the ability to make your own decisions, the ability to govern your people, the ability to use your own resources and apply them. He got the concept in spades of selfgoverning and making your own choices. He felt that tribes were able to do that and should do it, and by right under the Constitution could do it,” she said. “He got that the tribe’s relationship was not with the state government. The tribe’s relationship was with the U.S. Congress. He really believed in what he called being a ‘good neighbor,’ but what he was really talking about was how you build collaborative relationships. He made a lot of allies.” In 1981, Martin managed to bring home what was certainly the biggest win of the century for the Choctaw. After years of extensive travel and lobbying manufacturers across the country, Martin managed to persuade American Greetings, today the largest producer of greeting cards in the world, to open a manufacturing plant on the reservation. More industry and hundreds of jobs would follow. Everything from plastics molding, to a printing facility and construction enterprises, would eventually make their way to the reservation. According to the tribe’s director of economic development, John Hendrix, Martin had no qualms about confronting the nation’s captains of industry. He seemed to know no fear. “He would go to a McDonald’s convention, when we were a supplier for plastics, and he would walk up to the CEO of McDonald’s and say, ‘We want to supply forks,’” Hendrix said. “Not many people can do that. It was part personality, part leadership style, and then his hands-off management approach.” In 1994, the Silver Star Casino, what would become the crown jewel, the cash cow of the Choctaw reservation, opened its doors. It was followed by the adjacent Golden Moon Casino in 2002, and by two world-class golf courses and later the Geyser Falls Water Theme Park. Today, these establishments employ several thousand people, the majority of whom are tribal members. There are now some 200 Native American tribes who participate in the casino industry in one form or another. Many take portions of the multi-million-dollar profits and divide them among tribal members, sometimes amounting to several thousand dollars a month. Martin however, disagreed with this practice. Before the Choctaws’ first casino was built, he would enter into an agreement with the state of Mississippi, stating that no more than $1,000 of per capita distribution would ever be given as a stipend to Choctaw tribal members. “He felt like they could get a little bonus out of it, but it shouldn’t be enough to let them not have to go and do their own thing. He created an environment where he created opportunity, and it was up to the tribal members to pursue it,” Hendrix said. In the end, it turned the Choctaw into one of Mississippi’s biggest employers, a tribe that
not only provides its members with a vast array of services including everything from medical care to food programs for the elderly, but that also boosts the economy of a wide swath of east-central Mississippi, a region that has historically needed every bit of help it could get. Martin’s evangelical brand of self-reliance transformed the Choctaw into a smoothly humming economic engine, a powerful lobby in Washington, D.C., and a reputation as one of the nation’s most successful tribes. Martin served as chief for almost 30 years before being defeated by Beasley Denson in a bid for an eighth term in 2007. When Martin died of a stroke in 2010, The New York Times ran a glowing obituary eulogizing him as the forerunner of Indian resurrection, a prophet of self-reliance who inspired other tribes to pick themselves up from the ruins of the past and build prosperous new nations, just like the Germans. Congressmen and state officials flocked to his funeral. The chief’s grandson, 25-year-old Nigel Gibson, is the epitome of the effect that mindset of hard work has had on the youngest generations of Choctaw. A political science major at Mississippi State
There were many ribbon-cuttings when Martin, shown here with a Choctaw Princess, was chief. COURTESY OF MISSISSIPPI BAND OF CHOCTAW INDIANS
TOP: From left, Martin's daughter Debra Martin, great grandson Hazzen Thomas, granddaughter Winter Lewis, great grandson A'Mi Clemmons, Martin's wife Bonnie Martin, great granddaughter Paeton Gibson and grandson Nigel Gibson. PHOTO BY CHI KALU RIGHT: Chief Martin, shown here with the late U. S. Senator John Stennis, D-Miss., developed plenty of powerful allies in the nation's capital.
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BELOW: Phillip Martin's grandson Nigel Gibson, a political science major at Mississippi State University, hopes to become a Washington lobbyist. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
University, this man dressed in college athletic wear, with plans to become a lobbyist in Washington, is a far cry from the humble parameters that once defined the tribe. Gibson describes Martin carefully, creating a portrait of a loving grandfather who in many ways was still ultimately a businessman, even in the familial aspects of his life. “I was probably 15 or 16 at the time and I did something where I needed a little help financially. I went to him, and of course him being the businessman that he was, it was always ‘Well, what’s the cost? Who is doing what? Have you got a second opinion?’ That type of deal,” said Gibson. “This particular time he called, he went to the casino around maybe 10 o’clock in the morning, and that’s where he would always eat in the buffet. We were sitting there and he made it seem like I was some sort of businessman. I meet him over there and of course he pulls out an envelope under the table. I thought, ‘Really? We have to do this here, in front of everybody? We could have done this at your house!’” “That’s the kind of games he would play with us,” Gibson mused. “I would play around with him too, like call him ‘Chief’ and all that stuff. But he would make it known that ‘You don’t call me that, you call me Papa. I may be Chief to them, but I’m your Papa.’ That’s the kind of love he gave us in that sense.”
Phillip Martin’s wife of 55 years, Bonnie, still mourns her husband, who passed away six years ago at the age of 86. “It’s hard for me to talk about him. I get too emotional when I think about him. People had wanted me to interview with them since he passed away. I just can’t. Just talking about him to someone … These questions that they ask. Can’t stand it,” she said. The inside of her home, the one Martin built for her, stands in tribute to his legacy better than any quote could. His pictures, awards, and trinkets, all slowly fading memories of a better time, line the living room walls. While she stands firm in her unwillingness to answer direct questions, she cannot seem to help the stray comment that escapes her lips every now and again, small, fond musings on vacations, dinners, moments long past. “I was always amazed when he tells me that he’s going to do this,” she said, with a smile that did not reach her eyes. “I didn't believe him at the time. But I saw the end result.” To enter the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians reservation today is to enter a whole other world. It is a small city, characterized by the opulence of its casinos, hotels, and brand-new health and justice complexes, casting shadows on the small low-income housing projects among the modern subdivisions springing up in the pines. Ask any tribal member about Martin, and they will tell you a story. Stories of pain, loss, and struggle that all end with one theme: redemption. The fondness for a father lost is obvious in the voices of his people. Phillip Martin has been described as a modernday Moses, a comparison that the testimonies of many Choctaw led out of their proverbial Egypt attest to. “One thing I do know,” said Nigel Gibson proudly, “is that it’s never just Phillip Martin. It’s always ‘Chief.’ We only have one chief, and he carries that name.”
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At Choctaw Central High School, ACT scores have risen, dropout rates have plummeted and kids feel safer.
Choctaw Central High School students peruse options for class rings.
By Slade Rand Photos by Ariel Cobbert
hen U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell looked around Indian Country for a school system that other tribes should emulate, she chose Mississippi’s Choctaw Tribal Schools. Walk through the schools and it’s easy to see why. At Choctaw Central High School, Principal Fred Hickmon is a hands-on kind of guy. He’s in the halls, checking on students. He floats in and out of classrooms. His teachers tailor instruction to the individual needs of students and talk about them as if they are their own kids. Parents flock to everything the school does — programs, festivals, athletic events, student-teacher conferences. Since David Germany became head of the tribe’s schools five years ago, ACT scores have risen, dropout rates have plummeted, and kids feel safer. After more than two decades on the reservation, watching the community grow and sensing a need to change, Germany knew what had to be done. He unleashed a slew of physical, educational, and personnel changes. He also knows there’s still work to do. “Most of our kids are English speakers, not Choctaw. Twenty years ago it was the opposite,” said Germany. “Parents are better-educated than they once were. They value their children’s education a lot more. Those attitudes have been growing.” The schools have had to change as the Choctaw themselves have changed. As the tribe’s population has surged over the past 20 years, so has school enrollment. But Germany is determined not to let all this change cause his students to forget their culture. He encourages teachers to spice up classes with traditional Choctaw imagery and artifacts. Math problems at Choctaw Central deal with stick ball games, Choctaw food, and hunting, for example. But sometimes it’s not easy. Enrolling more students means hiring more teachers, which has proven to be a challenge. With so few teachers who are Choctaw, infusing the schools with strong Choctaw culture is sometimes not so easy. Teachers at all eight schools are almost exclusively nonChoctaw. Only one assistant principal at Choctaw Central is a Choctaw tribal member, and Germany wants that number to improve. If a Choctaw applied for the same position as an equally qualified non-Choctaw, the system would give priority to hiring the Choctaw. Renee Jones came out of retirement three years ago to
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teach biology at Choctaw Central. She had retired from teaching in public schools but her passion for educating young people called her back. Luckily for both her and her students, she gets to enjoy teaching only one subject, compared to the four she taught at her last public school. Jones is impressed with the involvement of Choctaw parents. “They really embody the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ here,” Jones said. Third-year teacher Beverly Combes also appreciates the effect of Choctaw culture on her students. “The kids are unique, different, sweet kids,” she said. “Their culture makes them different. They’re kind, loving kids and are very artistic.” Germany hopes to work more Choctaw into leadership roles starting at the TA (teacher’s assistant) level. He has introduced a Choctaw language program for all TAs at Choctaw Central. To instill a respect for the tribe’s history, traditions and culture, he believes Choctaw children need to be taught by their own people. School administrators have a hard time finding licensed Choctaw teachers, and Germany wants to fix that. “Teaching culture alongside regular school helps the kids learn, and makes them more proud,” he said. “If we stopped sending our kids to these schools, our culture would cease to exist.” Many Choctaw parents also seem to feel this way. Enrollment in tribal schools is consistently larger than enrollment in the area’s public schools. A total of 2,400 students are enrolled across all eight of the tribe’s schools. The largest school (Choctaw Central) has 665 students.
LEFT: Posters on a classroom wall show the Choctaw words for the days of the week. RIGHT: Students seem to like the changes at Choctaw Central High. Here, seniors Kayla Joe, right, Ammery Smith and Cecilia Ketcher share a laugh in the classroom.
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David Germany took over as head of the tribe's schools five years ago. Since then, ACT scores have risen, dropout rates have plummeted, and kids feel safer.
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Students at Choctaw Central are quick to tell you they like the rapid changes at their school. “A lot more people care about school now and a lot more people go to college now than in our freshman year,” said senior Tayshaun Mingo. Since Tayshaun has been at Central he has seen the school’s ACT average rise seven points, matching the state’s average of 19. “I used to go to public school, but here we all share the same culture and it’s more accepting,” said Searra Wilson, a junior. “In my ninth grade year it was really wild. It feels safer here now. Kids were running around the halls, yelling, smoking. We barely have any fights now.” When Germany was looking for a new principal four years ago, Choctaw Central was badly in need of a steroid shot. The old buildings were deteriorating and the staff was tired. Too many students failed to graduate, and many more acted up in class. Enter Fred Hickmon, who injected his forceful, hands-on mix of energy, enthusiasm and what Jones calls “a futuristic vision” at a critical time. People responded. “Fred’s great,” said Germany. “He’s got a lot of motivation, loves the kids, and is barely in his office. He’s in his halls.” Just a few years after his arrival, things are much better. Technology has made its way into most classrooms, a huge plus for teachers accustomed to sharing a single television box to show VCR tapes. Germany’s schools now use pacing and learning programs such as iReady, which provides diagnostic reports on students’ work. Teachers are then able to give individual attention where it is most needed. Germany said the Tribal Council Education Committee is also working on a dropout prevention program and ways to help students who need diplomas to get them. In the next year, schools plan to boost Wi-Fi in their buildings, and the high school soon hopes to break ground on a huge new complex. The majority of the Choctaws’ educational advances stem from changes in curriculum. Implementing the Common Core standards before many other Mississippi schools, Choctaw schools now focus heavily on reading, teachers say. Parents are especially happy with the results. Kimberlane Lewis has five kids enrolled in the reservation’s schools and one daughter who is a proud graduate of Choctaw Central. Lewis worked for years as a teacher at Pearl River Elementary until 2013. Now she works in the school offices. “I think as far as the reading goes, it’s more a part of the system now and I think that’s effective for the kids,” said Lewis. Lewis found her passion for education while going through Pearl River Elementary’s F.A.C.E. program. F.A.C.E. stands for Family and Child Education, a program that specializes in teaching under-educated parents alongside their children. Lewis went through F.A.C.E. with her oldest child and was hooked. She loves the recent technology and likes how Choctaw culture is integrated into everything the schools do. “I really love the culture and safe environment,” Lewis said. “But I think we can be better. We always can.”
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In Peacemaker Court, the judge tries to bring the two sides together. By Kate Hayes Photos by Ariel Cobbert
radley Alex couldn’t understand why his wife was so upset with him. The young couple had just had their second son but she was edgy, emotional, high strung. It wasn’t like her, and they both knew it. But why? After pleading and asking, “What’s wrong?” as so many husbands do, Alex and his wife finally got an answer 30 or so years later from a television special: postpartum depression. Today, Alex looks back at that tough period in his life and is thankful for what he now realizes was valuable training for his current job as judge of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Peacemaker Court. He recently handled a case between spouses and found the new parents’ arguments sounded all too familiar. Sure enough, a doctor confirmed his diagnosis—postpartum depression. Case solved, problem resolved.
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Peacemaker Court is radically different from the American court system, which seeks to punish the guilty and generally declare one side right and one side wrong. Often, the Choctaw feel, that approach can increase frustration and animosity on both sides. Peacemaker Court seeks a different kind of justice, one with roots deep in Choctaw tradition. It concentrates on bringing the two sides in a dispute together. Instead of blaming, it aims to heal and restore broken relationships. Now, when couples come before him, Judge Alex thinks back on his own marriage and the confusion he felt when his wife was sick and didn’t realize it. “I thought she was just going crazy on me. I’m 60 years old and a lot of stuff I have gone through—I believe that there was a purpose for me that I went through those in life. That’s the peacemaking court. It’s something
that’s wonderful,” he said. His occasional broken English can’t mask his wisdom. That wisdom and an intuitive understanding of people came from a long history in law enforcement. “I’ve dealt with people throughout most of my adult life,” Alex said. He was a probation officer for 17 years, and before that a police officer. But not a no-nonsense, ticket-writing, authoritarian police officer. Alex gave people rides home after he arrested them, went to check on them days later, and even prayed with them. “Other officers, they didn’t really like that. But I said, ‘This is our community. These are our people, and you have to care for your people.’” Step inside the peacemaker courtroom, and it’s nothing like the stern standard closing scene of Law and Order. The courtroom is circular, with one large wall that has no corners.
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ABOVE: Judge Alex takes copious notes during Peacemaker hearings.
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A smaller circle of chairs sits inside, creating an informal setting in which disputes can be resolved. Judge Alex sits among the plaintiffs and defendants, rather than looking down on them from a raised bench. In fact, “judge” may not be the best word to describe him. He is more like a mediator. ‘Itti-kaña-ikb’ is the Choctaw name for the court. It means “making friends again.” The cases that come to Peacemaker Court are handpicked from the tribe’s civil, criminal, and youth courts. The referrals are usually family cases—divorce, child custody— that authorities believe can be resolved without formal court proceedings. But this is a one-time-only opportunity. It’s informal and inexpensive, and no lawyers can be present — only the judge and the opposing parties. If cases don’t succeed in Peacemaker Court, it’s usually because someone is unwilling to cooperate with the process, or if they demand an attorney. If so, the case is sent right back to the court it came from, and normal legal proceedings occur. It doesn’t happen very often.
Judge Bradley Alex focuses on bringing people together, not tearing them apart.
Judge Alex is full of stories about people he has dealt with in the court and how successful it has been for them. One would think he’s been doing this for years, but he’s just finishing his first. “The court is aimed at honesty,” Alex says. “They admit their guilt and that they want to proceed in the court… that they want to settle it and talk to the victims.” Most of the cases involve domestic violence. But they aren’t always typical scenarios. Alex talks about a case in which a son was abusing his father. Through peacemaking sessions, he discovered that the son held his father in contempt for calling him a loser after dropping out of school. Both had scars from all of the abuse, and Alex described “uni-brows of anger” across their foreheads. He patiently coaxed them through the principal steps of peacemaking—guilt, forgiveness, and acceptance. Alex later bumped into the pair as they shopped for groceries for the son’s wedding feast. “Everything worked out good. I see them now with a smile, but they had
a uni-brow,” Alex said. Alex offers a simple recipe for success — communication. “It’s talking. It is just talking. You can overcome anything. Communication. I’m telling you.” He begins by talking to the parties separately. Then he brings them together and talks to them and any key people involved. By then, Alex says they will have unearthed the real problem, whatever it is that has caused the anger or contempt bubbling up inside. “When we settle cases here, we talk about what led up to this. Even sometimes we go back to their childhood. How were they raised? What kind of family? What is it? They bring it up. Eventually they find where that affected them,” Alex said. And then, the process of puzzling broken pieces back together begins. Alex tells of a young boy who was destroying property at his mother’s home—her car, their mailbox. He was arrested and sent to appear before the youth court. Then the case was transferred to Alex. But the boy wouldn’t speak to anyone. So Judge Alex started talking on his own. “I said, ‘How old are you?’ “He said, ‘14.’ “I went back to my childhood and told him the first time I had a girlfriend I was 14. I had a crush on her so bad that when we broke up, I felt like my stomach was all knotted up and everything and I just couldn’t sleep. “That’s when his head went up. He said, ‘You did, too?’” It turned out the boy’s father was remarried and living in another town. His mother was raising him and his two sisters. He felt alone. His love life was in shambles, he felt he
had no one to talk to, and his emotions exploded into violence. “He said, ‘Nobody understands, but you do.’ I said, ‘Yeah I went through it.’ A lot of us went through that and are still going through it.” The judge explained to the boy that he could talk to his mom about what he was going through and should apologize to her. That like him, she had a broken heart. “He said, ‘With Dad?’” “I said, ‘Yeah.’” Just as Alex followed up with people he arrested as a police officer, he kept in contact with the young boy after resolving the case. He asked him to help install insulation in Alex’s home and paid him for his time. “That’s the only thing he needs is a father figure. These young men, teenagers that don’t have a father, I went through that,” he said. For Alex, the case hit close to home. Alex’s own father died when he was 9. Then, as a young man, his stepfather was abusive. To get away, he joined Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, “whatever club I could get into.” He too, had no adult in his life to confide in. “A lot of stuff that I went through, I see these people going through. I love my people. You have to love your people in order to be in a position like this,” he said. As Alex describes the cases of the past year, he makes the process seem simple, or just common sense. He prefers the Choctaw way over the American legal system any day. In American civil and criminal courts, “the whole truth is not spoken. Both sides do not really give the full truth. Attorneys represent them and I’ve seen that. I was sitting in there. I didn’t like going to see a trial. I’ve seen it and it destroys family. Basically, it destroys the community. When they leave, sometimes people, one or the other or both, are hurt,” he said. It helps that the tribe is no larger than it is. “Our tribe is small,” Alex said. “I think [the peacemaking process] can affect anyone anywhere. It’s bringing family back together, or the community back together. The other legal system isn’t.” But as Judge Alex knows, it takes follow up. A problem cannot always be solved with the bang of a gavel. After all, fines, jail time, or retribution won’t heal a wounded soul.
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Teenage In Teen Court, teenagers serve as prosecutor, defense counsel and jury. By Mitchell Dowden Photos by Ariel Cobbert
he Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has a novel way to deal with some teen crimes. They let the kids decide. In teen court, teenagers serve as prosecutor, defense lawyer and jury. The only adult in the room is the judge, whose primary job is ensuring the jury doesn’t hand out inappropriate punishments, such as making kids walk around for a day wearing a sandwich board that exclaims, “I’M A THIEF.” The teen court is mostly made up of high school girls. Andrew Jones, the court’s director, says he gets about one male for every 25 females. Everyone, aside from the defendant, is a volunteer. “My mom made me,” is the most common reason for starting, but after that, Jones says he can’t get rid of them. Natalie Dreifuss is in her second year with teen court. She says she likes the feeling of being a part of the justice system and of helping other kids and the tribe. It gives her a sense of responsibility. Which is exactly what the tribe wants. The court experiment began with a federal grant in 2003. A branch of the more traditional youth court, it’s an informal sanctioning court. To be eligible, teen defendants have to admit their guilt in a formal hearing, but even that doesn’t
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ABOVE: Genesis Ferris, 17, and Natalie Dreyfuss, 16, demonstrated what goes on at the defense table. PREVIOUS PAGE: If you're a teenager, here is what a jury of your peers looks like in Teen Court. From left, Audrey Tubby, Cecilia Ketcher, and Searra Wilson.
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guarantee referral to teen court. Jones meets with other court officials to select first offenders who might be helped by the teen court process. The court has had anywhere from up to 40 cases a year to as few as two. Just like adult court, defense lawyers meet with defendants, map out a strategy and prepare for trial. Since the defendant has already conceded guilt, the young lawyers must present mitigating evidence and seek a lesser punishment. Prosecutors plan their case against the defendant, present evidence and argue for what they consider proper punishment. Jones assigns the roles each teen must play. First-year students typically work for the prosecution and the more experienced kids work with the defense. His advice to defense lawyers is to think of the court as an opportunity to help a client, not punish them. “If you understand what they did was wrong, how could you help them and the community? Think about how you can educate them and help them see things differently,” Jones said.
Sometimes teen court sparks an interest in law as a profession. Tia Grisham, 25, started out with teen court, went on to attend Mississippi College and now works for the Choctaw Attorney General’s office. She liked teen court so much that she still helps Jones out. “Defense is a lot harder,” she said. “You have to stand in their shoes and understand them and help them better themselves, but since they’ve already admitted their guilt, there’s only so much you can do for them.” Emily Shoemake, 20, preferred defense. “You can look at them and think about what you would want if you were found guilty. You have to make sure the jury sees that we’re all human,” she said. As a juror, she said, “You just want to know the facts, you want to know everything. It was harder to know what the facts are versus what was just being said or what they wanted us to know.” When asked if anything had ever gone awry during a hearing, the room of teenage girls Jones had gathered for an interview fell silent. They are, after all, mostly teenagers.
When asked if feelings get hurt when a verdict doesn’t go one’s way, Grisham reasoned, “It’s hard to take it personally when you know the defendant is already guilty. They wouldn’t be here otherwise. If you were asking for one month probation, and someone gets two, then they probably deserve it, so there’s not much you can do.” Jones says this court of teen peers offers a different perspective from the more formal youth court and can be even tougher on kids than traditional court hearings. “They know these kids, they go to school with them, so when the teen court trial comes, they’ve already heard the story. It’s nothing new to them. So they have to be unbiased and try and do what’s right, and that’s hard. But since they know the situation, they’re typically a little rougher than formal court,” he said. No matter the verdict, defendants are later required to serve as a juror on three separate cases as a part of the court’s mission to turn kids around and instill responsibility. Jones says there are two kinds of jurors. There are kids who say, “I don’t want to be as tough, because it was tough on me.” But then some say, “They were tough on me, so I’m going to be tough on them.” “And what’s interesting is that those are the kids that will come back and help with the court. The kids that let them off easy are gone after three appearances.” In the tribe’s own words, the teen court’s ultimate concern is dealing with antisocial, delinquent and criminal behavior at an early stage. It focuses on self-esteem, self-improvement and nurturing healthy attitudes toward rules and authority. The court was a response to rising youth crime that was beginning to tax the Choctaw court system. Teen court reduces the caseload for other courts, while detouring first-time offenders from formal youth court and avoiding a youth court file. Court administrator Dan Mittan and others in the Choctaw Justice Complex have seen tremendous change in the past 20 years. From a few cramped trailers in the old days to today’s two-story concrete, marble and glass structure, the building itself is a nod to their progress. As teen crime rates rose, Mittan didn’t see detention as an answer. Detention facilities were overcrowded, re-arrest rates were high
and he felt they were wasting money on programs that weren’t working. To solve the problem, he developed the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a comprehensive reform model that utilizes “collaborative and data-driven approaches to reduce reliance on juvenile incarceration,” he said. It leans heavily on tribal traditions. The Choctaw have long considered healing and bringing people back together as major goals of any decision involving tribal justice. After all, sending parties to a dispute back into the community with one side mad and the other side gloating is not always a good recipe for community harmony. Mittan likes the idea so much that he’s trying to apply it in other ways. He says they’re currently working on an elder-tostudent mentor program that he’s seen work in other tribes. But is it that simple? Does a program like this really work? Is allowing them to be judged by their peers -- their classmates and teammates -- good for defendants? Jones says yes. He’s had more than 200 teen court cases and only 25 defendants have committed a new offense or failed to comply with the court’s ruling. Jones has a hand in that re-offender rate, because as the intake officer, his job is to screen people coming through. Even if youth court recommends someone for teen court, Jones can turn them down if he feels their case or personality wouldn’t go over well there. That’s about 175 cases that didn’t end up in detention, which is the tribe’s goal. In recent years, instead of stressing detention, there’s been a focus on programs and probation to reduce overall crime and reoffender rates. Because of this and the court’s initial success, the Choctaw teen court has received national recognition from Harvard University, the U.S. government and other tribes across the country. The teen court is so new it hasn’t had time to put together meaningful long-term data. Until the court logs more experience, the Choctaw are encouraged by the fact that they have only about 50 youth cases a year. That represents 3 percent of the kids, far below the national average of youth offenders. Hopefully, said Mittan and Jones, that’s a solid sign that it’s working.
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The new health center has a larger diabetes unit to tackle the tribe's most serious health concern.
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Taking Care of Their Own
At the tribe's new state-of-the-art health center, even the wallpaper screams Choctaw. By Lana Ferguson Photos by Chi Kalu
uantina Johnson was speeding southbound toward Meridian for her daughter’s dance performance when she noticed a mother and daughter retreating from a car stranded alongside the bustling highway. “As a single parent I know how tough it is, so I pulled over,” Johnson said. The family, members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, were commuting more than 50 miles to Anderson Regional Medical Center when their car suddenly slowed, then came to a sickening stop. They had been making the hour-long trip for an appointment with a specialist the reservation’s outdated health center couldn’t offer. Johnson lent a hand, a ride, and a can of gas to the family to help get them back on their way. She never made it to her daughter’s performance. “I didn’t feel that bad about it because I helped a family that really needed it rather than my 4-year-old daughter who wouldn’t really remember me being there any way,” Johnson said. Many other Choctaw families, on limited income and facing health issues, have had to make the agonizing decision of whether to spend money on gas to travel almost an hour away for an appointment or to skip it altogether. “Truthfully, that is so many of their stories,” said Johnson, the Choctaw Health Center’s chief medical officer.
“Those are the kinds of stories that really broke my heart and showed the need to bring specialists to the Choctaw Health Center.” Years later, a new, bigger, better-equipped Choctaw Health Center, which opened in March 2015, is doing just that. Mississippi’s Choctaw, almost wiped out by European diseases centuries ago, further thinned out by federal removal to Indian Country, then ravaged again by the worldwide flu pandemic in the early 1900s, now boast state-of-the-art medical technology, consistent staffing, and a slew of specialists. Today the tribe can offer a badly needed, much larger dental clinic with an oral surgeon, a bigger diabetes unit to battle the tribe’s single most serious health concern, and an impressive array of other services — cardiologists, optometrists, mental health counselors, WIC, pediatric dental and primary care units, 20 inpatient rooms, a vast pharmacy, a women’s wellness center, an audiology unit, pain management clinic, pulmonology clinic and more. “In the old facility we were busting out at the seams,” CHC Deputy Director Mary Harrison said. “Here we have room for the patients and their families to be comfortable.” The old and cramped one-story facility with baby blue walls and orange carpets, built in 1976, was built to serve 4,000 patients, less than half today’s tribal population. Its Choctaw Nation Part II
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waiting rooms were so packed that sometimes people had to stand shoulder to shoulder. Some offices were the size of broom closets. Now patients flock to a modern, three-story building with sleek, timeless colors and wide-open areas that offer more and better care, a monument to just how effective Choctaw-run health care for the Choctaw can be. The project, on an old stickball practice field, was a joint venture between the tribe, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Indian Health Service (IHS). Chief Phylliss Anderson negotiated with IHS, which normally runs medical facilities on reservations, to agree to pay the tribe to operate the facility. “The chief said we know best how to run it for our own people,” said tribal spokesperson Misty Brescia Dreifuss. “We knew what it felt like to run out of room and so we planned this building so we would have room to grow,” Acting Health Director Tina Scott said. Transitioning into the new center was like buying a new home. It doesn’t happen within a day, but after stepping over the threshold for the first time, it’s hard to think of anything other than the endless possibilities of what can happen within these walls. Even the wallpaper speaks of Choctaw culture. Basketweaving textures and diamond-shaped details frame large windows. Here, patients and staff alike have room. There are large lobbies on every floor and each patient has his
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or her own individual room— a bed, a couch where family members are encouraged to stay the night, and a bathroom large enough to do a cartwheel in. “Patients have choices of where they want to go and we want to make it easy for them to choose here,” Johnson explained. “Now we are able to have patients see multiple specialists here rather than have to drive all the way to Meridian or Jackson.” Once specialists see the facility, they’re much more eager to set up shop there. “Build it,” Scott said. “And they will come.” Physical expansion has also led to an expansion of opportunities. The health center is now able to control its own funding, create contracts with providers to bring in specialists, and “catch up with the norms.” For example, “we’ve been able to have consistent staffing so they know the patients and their needs better,” Scott says. One of those staff members is Gail Wilson, who works on the second floor in the dental unit. Wilson, the dental assistant supervisor and long-time employee, is proud of her 16-chair clinic. She shows it off with a beaming smile. “At the old hospital we had a four-chair clinic that could fit into our new lobby,” Wilson said. The place is busy, busy, busy. Most chairs are full and dentists scurry from patient to patient. People pour in for
FAR LEFT: Dr. Chandrashekhar Joshi is leading the fight against a disease that has revaged Native Americans across the country. THIS PAGE: Dr. Timothy Adams, a podiatry specialist, conducts an examination.
routine exams and cleanings, an oral surgeon visits every week, seeing about eight to 10 patients each time, and stickball mouth guards are molded in large quantities. In the old laboratory, employees were crammed in like sardines, always bumping into each other. Now, the lab is four or five times larger and tasks are cranked out with ease, like making 75 mouth guards in a single morning. The clinic is manned by 23 staff members, including five dentists and 14 dental assistants. Wilson said if the center could secure more dentists, they’d be ready to expand immediately. The tribe’s population is about 10,800. But as an IHS facility, the health center also serves those who are members of federally recognized tribes and their dependents. The center also offers a spacious diabetes clinic, where the staff finds itself on the front lines of a longterm war against an epidemic that has plagued tribes across the United States. Diabetes has become such a problem that President Barack Obama extended a special diabetes program offered under the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. It provides $150 million a year for support programs. Darlene Willis and Dr. Chandrashekhar Joshi are two of many workers striving to help the Choctaw battle the reservation’s leading health concern. About 1,900 Choctaw have been diagnosed with the disease, especially type 2 diabetes primarily caused by lifestyle habits—poor diet and lack of exercise. About 1,600 of those are classified as active, meaning they receive services at the center at least once a year. U.S. health care officials report a 16.1 percent diabetes prevalence rate among Native Americans, as opposed to a 12 percent Mississippi rate and 9 percent national rate. The statistics don’t adequately describe the human carnage – amputations, kidney failure, blindness, heart disease, death. For a long time, diabetes statistics among the Choctaws were murky, but the extent of the disease has become more obvious because on the reservation the tribe is like
a captive audience, making screening highly effective. At least the tribe knows what it faces. Willis, who has been the diabetes prevention coordinator for 18 years, said when she started, only about 55 people on the reservation had been diagnosed. With more efficient screening, more people are being diagnosed and advised on ways to better their health. The number of diabetics has remained high for decades. Things have improved in recent years but it’s a slow, longterm siege. “Change is going to be hard. Change is hard for these people,” Willis admitted. “They’re going to do what they do. They’re going to eat what they eat.” Traditional Choctaw foods such as fry bread and fried chicken are major perpetrators in the poor diets that trigger the disease. The diabetes unit works to teach patients the benefits of a healthier low-fat diet, nutrition, exercise, and complete lifestyle change. But Joshi says all the preaching and cajoling in the world can’t solve the problem unless patients decide to change their ways. The toughest part of his job, he says, is fixing general attitudes toward diabetes. “People do not change because somebody tells them to change,” Joshi said. “The only solution that is left is you have to make them want to do it. Change is going to happen very slowly.” Joshi, who has been practicing medicine for 41 years with almost 30 dedicated to the reservation, has been lovingly dubbed an “honorary Choctaw” by the staff and has big dreams for the tribe and its future. With a growing grin, Joshi admits his dreams are not practical but he still dreams them. He describes an ideal reservation that is virtually car-free to promote walking and exercise, healthy foods on sale at the grocery store, junk food sold at inflated prices, and more. He has genuine hope for what is to come. “I have never really had negative thoughts in the respect that nothing will change, that things would remain the same,” Joshi said. “Sooner or later. It will take time. It will happen.”
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Struggle for Self-Rule
When a white man commits a crime on the reservation, why shouldnâ€™t he be tried in tribal court?
By Anna McCollum Photos by Chi Kalu
n the summer of 2003, a 13-year-old Choctaw boy went to work at a Dollar General store on the reservation as a part of his tribe’s Youth Opportunity Program, where an employer gets free labor in exchange for giving Choctaw youths work experience. What started as a well-intended partnership became a nightmare. The store’s manager, Dale Townsend, was accused of molesting the boy during store hours. And so began a legal squall that in the summer of 2016 would blow all the way to a divided, shorthanded U.S. Supreme Court. By the narrowest of margins, a 4-4 vote, the court on June 23 ruled in favor of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. In a terse, unexplained per curiam decision, the court upheld the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling that the Choctaw tribal court had full authority to try civil suits filed by Choctaw plaintiffs against non-tribal businesses on the reservation. But just as important was the impact on tribes nationwide. Tribes across the land immediately hailed what they saw as a victory for tribal sovereignty – the right of tribes to govern themselves, a complex legal issue perhaps dearer to tribes than any other. National Council of American Indians president Brian Cladoosby applauded the decision and added that "tribal courts must have the authority to protect and provide remedies for tribal members who are subjected to assault on Indian reservations."
Mississippi Choctaw Chief Phyllis Anderson said the case affirmed "the sovereign right of Indian tribes to assert civil jurisdiction against a non-Indian entity in certain circumstances." She called it "a positive outcome, not only for our tribe, but for all of Indian country." The case had been closely watched amid fears that a negative outcome would chip away at this coveted legal right for which tribes have been fighting for more than a century. If the Supreme Court had denied jurisdiction to the Choctaw court, it would have left such courts almost no basis for jurisdiction over non-tribal entities, even when they operate on tribal grounds. And tribal sovereignty would have suffered a major blow. It all began with those allegations of abuse at the Dollar General store on the Choctaw reservation outside of Philadelphia. Things became more complicated when the U.S. Attorney’s office, which rarely handles molestation cases, declined to prosecute Townsend on criminal charges. Indian tribes are not permitted to prosecute criminal cases in tribal courts against people who are not Indians. Seeking justice, the boy’s family then filed suit against Townsend and Dollar General in tribal court. Dollar General then went to federal court, challenging the tribal court’s jurisdiction and arguing that Choctaw law could not be applied to a civil suit against someone who was
PREVIOUS PAGE: It may look like any four-lane highway, but this one runs through a sovereign nation, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. RIGHT: Litigation over allegations of abuse at the Dollar General store led all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court and a victory by the tribe.
not a member of the tribe even if the incident happened on the reservation. But when Dollar General entered into its contract with the tribe, it had agreed to be bound by tribal courts in any dispute. A federal district court in Mississippi and the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans both ruled that the tribe had jurisdiction. In fact, the Fifth Circuit found that Native American tribes have an inherent sovereignty predating the creation of the United States and that that sovereignty can be limited by congressional action only. And Congress has not removed the tribes’ authority to try civil cases that erupt on reservations. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court sent shock waves through Indian Country when it agreed to hear Dolgencorp, Inc. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The justices heard oral arguments in December 2015. The high court — down to 8 members from its usual 9 because of a standoff between Congress and President Barack Obama — took months to deliver a decision. Even then, there was no explanation, not even a majority or minority opinion. The court simply affirmed the lower courts. Any attack on the tribe’s power to control what happens on its own land is a sensitive matter for tribes who saw the U.S. break countless treaties and snatch millions of acres of land in the 1800s and 1900s. They well remember how President James Monroe, then-General Andrew Jackson and others promised tribes removed to reservations in the west that “no white man shall ever again disturb you” and that they would be protected “as long as water flows or grass grows.” Native Americans got similar promises time and time again. And time and time again, they were broken. Even Chief Justice John Marshall’s ruling in 1832 that the Cherokee could not be forcibly removed from their land was promptly ignored by Jackson. By then, the former general had been elected president. He was the principal architect of the Indian Removal Act that finally forced Southeastern tribes to abandon their homelands and move westward across the Mississippi River. “The case is tremendously important since any ruling against the tribe will be applicable to all other Indian tribes in the country that currently hear and decide tort claims against nonmembers,” said attorney Joe Williams, who acts as legal counsel to Choctaw Chief Phyliss Anderson, shortly before the decision was announced. In 1981, the Supreme Court heard Montana v. United States, in which the justices ruled that tribes and their courts have no authority over non-Indians except under two scenarios: “consensual relationships” and “activities that threaten the political integrity, economic security or the health and welfare of the tribe.”
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Cheryl Hamby, assistant attorney general for the Choctaw, argued that the Dollar General case should fall into one of these exceptions. Dollar General did, after all, sign a contract with the Choctaw. “We maintain that our tribal court has jurisdiction to hear this civil case brought by a tribal member against a non-Indian predominantly under the Montana rule,” Hamby said before the court ruled. “To deny the tribe’s jurisdiction in this area denies justice to this child and his family to have their case heard.” According to Chief Anderson, denying the tribe’s jurisdiction would carry serious implications. “Tribal sovereignty to me means that we lead our own path, that we lead our own destiny, that we can manage our own affairs,” she said. “I think that's something that's really important. I know that many times, people can use it in different ways. I choose to use it in a positive manner.” And a fair one, Anderson argues. “If a member of our tribe went off the reservation, abused her child, or if she was out there and she abused her husband, she would go to jail in Neshoba County,” Anderson said. So when someone who is not a member of the tribe commits a crime on reservation lands, why shouldn’t that person be similarly punished? ◊ The battle for tribal sovereignty has raged ever since tribes ceded millions of acres of land to the U.S. in the 19th century. The government repeatedly broke its treaty promises and over time grabbed even more land from the tribes, making it available to outsiders. Since then, there have been numerous court battles over just how much authority tribes — “sovereign
nations,” as Justice Marshall once put it — can wield on their own reservations. Native Americans are particularly sensitive about their land and their children, especially when non-tribal courts try to take custody of Native American children. The issue goes back to the late 1800s, when tribes saw their children packed off to government boarding schools, where teachers punished them for speaking their own language and tried to wean them from their culture and traditions. Sometimes, it gets complicated. What happens if non-Choctaws go to state court to adopt a Choctaw child who may then grow up ignorant of the language or cultural ways of her ancestors? Is that legal? Should the child belong to her “new” parents she now lives with or those with whom she shares blood? “Our future depends on retaining sovereign rights, land and land acquisition, and our children. A tribe literally has to have and protect these three resources for future survival,” Hamby said. “Studies show that Indian children suffer with identity issues when removed from their family and tribe and raised in non-tribal homes. Suicide rates in that instance are very high.” It was because of this that the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978. It mandates that “state courts must apply higher standards and take certain precautions to prevent the removal of these children and, if removal is necessary, to provide for reunification of these children with their family,” Hamby said. “When you think about it, sovereignty, land, and children are critical for the future of tribes. We can’t afford to give up even an inch of our sovereign rights in any of those areas. That is why tribes will fight vigorously in court to protect their rights and interests in those three areas the most.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Child Welfare Act in 1989 in a case that stemmed from a Harrison County chancery judge granting custody of twin Choctaw children to non-Indian parents. The parents were residents of the Choctaw reservation but consented to adoption after the twins were born in Harrison County. The Supreme Court ruled that since the parents were Choctaw and actually resided on the reservation, Mississippi courts had no jurisdiction. The high court found that Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act because removal of Indian children from their
cultural setting often stems from “cultural bias,” seriously affects the tribe’s long-term survival and can damage Indian children socially and psychologically. Williams, the attorney and chief counsel to Anderson, said there are a number of reasons why tribal sovereignty should be fought for – for example, protecting the primary source of income for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. “I would say that tribal sovereignty serves as an important backdrop to Indian gaming because the federal laws and regulations regarding gaming still recognize Indian tribes as the primary regulators of gaming activity on their lands,” Williams said. “And the economic development opportunities that gaming provides are to be used for essential tribal governmental programs and services and to provide for the general welfare of tribal members.” But it doesn’t stop there. “Another important element of tribal sovereignty is the right of Indian people to continue to carry on their native language, traditions, and customs in their own way, even when those ways are frowned upon or considered unimportant by non-Indians,” Williams said. Tribal sovereignty means all of these things. It means protecting children. It means financially supporting the tribe. It means continuing a culture. Simply put, sovereignty is self-rule. As it applies to Native American tribes, it boils down to: Who decides what rules we must follow? Who decides what is taught in reservation schools? Who decides how natural resources are used? Who enforces contracts and resolves disputes? Who decides speed limits on reservation roads? When the answer is the tribe, a tribe has sovereignty. When the answer is anybody else, it does not. And as the years have demonstrated, tribal sovereignty is not guaranteed. The Supreme Court, in several decisions since the 1970s, has issued rulings tribes see as encroaching upon sovereignty in worrisome ways. Meanwhile, Anderson and tribal lawyers wait for the next legal shoe to drop. Presumably, Dollar General could lose the $2.5 million suit in tribal court and try to appeal yet again to the federal courts, stretching out the legal battle for some time. The chief knows the fight to preserve sovereignty is far from over. “We have non-members that come onto our reservation and they tell us we cannot prosecute, we can’t hold them accountable to what they do to our people here on this reservation, to the Choctaw people,” she said. “That’s not right. It shouldn’t be a hard sell, but it was. I know that in time we’re going to push for even more. We’re going to push for even more authority.”
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The Tribe that Wouldn’t Quit Pushed off their land, surviving in swamps, mired in poverty, crippled by racism, reborn as a major business empire. You can’t make this up. By Josie Slaughter
ept. 18, 1830: Roughly 6,000 Choctaws were camped out at Dancing Rabbit Creek in Noxubee County to await a decision they had long dreaded. Emissaries from the president of the United States were there to meet them, intent on negotiating a treaty that would require the Choctaw to move to southeastern Oklahoma. Over the span of 10 days, amid a carnivallike atmosphere, U.S. Commissioners William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) and John Coffee plied Choctaw chiefs with offers of money and land but steadfastly insisted that the tribe needed to leave Mississippi. Prostitutes, gamblers and whiskey salesmen were welcomed. Missionaries were barred. Choctaw negotiators Greenwood Leflore, Mushulatubbee, and Nitakechi, leaders of a delegation of 20 chiefs, must have known resistance was futile. The tribe had seen Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army decimate the rebellious Creeks and defeat the British
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PREVIOUS PAGE: At the turn of the 20th century, many Choctaw sharecroppers worked on land that once belonged to the tribe. COPY PHOTO RIGHT: Land controlled by the Choctaw in 1800, before the drumbeat for removal became incessant. COPY PHOTO BELOW: This map shows how Southeastern tribes were forced to cede their lands and resettle in Oklahoma, known then as Indian Territory. COPY PHOTO
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and the French. They knew how quickly the American military with its superior firepower could destroy a tribe. They knew, too, that Jackson, now president, would not hesitate to use force. The tribe that in 1815 helped Jackson defeat the French at the Battle of New Orleans, the tribe that helped him defeat the Creeks, was being forced by their old ally to give up their last 10,423,130 acres in Mississippi and become the first Southeastern tribe exiled to Oklahoma. The cause of Jackson’s change of heart towards the Choctaw: money, land, and demand. Since 1798, when the Mississippi Territory was formed, droves of white settlers had flocked to the Choctaw homeland in central Mississippi. Before long, they outnumbered the Choctaw. By the time Mississippi became a state in 1817, there was an insatiable hunger for Choctaw land to accommodate the growing white population. Land. It was always about land. And cotton. White gold. The cotton gin and African slaves had suddenly turned the white fluffy stuff into the world’s single most valuable commodity. Its promised riches fed a frenzied land rush that put enormous pressure on politicians from Mississippi to Washington. But before they could take the land, they had to be rid of the Indians. So in 1829 the Mississippi Legislature passed a law making it illegal for anyone to claim membership in a tribe or to call themselves chief. The following year, Jackson pushed through Congress the Indian Removal Act, which prompted the final treaty negotiations. The Choctaw desperately wanted to remain. But Clark and Coffee made it clear that their fate was already sealed. With a cash payment to the tribe ($20,000 a year for 20 years) and government assistance to move west continuing to be the only offer, the chiefs realized their options were limited. As a further enticement, each of the three chiefs was promised 2,560 acres of land; Chiefs Greenwood Leflore and Nitakechi would receive annuities of $250 for the rest
of their time in office, and Mushulatubbee would receive an annuity of $100 while he held office. There were no other options. Sign and be moved — but live — or don’t sign and be killed. Three chiefs, two options, one choice. On Sept. 27, 1830, in a fog of alcohol, gifts, and threats of force, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed. With the stroke of a pen, the lives of the Choctaw changed forever. Approximately 17,000 tribal members trudged to Oklahoma the following year. During the brutal march through snow and freezing weather with few blankets and not enough food, about 2,500 died. The death march would later be known as “the Trail of Tears.” But not every Choctaw left. Some 4,000 to 6,000 remained in Mississippi because of a provision in the treaty that promised individual allotments of land to Choctaws who would leave the tribe and apply for U.S. citizenship within 6 months. They were soon to be disappointed. The agent assigned to collect their applications “deliberately prevented many tribal members from taking advantage” of the provision, according to James Barnett’s Mississippi’s American Indians. “During that removal to Oklahoma, you had people that stayed back and got swindled out of their little piece of land that they had,” says Jay Wesley, director of Chahta Immi, the cultural preservation agency for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. By the deadline, only 69 heads of families were able to obtain their land. Even those who got land soon had to sell it to survive. Others lost it to whites through fraud and intimidation. The Mississippi Choctaw disappeared into the woods and swamps or scratched out a meager existence sharecropping. ◊ Once, the Choctaw controlled two-thirds of what is now Mississippi. In The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, historian
Angie Debo wrote that the Choctaw were known for their “peaceful character and their friendly disposition.” She called the tribe practical and adaptable, without elaborate emphasis on religion or ceremony. For hundreds of years before white men arrived, the tribe lived on gardening and hunting. The unspoiled forests were thick with game, the rivers rife with fish. They developed a highly organized society and actively traded with other tribes, demonstrating a natural talent for business. For a time, some Choctaw would practice head flattening as a ritual adornment, but the practice fell out of favor. Life took a drastic turn in the 1700s when the French and British began to colonize North America. British traders supplied the Chickasaw to the north with guns, which they used to attack the Choctaw, taking slaves to trade to the British. When the French established a beachhead along the Gulf Coast, the Choctaw got their revenge. They allied with the newcomers, trading deer-skins, baskets, and other handmade goods for guns, which they used to stage periodic raids on the Chickasaw. The French, eager to keep this alliance and expand their influence northward, would reward the chiefs with gifts and honorific “titles.” The Choctaw became skilled diplomats through their time trading with the French, squeezing them for more and more gifts. But they kept their promises, going to war with the Natchez and the Chickasaw on behalf of the French and continuing trading with them until the French and Indian Wars, when the British defeated the French. After the defeat of France, Britain took over trade with the Choctaw. Life for the Choctaw changed again when the British were defeated in the Revolutionary War. Over the next 44 years, the Choctaw were pressured into signing nine treaties with the United States. The first, the Treaty of Hopewell in 1786, was supposed to clarify the boundaries of the tribe. In return for the protection of the United States, the tribe ceded 69,120 acres of land. Choctaw Nation Part II
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Hopewell was important because, as Wesley says, “[T]hat started everything else… We didn’t understand that piece of paper, of deeds and titles and so on and so forth, so what are we signing? Start giving them a little then [they think], ‘Hey, we can get land from these people.’” The Treaty of Fort Adams in 1801 was next. The Choctaw ceded 2,641,920 acres. It was never enough. As more settlers poured in, more treaties were negotiated, each one giving the U.S. more land — more than 23 million acres in all — and promising that the tribe would be left alone. That promise would be broken again and again. It seemed that Americans could never get enough. The tribe tried hard to adjust, to get along with the newcomers, even adopting their dress and many of their customs. Many Choctaw became fairly prosperous farmers and merchants. One chief, Mushulatubbee, even ran for Congress. All to no avail. Finally, the Treaty of Doak’s Stand in 1820 set aside land in Oklahoma as a future home for the Choctaw and the government’s intentions were painfully clear: removal. The tribe’s old ally, Andrew Jackson, led negotiations himself. For three long weeks, Jackson badgered the chiefs to accept the arrangement. The tempestuous general pushed his old partners hard, alternating between syrupy promises of desirable land out west and bald threats of violence. When the charismatic Chief Pushmataha accused him of deceiving the Choctaw about the quality of Oklahoma land, pointing out that white settlers were already living there, Jackson grew enraged. Finally, the treaty was signed by U.S. representatives Jackson and Thomas Hinds and Chiefs Pushmataha, Appuckshunubbee, and Mushulatubbee. It ceded 5.1 million acres in exchange for the land in Oklahoma. Ten years later came the infamous Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, followed by removal of most of the Choctaw to Oklahoma. For those who stayed behind and hunkered down in Mississippi, life was hard. “We were in the swamps hiding,” said Wesley. “We were part of a sharecropping system.” The turn of the 20th century saw the dwindling band of Choctaws in despair. By
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the early 1900s, Congressional investigators called them “the poorest pocket of poverty in the poorest state in the country.” It didn’t help that in Mississippi’s segregated society, the Choctaw faced the same discrimination that black people faced. In time, even the tribe’s culture would come under attack. “We have been taught to be ashamed of ourselves,” said Harold (Doc) Comby, who lives on the Choctaw reservation near Philadelphia today. “[I]n grade school, when we spoke our language, the teacher would make the students open their hands like this and spank it with a wooden ruler. When you get punished for speaking your language, you start feeling bad about yourself,” he said. When it could not have become any worse, it did. Disease struck. The flu spread like fire, killing hundreds. By the time the epidemic passed, fewer than 2,000 Choctaw were alive. Finally, help arrived. In 1918, the U.S. commissioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs to look into the condition of the people. With a budget of $75,000 — about $1.2 million today — the BIA built schools and made an initial purchase of 15,000 acres for the Choctaw. It took a while, but eventually they were able to adopt their own constitution. And, in 1945, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians received formal recognition from the government. The tribe was still mired in poverty. With white supremacy the law of the land in Mississippi, Choctaw were not allowed to vote in local and state elections. They could not attend all-white public schools. They were steered toward the back doors of restaurants. The tribe relied heavily on government support and unemployment was at nearly 80 percent. Alcoholism and depression were rampant. Will Campbell, a Baptist minister, civil rights activist and author, wrote of “the depressing sight of the Choctaws, their shanties along the country roads, grown men lounging on the dirt streets of their villages in demeaning idleness, sometimes drinking from a common bottle, sharing a roll-your-own cigarette, their half-clad children a picture of hurting that would never end.” But a savior was on the way.
Phillip Martin, having served in the Air Force in Europe and seeing how Germany was able to rise from the rubble after World War II, determined that the Choctaw could do the same. He was elected chief in 1979 and began the process of rebuilding the tribe. He knew the tribe would never escape poverty if it continued to depend on the federal government. He advocated a philosophy of self-determination, encouraging the tribe to lift itself up. To succeed, he needed jobs, and lots of them. He encouraged the tribe to build an industrial park and began recruiting industry. In time, he was able to persuade the city of Philadelphia to issue bonds to help him pay for a 12,000-square-foot building and used it lure a business that made greeting cards. It created 250 jobs. He secured a plant that installed spaghettilike wire harnesses in automobiles. He purchased First American Printing and Direct Mail Enterprise and the First American Plastic Molding Enterprise. Suddenly, Choctaw had a few hundred goodpaying jobs and could support their families. In 1994, the tribe opened the first of its three gambling casinos, which dramatically improved employment on the reservation. Ultimately, unemployment fell to about 2 percent. Now, Chief Phylliss Anderson, a Martin disciple, runs the tribe. She is its first female chief. And today the Choctaw, the only remaining indigenous tribe in Mississippi, have become an inspiring success story of what can happen when people seek to control their own destiny. The tribe boasts more than 10,000 members, not counting one-quarter Choctaws who are allowed access to federally funded services such as schools and the health center. It has created nearly 6,000 jobs, making it one of the largest employers in the state. And average household income has grown from $2,500 in 1979 to more than $25,000 today. Courted by politicians, depended on to prop up the economy of one of the poorest states in the union, and a model for what an embattled minority can accomplish, the Mississippi Choctaw did not simply endure, they have prevailed.
ABOVE: Chief Philip Martin, second from left, with members of the United Southern and Eastern Tribes. COURTESY OF CHOCTAW CULTURAL CENTER LEFT: "During the removal to Oklahoma, you had people that stayed back and got swindled out of their little piece of land that they had," says Jay Wesley, director of Chahta Immi for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
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Rewriting History books in general across America have improved their accounts of Native American history in recent years, reversing a trend toward stereotyping. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
Finally, Native Americans are starting to get some respect. By Taylor Bennett
atalie Dreifuss is proud to be a Choctaw. So when her public school teacher kept using the word “Indian” to describe her people, she spoke up. “She was teaching one day and she just kept saying ‘Indians’ over and over and over again. I don’t like the term ‘being Indian,’” Natalie said. The tribe is officially known as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, but to Natalie, that’s just a federal name. According to Natalie, her teacher told the class, “Well, now the indigenous people don’t want to be called Indians, but it’s been here for so long. Why should we even change it, why should it even matter?” “That upset me,” Natalie said. So she told her teacher, “I do want to be called Native American. I want to be called Choctaw because that’s what I am.” Natalie asked her teacher to stop using “Indian” and “call us by what we are,” which is Choctaw. Natalie’s friend Breanna Isaac goes to Choctaw Central High School on the reservation, but understands what Natalie is talking about. Breanna has a friend whose
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Choctaw Princess, Breanna Isaac, said people need to drop the stereotypes about Native Americans. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
More recent Mississippi history books, like this one by Dennis Mitchell, go into detail on the blatant political maneuvering to grab Choctaw land for white settlers. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
In 2014, Dennis Mitchell's "A New History of Mississippi" noted how Chief Phillip Martin spearheaded a dramatic economic revitalization on the Choctaw reservation. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
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husband had no idea Native Americans still lived in Mississippi. He was a native of Pontotoc County, which was once Chickasaw country. “For me to hear that, it was kind of a shocker because you think if you live in Mississippi you should know about Native Americans that are within your state,” Breanna said. The reactions of these two students mirror those of other Native American youths across America who find themselves bothered and even offended by outside perceptions of their tribes. Natalie says most history books she studies at school are written from a European perspective and almost never go into the heroic economic resurgence of the Choctaw in the late 1900s, turning the tribe into one of Mississippi's economic powerhouses. Fortunately, she said, some teachers do more than just follow the book. Some actually promote discussion. Natalie said her Mississippi Studies teacher actually knew a lot more than what was taught in the book. “He would talk about it and go into conversations with other native Choctaw in the class and I thought that was pretty great about him,” she said.
Natalie Dreifuss wants to end outdated stereotypes of Choctaws in history books and classrooms. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
“So we have some that do know about our culture and about what we do.” Natalie says in the public school, she doesn’t have issues with other students making fun of the culture. They’re more curious about things such as stickball. “I have not run into any form of racism against us,” Natalie said. “Especially at a public school, I think that’s pretty great.” Breanna, however, was part of an organization called Leadership Neshoba, which included students from various schools in the county. She was the only Native American, which made it hard to relate to the others. “It was frustrating to get across the point of our culture, our background, our identity,” Breanna said. “A few of them thought it was humorous or mocking the culture was a bit funny. Talking to an adult was my best solution. I think a lot of schools should understand what it is rather than mocking it. Be more respectful.” Both girls agree that more should be done in public schools to teach Mississippi children about the state’s Native Americans. They want them to know that not all tribes are the same. They don’t wear the same clothes, they don’t live in tepees and despite
what some think, they aren’t all related to Pocahontas. “Basically, just taking the stereotype of Native Americans and disposing of it,” Breanna said. Native American history is taught much differently at Choctaw Central High School. Students must take Choctaw history to graduate. It covers everything from prehistoric times to the present. Students also study customs, traditions, myths and stories passed down from older tribal members. “I learned a little bit more in that class than what I was taught from elders, so I am appreciative of that class because it puts me more in touch with my heritage," Breanna said. Their experiences illustrate just some of the challenges young Native Americans encounter in a white world. Choctaw children are proud of their heritage but bothered by the lack of understanding from the different cultures around them. Through the years, a succession of American and Mississippi History books have not always been kind to Mississippi’s first residents. For decades, historians described Native Americans as uncivilized, even “savage.” Scarcely did any schoolbooks recognize that by the early 1800s, the Choctaw and Chickasaw had adopted Western clothing, become successful farmers and tried for years to live in harmony with the influx of white settlers before the federal government pushed the tribes west of the Mississippi River. Until the last 20 years, textbooks seldom mentioned how at the time of removal, Choctaw were offered the chance to stay in Mississippi and receive allotments of land if they applied for U.S. citizenship. They also almost never mentioned how the
Choctaw were then cheated out of that land, barred from “white-only” public schools and forced to go to the back doors of restaurants. Or how the tribe picked itself up from abject poverty and became a major generator of Mississippi jobs. In recent years, however, history books have finally begun to treat Native Americans with more respect. Former Ole Miss history professor David Sansing’s textbooks on Mississippi history, starting in the 1980s, updated the Choctaw’s history by detailing what had happened to those who did not go off to Oklahoma and how the tribe has reorganized. More recently, in 2014, Dennis Mitchell’s A New History of Mississippi went into even further detail, noting how Chief Phillip Martin spearheaded a dramatic economic revitalization on the reservation. History books in general have also improved their accounts of Native American history in recent years, reversing a trend toward stereotyping. As for Natalie and Breanna, they just want people to realize that the Choctaw have a long, proud and rich history in this country, and that they have built a business empire with their own hands that is now one of the state’s largest employers. Like most youth of any culture, they bristle when they hear ancient stereotypes, especially code words like “uncivilized.” “That’s an insult to be uncivilized because it makes it seem like we’re uneducated, we don’t know left from right, or that kind of thing,” Breanna said. “That’s definitely what I don’t want to be perceived as because we have people that are succeeding all over the nation and going to college, getting their education, coming back and making our tribe better,” she said. “I think that many people should understand that we’re a sovereign nation and we’re able to run our own government and our own hospitals and that’s really made us prosper,” she said.
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Mother Mound This is sacred soil, an ancient engineering marvel that towers above the landscape. Welcome to the mystery of Nanih Waiya.
Mitzi Reed of Choctaw Wildlife and Parks, calls Nanih Waiya one of her favorite places.
A walking trail leads through a swampy area near the mound and the caves. PREVIOUS PAGE: The "Mother Mound" at Nanih Waiya is 25 feet high, 140 feet wide and 218 feet long.
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By Taylor Bennett Photos by Chi Kalu
he sun is high in the afternoon sky and glints off the Choctaw Wildlife and Parks logo on the side of Mitzi Reed’s green pickup truck. She gets out of the driver’s side and strides onto the dirt parking area of an abandoned state park site. Across the road, a manmade mound raises from the ground. But not just any mound. This one is 25 feet tall, 140 feet wide, 218 feet long. Its level top can barely be seen from the ground, but decaying wooden stairs that teeter along its side can reach it. Even though the exact origins of the mound are not yet secured in the bindings of history, its meaning has not been lost on the Choctaw. On several steps near its foundation lie an assortment of offerings or “gifts to the ‘Mother Mound,’” as Reed puts it. She picks up a small grouping of what looks like bound sticks from the second to first step. “I don’t know what type these are but usually it’s sweet grass.” Near the bundle sits the open half of a scalloped seashell and next to that is a bundle of leather strings with colorful plastic beads strung through them. Across from those sits a tea candle. White paper plates litter a couple of other steps with half-eaten oranges and other fruits that have been nibbled on by foxes and raccoons. As Reed climbs to the top, she points out Nanih Waiya Creek about 50 yards away. A mile along its bed sits another mound-like structure, Nanih Waiya Cave, in a natural embankment about 215 feet long. The Choctaw occasionally leave gifts at the cave, such as herbs and medicine, explains Reed. Both mounds are sacred to the Choctaw and just like most Native American tribes, they too have a troubled history. Two legends surround the mounds at Nanih Waiya – the migration legend and the tale of “the emergence.” “I don’t consider one as true,” says Jay Wesley, director of the Department of Chahta Immi, which focuses on preserving tribal culture. “That’s the nature that I love of our history and our stories is it’s a mystery, but we understand it as a Choctaw people.” According to Wesley, the migration legend originates from when his people were located in “far off lands out west.” They followed a tribal priest or prophet on a journey to their new home. “It was told that he was given a sacred pole,” said Wesley. “And then he told the people that they had to follow. This sacred pole is put up each night in the middle of camp and it’s going to lean towards the direction the people had to go.” The tribe is said to have migrated in this way for 43 years, carrying the bones of their ancestors on their backs and walking in the direction of the pole’s lean each morning. Eventually they came upon the Mississippi River and history at this point becomes about as murky
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The entrance to the cave where, legend says, the Choctaw emerged from underground and dried themselves in the sun.
as Mississippi mud. The tribe had lost its chief and was relying on his two sons, Chahta and Chikasa, to lead. One account says the group split up when the tribe reached the Mississippi River, and the other argues that it happened later when they reached Nanih Waiya Creek, where the pole finally stood straight. Either way, Chikasa thought the pole was still leaning, so he and his followers continued north to Tupelo, where they became the Chickasaw. The followers of Chahta decided to stay and honor their ancestors in the spot where the pole stood erect. The new tribe of Choctaw decided the best way to do so was to place their bones around the area of their new home and have family members place dirt on top to create the Mother Mound. Historians speculated that the project may have lasted over three or four generations. “And it got to the point where it was a big mound,” said Wesley. “It shows how respectful they are. They made it pretty high.” About a mile away from the Mother Mound sits the Nanih Waiya Cave named for the cavern system found within. It sits along the swampy Nanih Waiya Creek bed. As the tribal biologist, Reed considers this one of her favorite places. It is a rich ecosystem full of hundreds of plants and animals. Entrance to the cave mound has technically been forbidden since 2004 when nature trails were built through the area. The metal gate guarding the way used to be locked at night, but Reed says they’ve discovered that keeping the gate unlocked minimizes the trespassing and the damage. “I don’t know what it is, but people are always more curious about a locked door,” she sighs. Reed walks around to each of the old cave entrances. All but one has been filled to prevent injuries. The remaining entrance drops down into a small cavern, home to tri-colored bats being studied by regional biologists. Reed helps with that project along with several others near the cave. She looks forward to teaching Choctaw Central High School students in an “ecosystem classroom” as part of a new summer program at the site.
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There are no gifts left at the cave mound this day, but every time she is here the mound gives something special to her. It is in these serene surroundings that she seems most at peace. “I think my favorite legend surrounding the cave mound is the one where we go in as animals and emerge as the Choctaw.” She is referring to one of the many versions of the Choctaws’ origin. According to Wesley, the emergence legend centers on the cave where multiple tribes emerged in different groups. “They have Chickasaw come out. They have Muskogee come out. They had the Seminoles. It’s just a group of people came out, dried themselves, and took off,” he explains. The “Chahta,” or Choctaw, emerged last and decided to stay near Nanih Waiya Creek. “Part of that emergence is the ground below, the other world coming out from the ground. They had a lot of different characters there,” Wesley said. Although they have possession of it now, the Choctaw have not always controlled this land. The Mother Mound was lost in the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which dispatched the main body of the Choctaw to Oklahoma. For a century, they had no tribal land in Mississippi. It wasn’t until 1973 that the area was considered a historical site by the state and it wasn’t until 2008 that the Legislature returned the sacred site to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. To mark the return, the tribe celebrates Nanih Waiya Day on the second Friday each August. The day includes a celebration at the mound, storytelling, dancing, traditional Choctaw food and a stickball tournament. They also have forever encapsulated the significance of this hallowed ground in a play they call “The Choctaw Journey.” The recording of the original performance is shown at the Choctaw fair each year, Wesley said.
Looking like a stairway to heaven, steps take visitors to the top of the 25-foot-high mound.
Wooden stairs lead to the flat top of the big, "Mother Mound" of the Choctaw.
At one time, smaller mounds containing the bones of tribal members surrounded the Mother Mound. Over time, farmers who were not Choctaw leveled these mounds and planted crops. Now, a cattle farm occupies the field next to the Mother Mound and Nanih Waiya Road cuts through maybe 10 feet from the mound itself. The Choctaw still allow visitors to walk onto or even play around the mound. Discarded pieces of cardboard litter its steep sides and slide marks can be seen, evidence of kids seeking a thrill.
Wesley hates to see people adding to the erosion of the mound. He doesn’t consider their actions disrespectful, but would prefer to preserve it from further damage. Mitzi Reed stands atop the Mother Mound and looks out across the remnants of her ancestry, a far-off look in her eye. “Sometimes I just stand up here and think, ‘If I could just see the remnants of what it used to look like’,” she says. “Maybe someday I will.”
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Players converge on a loose ball with their fast-moving sticks. They must move the ball up and down the field with sticks, but never their hands.
Clack! Whap! Thunk! So you think football is rough? Wait until you see the Choctaw play stickball.
Players scramble furiously to control the woven leather ball, or towa.
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By Tori Olker Photos by Chi Kalu
sk Choctaws about their most prized traditions, and it takes mere seconds for the conversation to turn to stickball. It’s a game that looks a little like lacrosse, yet the players will be sure to tell you it’s nothing like it. “Stickball is unique from the world’s perspective, and is such a huge part of our culture,” said Casey Bigpond, who has been playing for about 16 years. “No one else in the world plays our sport. I mean you’ve got lacrosse, but lacrosse belongs to the Northern tribes. And lacrosse has been commercialized to the point that everyone in the world plays some form of the game. No one else plays stickball,” said Bigpond. The point of stickball is to advance the ball down a football field to the other team’s goalpost using only handcrafted sticks (kabotcha), and never touching or throwing the woven leather ball (tówa) with your hands. One end of the kabotcha is bent into a cuplike shape, and leather or deer hide thongs are tied to make a pocket for the players to catch and carry the ball. Each player carries one stick in each hand. The (tówa) is made by wrapping cloth tightly around a small stone or piece of wood. Once wrapped to the desired size, leather or deer hide is woven over the cloth. Points are scored when a player hits the opposing team’s 4X4 goalpost with the eggsized ball. The post is set up in the middle of the football goal posts. “Stickball is such a big deal because very few people have seen it, and even less have heard of it,” said Bigpond. “And we get front row seats every year. Anyone can turn on the TV or YouTube and watch a game of lacrosse, but you can’t do that with stickball.” The game is played in four 15-minute quarters, and it looks every bit as rough as college football. Without pads.
Players also don’t wear helmets, and sometimes they even go barefoot. Many veterans have multiple scars that cut just above their eyes and through their eyebrows because the nearly 32-inch sticks, usually carved from concrete-hard hickory, pack a wicked lick. Clack! Thwack! Thump! It’s brutal out there. “I am scarred up on my knuckles from the sticks hitting me on the corners,” said Bigpond. “I’m missing my front tooth from one rough game. I’ve had a huge gash just below my eyebrow. A couple years ago I had a ball come right at my eye. Like right dead in the center. I didn’t get a black eye, but it was sore. I get new scars on my knees and elbows all the time from people pushing me and landing on the ground. “People get beat up out there, but it’s still fun,” he laughed. “We grow up around it here, and it’s just a way of life.” When the first Choctaw Fair was held in 1949, only a handful of teams participated. Now, anywhere from eight to 10 teams play in the single elimination tournament. Choctaw Central High School’s football stadium is usually packed for the championship game, which marks the end of the fair. “Over the years, I’ve talked to people from other countries—Germany, Ireland, Russia— and they tell me the same thing,” said Bigpond. “They tell me that they had never heard of stickball until they came here and experienced it at the fair.” Bigpond’s teams have won the championship seven times and twice been runners-up. “You can join whichever team you want,” said Bigpond, who has been on several different teams. “There aren’t tryouts. If you’re good, you’ll play. As long as you’re 18, you can play with a men’s team, otherwise you can join a younger league. One of my colleagues is like 61 years old, and he still plays with the men. He plays with the 35 and older team as well. I think I’ll be playing for a while yet.”
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TOP: As players speed after the ball, drummers keep up a steady beat to encourage both players and spectators.
BOTTOM: Choctaw children get interested in stickball at an early age. From left, J'Kadryn Bell, Chanelle Bell, Danalyn Bell, and Memorie Bell.
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Bigpond will play for Pearl River this year. Once, in the early years of the Choctaw, tribes and groups within tribes sometimes settled disputes by playing stickball against each other. Occasionally, dozens of players from each side flooded the field in a bruising, fast-moving melee. Fatalities were not unheard of. It has traditionally been played by each of the “five civilized tribes” that once dominated the Southeastern United States – Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole. Each has its own distinctive style. “Historically, they have played against each other from time to time, but not so much anymore because we are all different,” said Bigpond, who is half Choctaw and half Muscogee Creek. “The way the Choctaws play is more of
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a regulation style now—we have rules, we have time limits, we have teams, we have tournament schedules — a lot of the other tribes are adopting our rules and playing by our style. We’re in the lead,” he said. It’s not boast, just fact. Even other tribes acknowledge the Choctaws’ supremacy at stickball. “The Mississippi Choctaws are pretty dominant,” said Jeremy Wallace, a Chickasaw stomp dancer after performing at the tribe’s cultural center in Sulphur, Okla. “They’re the best.” “We play a harder game. It’s more aggressive,” said Misty Brescia Dreifuss, a Tribal spokeswoman whose 10-year-old is quickly learning to play. “Other tribes run after the ball. We can stay where we are and throw
the ball to each other (with the stick) and catch it. We can play a long while without the ball hitting the ground.” For most of the 20th century, Choctaw players wore handmade uniforms consisting of pants hemmed just below the knee and open-necked, pullover shirts. They were made in community colors and decorated with the diamond patterns found on traditional clothing. In the late 1970s, the uniforms gave way to gym shorts and team T-shirts, and many players wear headbands with the diamond design in community colors. As cultural revitalization specialist for the Department of Chahta Immi of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a job created just for Bigpond two years ago, it’s his job to make sure the tribe doesn’t lose its culture.
“Some parts of our culture are continuing, and some parts are dying out,” said Bigpond, who used be a consultant for the program. “We’ve got plenty of rabbit stick makers. We’ve got plenty of stickball makers. We’ve got plenty of cooks. We’ve got plenty of bead makers. But we need more drum makers. We need more dress makers. We need more men that know how to take care of the fire for outside cooking. We need more pottery makers. We need more bow and arrow makers,” he said. Stickball has been a part of Choctaw culture for hundreds of years, but it’s not the only tradition the tribe wants to hold onto. “I hope future generations take away a love for all parts of our culture,” said Bigpond. After all, he said, “who we are is so unique. No one else in the world does what we do.”
The battle for the ball almost appears to be a battle for the setting sun at late afternoon practice.
Dora Nickey has been making traditional Choctaw dresses for 70 years, and wearing them even longer.
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Dress Maker Dora Nickey pines for the past, a time when everyone wore colorful custom-made dresses that shouted Choctaw.
By Tori Olker Photos by Ariel Cobbert
his is a place where grandmothers make the shirts on their backs, and sew the dresses that hang in little girls’ closets. This is a place where bolts of fabric and yards of material become the colorful custom-made dresses that a girl wears in the halls at school, that she wears on Saturday nights in July, that she wears to pray in church. Or at least it used to be. “There is no one wearing Choctaw dresses every day no more,” said Dora Nickey, setting down the dress she was making. “Except me.” Nickey has been making these dresses for 70 years, and has been wearing them even longer. The traditional Choctaw dress is crafted by hand without a pattern, using the purchaser’s specific measurements. With a fitted bodice, a long, full skirt trimmed with ruffles and appliqué and an apron to match, these dresses take about three weeks to make, and can cost anywhere from $250 to more than $600. Dresses worn every day are made from a print fabric, and are shorter than dresses worn for dances. “It used to be old folks who would wear dresses like this,” Nickey said, pointing to the light pink dress she had on. “But even they quit wearing them now. All the people quit wearing the dresses. That’s all we used to wear all the time, and now young people and
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Elementary children await their turn on the dance floor at the spring festival.
At the spring festival at Tucker, young girls share a laugh before the dance.
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old people don’t wear them any more. I don’t know when that changed or why that changed, but it makes me sad. It makes me really sad.” Nickey’s mother and older sister taught her how to make a dress when she was just 15. “I made a plain dress the first time, and then put some lines and a diamond and a half-diamond on it,” said Nickey, adjusting the orange-and-black beaded barrette in her hair. “I started by sewing all the time and making lots and lots of quilts.” Choctaw dresses are usually trimmed with one of three motifs: full diamond, half-diamond or a series of circles and crosses. The diamond design represents the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, while the circles (o’s) and crosses (x’s) signify stickball sticks and ball. Although she learned young, Nickey has yet to pass down her knowledge to anyone else. “If they want to learn, I can teach them,” she said, speaking Choctaw as Trudy Jimmie, a bead-maker, translates. “But no one wants to learn.” During her life, Nickey has watched the Choctaw dress evolve from every day attire to an outfit primarily worn at the annual fair, spring festivals and American Indian Day. It is not that Dora Nickey resents those who do not wear Choctaw dresses each and every day. But in a place where women used to adorn themselves in handcrafted dresses on a day-to-day basis, Nickey cannot understand why they no longer do. “It hurts my feelings that Choctaws aren’t wearing their dresses,” she said, still speaking Choctaw. “Since we are Choctaw we are all supposed to wear Choctaw dresses. The girls used to wear them all the time, but now they don’t even wear them to church.” Surrounded by a modern world, many of the young girls have pushed their Choctaw-made clothing to the back of their closets, and, as Nickey sees it, have pushed a part of their culture to the back of their minds. Her fears about a significant slice of Choctaw culture starting to slip away are shared by other older Choctaw, who feel closer to the old ways than their children and grandchildren. It is a natural fear, and a very real dilemma for almost any ancient culture. Each generation grows up in a world vastly different from the world of their parents – and especially their grandparents. Holding onto that culture becomes more difficult – and more urgent — with the passing of time. That is just one reason the Choctaws, like a number of other tribes, have a cultural center that promotes preservation of tribal crafts and traditions. And they are succeeding. Choctaw girls, in particular, are proud to wear traditional dresses at the annual fair, spring festivals, and other special occasions. Parents pack gymnasiums to see their children perform traditional dances in Choctaw regalia. More so than in most tribes, the Mississippi Choctaw are very conscious of the need to hold onto what has been passed down by those who came before them. Nickey knows this, of course. She just pines for the way it used to be, and wishes it could be that way again, a time when the distinctive Choctaw dresses were worn every day. “I just want the young girls to learn how to make dresses, and I just wish that they would wear them every day, even when there aren’t any activities going on,” she said.
Choctaw artisans produce finely crafted baskets that retail for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. By Tori Olker Photos by Chi Kalu
nita Anderson scoots back in the cold, metal seat and looks down at her shaking hands. She moves her palms up and down her thighs a quick five or six times, but they still shake. She weaves her fingers together and places her veiny, interlocked hands on her lap. The basket maker’s hands may shake, but put swamp cane in front of her, and those same weathered hands can magically transform it into a basket worth upward of $300. The Choctaw have been making baskets since the tribe’s beginnings. Hundreds of years ago, egg baskets, hamper baskets and vegetable baskets, to name a few, were used to hold farm produce and serve other practical purposes. Today, Choctaw artisans have become known for their skill and artistry at what they call taposhshik, producing such finely crafted baskets that some retail for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Now a primary source of income for many Choctaw women, the baskets have become treasured keepsakes for other Choctaw and celebrities and tourists from around the world. Baskets sit in the offices of several key state officials and in museums around the nation, including the National Museum of the American Indian. Country music entertainer Marty Stuart, who is of Choctaw descent, has a few displayed in his home. “I don’t save any of the baskets I make,” said Anderson, tucking a small section of hair behind her ear. Strands of gray have woven their way throughout her dark, shoulderlength hair, and the pieces framing her face have turned white. “I guess I’d rather have money instead of baskets. I need money instead of baskets.”
athering river cane is the first step in making baskets, and it is often difficult because cane grows in wet, swampy areas and is increasingly hard to find. Alarmed plant scientists at Mississippi State University consider it a “critically endangered ecosystem.” With the tribe’s cooperation, they are studying the cane in hopes of finding ways to keep it around for generations to come. “My mom and I used to go out in the woods and pick some cane together,” said Anderson, smiling softly at the memory. “Just around where we could find it. Sometimes me and my daughters go after some canes together, like how I used to do with my mom. But I usually go with my sons now because they are the ones who are going to haul the canes back.” It takes all day for Anderson and her children to find swamp cane, but once they do, they usually come back loaded down with about 35 bundles. Once the cane is gathered, Choctaw basket makers use a small, sharp knife to slice the thin top layer of the cane into strips that will be used to weave the baskets. Until you see Anderson do it, it is hard to believe that so many thin layers
PREVIOUS PAGE: A colorful pile of strips, both swamp cane and synthetic, awaits its chance to be woven into a sought-after Choctaw basket.
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can be carved out of the same narrow stalk. Like other Native Americans, Choctaw women in the old days used materials found in nature to dye their cane strips. No longer relying on berries, flowers, roots or bark to color the cane, they now use commercial dyes because of their durability and wide range of colors. Anderson may not keep any of her baskets, but she sure remembers one in particular. “I’m most proud of an Easter basket I made a few years ago,” Anderson said, looking around at the colorful baskets hanging on the wall in the tribe’s cultural affairs office. “It was square, and it was blue and black, and I guess I just really liked the shape and colors of it. I sold it for $35. I wish I knew who bought it.” Anderson didn’t learn the art of basketry until she was in her 30s. Since then, she makes two or three baskets each weekend if she has the cane. She sells about three or four baskets a week. “I wasn’t trying to learn until later on,” said Anderson. “Partly because I always had to take care of my little brothers and sisters while my mom went after some cane, and also because I didn’t hardly understand about these
ABOVE: Rosie Joe uses a sharp knife to cut fine strips from a stalk of swamp cane. They will be soaked in water before being woven into a treasured keepsake.
cultures when I was growing up. I understand now. When my mom was teaching me how to pick cane and weave baskets it made me understand how proud I am to be Choctaw. The way we can show our culture and share our culture with others, I’m proud of it.” The stamp of the creator shows on every basket, as do the techniques that her mother taught her, that her grandmother taught her mother, that her greatgrandmother taught her grandmother. For these Choctaw women, the money they make is important, but the memories they have from passing down the art from family member to family member is an irreplaceable piece of tribal history, and an irreplaceable piece of who they are. “I know my mom would be proud of me,” and here Anita Anderson pauses for several seconds, “for continuing to make baskets.” Tears slowly fall from her brown eyes. She opens and closes her mouth but is unable to speak. A shaking pointer finger wipes away a tear that has traced a fine line on her face. “She’s gone. I… I … I miss her. I want her to come home. I love you, Mom. I want to make one more basket with you.”
As others weave new baskets, this finished product is ready for sale. For some Choctaw women, they have been a primary source of income.
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Generous Bead-Maker Trudy Jimmie sells beadwork. Sometimes, she even gives it away.
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By Tori Olker
rudy Jimmie is a bead-maker, and a treasure of selflessness in today’s intensely commercial society. “Sometimes I give the jewelry to people when I finish,” said Jimmie, a smile on her lips and a glow in her eyes. “I give it to them for free. People ask me, ‘Trudy, why don’t you sell it to them?’ I tell them that I don’t know, it’s just me.” While other traditional Choctaw bead makers may sell silver collar necklaces for prices of $75 and more, Jimmie says she usually sells hers for around $50. “Each individual design is different, and can sell for different prices,” said Jimmie. “I don’t want to sell my stuff for too high, because some of them are struggling. Most of us are struggling, and that’s why I don’t mind giving my jewelry to people for free.” Choctaw bead making techniques and
designs have been nurtured and handed down by members of the tribe since its earliest days. To this day, the beaded dresses for women and belts for men are some of the most distinctive traditional clothes of any Native American tribe. Jimmie learned to make decorative beadwork when she was 15, a time when beads were hard to come by. Beads cost money. So Jimmie learned by watching. “I saw my oldest sister doing it, and I would sit there and watch her,” said Jimmie. “It was hard to get beads back then because my parents were sharecroppers, so we barely got to make it, but we were doing OK. It was just so hard to pay for the beads.” Even today, Jimmie struggles to find extra money to put toward her craft. “The beads we get in town at Fashions & Fabric are getting really expensive,” she said,
holding up a small plastic bag of beads with a $3.35 price sticker. “The prices are going up, so it’s difficult to buy everything. I can’t buy the beads unless I save for them. I always have to save for what I want before I can buy it.” Choctaw beadwork requires a lot of hard work, time and patience. A beadwork set for women often consists of a belt, medallion, collar necklaces, earrings, ribbon lapel pins, and a handkerchief lapel pin. And that’s for just one outfit. Many women also wear round combs with their traditional Choctaw dresses. The combs are placed like a headband or positioned on the crown of the head. “If we make a whole bead set, — like medallion, collar necklace, silver collar necklace, belt, earrings, — some of them sell it for like $300,” said Jimmie, shaking her
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Trudy Jimmie learned the art by watching her sister do it. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
Sometimes, Trudy Jimmie says, she gives her beadwork away for free. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT PREVIOUS PAGE: The tribal seal and other traditional beadwork on display at the Tucker spring festival. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
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head. “If they really wanted to, they could sell it cheaper, somewhere around $150. I just think even that’s too high.” Jimmie can look at a blurry picture someone has brought her and replicate the same design with her beadwork. After a glance at the image, her fingers fly smoothly and steadily until the piece of jewelry is exactly what the customer wanted. “I really just love making jewelry,” she said. “It relaxes my mind. If I’ve got a lot of things on my mind, or if my head hurts, once I start beading my headache is gone.” Jimmie works as the education/outreach coordinator for the tribe’s Cultural Affairs Office, and sells her beads on the side as a way to make extra cash. The program sets up workshops in each of the seven communities, and teaches people how to make medallions, collar necklaces and earrings, as well as shirts and dresses. “Some of the kids don’t know how to make a dress, or a shirt, or a bead set,” said Jimmie, pointing to a half-finished red, black, white and yellow medallion on the table in front of her. “Some of the parents don’t know how to do it, either. So we teach them. Sometimes it’s hard to get people to come to the workshops, and we don’t want our traditions to go down. We want them to rise up. We don’t want to lose our traditions.” Jimmie has six children, but only one who can do beadwork. “I told them they need to learn, but they don’t want to,” Jimmie said. “Except one of my daughters, she can do earring, medallion and apron for the stickball players. I don’t know why the rest of my children don’t want to learn, but I think they will want to eventually. I tell them, ‘If you don’t learn, it’s going to be y’all’s fault, it’s not going to be on me.’ I’m not going to push them, but I want for them to learn.” Like most Choctaw artisans, Jimmie feels strongly about handing down what she knows to future generations. Beadwork, after all, has been a part of the tribe’s identity for hundreds of years, part of what it means to be Choctaw. “I am full-blooded Choctaw, and I am proud of it,” said Jimmie, making eye contact with Dora Nickey, a dress maker. “I want to share this craft with anyone and everyone who wants to learn, because when I’m gone, I want somebody to carry on. Nowadays, it seems like people don’t want to share. “Some don’t care about continuing on with our traditions, and it makes me sad. It makes me really upset. Like my momma said, ‘What we know, we need to share. Because when we die, we take it with us. And then it’s gone forever.”
Huntingthe Old-Fashioned Way
The Choctaw know you donâ€™t need a gun to kill a rabbit. All you need is a stick. By Tori Olker Photos Courtesy of Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians
Killing a rabbit with a stick is difficult, but this Choctaw hunter got it done.
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Choctaw boys hot on a rabbit's trail.
he dogs are released, and Choctaw hunters of all ages slip stealthily into the woods. Keeping their eyes peeled for any sign of a rabbit, they push on through branches and tall grass, through mud and tight squeezes, ready to pounce. At the first spotting of a rabbit, no guns are fired, no arrows loosed. Instead, a hunter throws a thick stick, hoping to make solid contact and score a knockout. If not, the chase is on. The goal of rabbit stick hunting is to be skilled enough to knock out or kill the rabbit with a forcefully thrown stick. It is not an easy task. “This is the way we kill them. This is the hunt,” said Stacey Billy, holding a stick he just finished carving. “Rabbits are very challenging to hit, but you can kill them on impact if you hit them with enough force.” Rabbit sticks are carved out of hickory and are around 18 inches long. “To make them, you need a straight piece of wood, and you can just go at it with a knife if you want to,” said Billy. “But there are ways to work smarter. Instead of just trying to use your arm, you can use a draw blade, like what they use to make stickball sticks, and work the wood all the way down.” A handle is carved into the stick so that the top 5 inches or so resembles a club, and is wider and denser than the lower part of the stick. “It’s weighted forward; it’s weighted at the top. Right here, kind of like a baseball bat,” said Billy, pointing to the top of his stick. “If you side-arm the stick, it carries the momentum toward the rabbit, and it really whips it around. Throwing it side-arm gives you more area to hit, and the best chance of contact and kill.” Hunters generally carry one stick in each hand so that if they miss they can “reload” quickly and fire again. “If you keep the sticks out of the wet, they can last years,” said Billy. “But it’s not uncommon for someone to lose a stick while hunting. Rabbit hunting is not in a wide-open field. You’re walking through briars and brushes. If you throw it and it winds up in a bushy area, you’ll probably lose it. That’s why it’s good to carry more than one.” Advice to the novice rabbit hunter: “The rabbits run through briars and you have to dress appropriately. Rabbits definitely do not run through the most perfect places, so it’s good to wear boots and clothing that you won’t get scraped up in. Even if your boots are
waterproof, they’re going to get mud on them, and your 3-pound boot is going to go to 5 pounds.” The closer the hunters are to the rabbit the better chance of a kill, but they can kill the animal from as far as they can throw, Billy says. “If you don’t hit them right, even with guns, they are going to suffer a little,” said Billy. “But we aren’t just going out there for fun. We are going out there with a purpose. We are going out there to get our food. We eat the rabbit.” They eat everything but the head. “I can eat rabbit, but it’s not like, ‘Oh man, I wish I could have rabbit right now,’” said Billy. “It’s definitely not like that. If I was to rate the taste on a scale of 1 to 5, I’d give it a 3. There are different ways to cook it that make it taste better and taste different, and I’ve learned that cooking it outside over the fire gives it a nice smoky flavor.” The Choctaw are careful to follow Mississippi wildlife and hunting regulations. They were able to hunt from Oct. 17, 2015 until February 28, 2016, with a daily bag limit of 8 rabbits per person, a total not likely to be reached. “I’ve been hunting deer and squirrels all my life, but I’ve only been hunting rabbit for about three years and been seriously making rabbit sticks for about a year,” Billy said. “I saw community members go out and hunt, and I wanted the full experience. I wanted to make my own sticks, and then go out and hunt with them.” The hunts usually start around 7 or 8 a.m. and then break around lunch time. Sometimes they go back out after lunch, depending on how many dogs they have available. “There’s such a camaraderie in rabbit stick hunting,” said Billy. “People laugh at each other when they’re out there, and just spend good, quality time with each other. And, it’s such good exercise. We walk for about four or five hours, sometimes more.” For the Choctaw, rabbit stick hunting is a primitive and long-standing tradition, an experience that brings people of all ages together. But it’s about more than chasing rabbits and getting muddy. It’s about sharing laughs and memories with friends and family outdoors. It’s about sharing knowledge with younger members, and teaching them how to throw and carve a stick. And, it’s about sharing a freshly caught meal. If they’re lucky.
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Traditional Choctaw dishes were once prepared outside over a roaring fire.
Banaha, a mixture of peas and cornmeal, is served in corn shucks.
Fry Bread, fresh from the fryer, is still a favorite dish.
1 pound dry peas (black-eyed or speckled) 5 cups of corn meal (plain) 8 corn husks to use as wrappers
Soak the peas overnight, then drain and cook until tender. Use a little juice from the peas to moisten the corn meal. Mix the corn meal and cooked peas together and roll the mixture into balls about the size of an orange. Flatten the balls, place in the corn shuck. Drop in boiling water and cook for about 45 minutes.
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FRY BREAD 3 cups of self-rising flour 1 cup of whole milk
Sift the flour and baking powder together in a bowl. Make a hole in the center of the flour and pour in milk. Stir into a smooth balls. Knead on floured board for about 3 minutes. Cut off small pieces and stretch out flat (like a small thin pancake). Drop into hot deep fat and fry until golden brown.
A Sampling of Recipes for Traditional Choctaw Dishes Recipes compiled by Tori Olker Photos by Ariel Cobbert
(cooked in a big black pot) (cooked in a crock pot/ 1 gallon of prepared corn (hulled corn kernels) slow cooker) 1 whole chicken
The traditional way to cook hominy is outside in a big black pot over an open fire. Gallons of water are added till the pot is half full. Boil the water and then add the prepared corn and 1 whole chicken. Allow it to boil for at least 1 hour and then take the chicken out to de-bone. Once the bones are removed, put the chicken meats back into the pot. Stir frequently to keep the corn from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Let it boil slowly for about 2 hours. When the hominy is done, season it with salt to taste. This recipe serves about 60 people.
2 cups of prepared corn (hulled corn kernels)
2 large de-boned chicken breasts Put two cups of prepared corn in a small crock pot (3 to 3 ½ for a large pot). Fill the pot with water up to 2 ½ inches from the rim. Add meat 2 large, de-boned chicken breasts (3 large for large pot). Add salt to taste. Put on “high” for 4-5 hours to cook and “low” for 7-8 hours to cook. This recipe serves about a family of 6 to 8 people.
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Life on the
Reservation This young dancer is watching every move at the spring festival. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
Bracing for the next dance. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
Seniors Montel Jordan and Billy Johnson enjoy a game of washers. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
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As a packed gymnasium looks on, children are poised to show off how well they can perform. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
Alex Permas and Hayden Farmer, both 16, cuddle. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT
Chief Phyliss Anderson fans herself while enjoying opening festivities at the Choctaw Fair. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
Emily Shoemake crowns Breanna Isaacs, the new Choctaw Princess. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
The Lady Warriors hold hands and pray before going into diamond combat. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
The Lady Warriors get ready to take the field against Neshoba Central at the Warriors' home field. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
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Waiting for St. Patrick's Day festivities to get underway inside the senior center. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
Daniel Billy fires another washer at the target. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
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Corrina Bear, from left, Daryl Lee Hickman and Larry Bell entertain each other on a pleasant day. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
Larry Bell holds a palm full of washers. The game of washers is popular at the Senior Center. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
Choctaw youth are caught up in the same digital craze that has swept youth throughout America. Here, from left, Tiger Briscoe, 16, and Jaydon Dixon, 17, compare cell phone images. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
Joshua Isaac, 15, winds up on the floor trying to guard Keyunte Fuller. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
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Word Warrior By Slade Rand
hen Gen. Andrew Jackson was trying to coax the Choctaw into signing a treaty that would designate land in Oklahoma as their new home, Chief Pushmataha protested that the land was not fertile and white settlers were already living there. Jackson imperiously drew himself up to full height and thundered, “I wish you to understand that I am Andrew Jackson, and by the Eternal, you shall sign the treaty as I have prepared it.” Not at all intimidated, Pushmataha shot to his feet, mimicked Jackson’s stance, and fired back in kind. “I know very well who you are,” countered the chief. “But I wish you to understand that I am Pushmataha, head chief of the Choctaw, and by the Eternal, I will not sign that treaty.” This was typical Pushmataha, renowned for his skills in both physical combat and diplomacy, the war of words. Gideon Lincecum, who traded and hunted with the Choctaw in the early 1800s and penned an early history of the tribe, wrote that a young Pushmataha first drew attention during a bear hunt. He killed more game and returned with more skins than any other hunter. Lincecum wrote that no one seemed to know where he came from, much less his name, and they dubbed him Ishtilauata (to brag or boast), poking fun at his unbridled confidence. After a successful raid, Pushmataha supposedly declared, “The day will come when you shall all know me. You call me Ishtilauata now. I shall return that name upon the head of those who gave it, and they shall brag then not of their own deeds of daring, but of mine.” In 1800, Pushmataha became chief of the “Six Towns” district in South Mississippi. His skill with words proved crucial in treaty negotiations with the U.S. government and in dealings with other tribes.
Historians record how in 1811 the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh came to Mississippi seeking recruits for his British-backed plan to eject white settlers from Indian lands. He spoke to a large Choctaw gathering and tried to persuade them to join him. But Pushmataha confronted him, arguing that the tribe had always been friendly with the Americans. He vowed to fight those, including Tecumseh, who fought against the U.S. The Choctaw voted against joining Tecumseh’s revolt. When war with England broke out in 1812, Pushmataha led a band of Choctaw warriors to fight with U.S. forces and opposed the Creeks’ alliance with the British. After a victory against the Creeks at the Battle of the Holy Ground, the Choctaw and U.S. forces gained momentum. Then in 1814, Pushmataha and his men joined Jackson’s soldiers in clearing the Creeks out of northern Florida. Upon his return from the war, Pushmataha was named principal chief of the Choctaw. Smithsonian contributor and anthropologist John Swanton called Pushmataha “the greatest of all Choctaw chiefs” in 1931. Writers often describe Pushmataha’s poise, strength, and oratorical prowess. Others are quick to point out that other chiefs possessed many of the same skills and that Pushmataha benefited from coming along at a time when people were beginning to record the tribe’s history. It was his misfortune to rule at the precise moment when the Choctaw empire was threatened by the emergence of an ambitious, land-grabbing, cottonhungry America. The new nation needed land and an expanding economy, and the millions of acres of Choctaw territory were far too tempting. As thousands of white settlers poured onto Choctaw land, the federal government increasingly pressed the tribe to give up more and more of its
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land. In 1805, the Choctaw signed the Treaty of Mount Dexter, ceding more than 4 million acres and opening the door for four more similar treaties over the next 25 years. Pushmataha pushed back but inevitably, he wound up signing treaties ceding the tribe’s entire Mississippi territory. The main body of the tribe moved to Oklahoma. But not without a struggle. When the government refused to evict white settlers from what was supposed to be Choctaw land out west, an angry Pushmataha led a delegation of Choctaw leaders to Washington, D.C. He wanted to see the president. In 1824, Pushmataha met with President James Monroe and made an eloquent plea to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. He appealed to the government’s honor, stressing the tribe's long and peaceful allegiance to the United States.
“When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me.” “I have been here at the council-house for some time, but I have not talked. I have not been strong enough to talk. You shall hear me talk today,” began Pushmataha in his address to Calhoun, as reported in the newspapers of the day. “… My nation has always listened to the applications of the white people. They have given of their country ’til it is very small. I came here, when a young man, to see my Father (President Thomas) Jefferson. He told me, if ever we got in trouble, we must run and tell him. I am come.” Pushmataha did not live to see the effect of his oration. In December 1824, while still in the nation’s capital, Pushmataha caught croup, a powerful respiratory infection. He knew he was going to die. Jackson visited him on his deathbed. On Dec. 24, the Chief had one final request. “When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me.” His last request was granted. Pushmataha was buried in the congressional cemetery with full military honors and a 21-gun salute. His last words and his burial reflect his role as a traditional chief forced to balance his traditional ways with the changes buffeting his people. Pushmataha incorporated new American developments such as the cotton gin and improved farming practices into his nation’s daily life. “The absorbing ambition of Pushmataha was that his people might become the equal of the whites in education and civilization and take their place beside the white man in a business way,” said Oklahoma Sen. Charles Carter at a memorial service for Pushmataha in 1921.
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Jay Wesley, director of the department of Chahta Immi for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, acknowledged Pushmataha’s leadership and skill, but pointed out that those were the typical traits of a Choctaw chief. “[Pushmataha] was there at a time of people writing down his accounts,” Wesley explained. “Him, his power, his organization, was a norm for us but the timing of the Europeans documenting everything set him apart.” Still, Wesley said Pushmataha was a great orator who stuck up for his people. He believes the Choctaw must preserve their culture and extoll great leaders like Pushmataha. Ole Miss historian and ethnographer Robbie
Ethridge agreed that Pushmataha benefited from the Europeans’ tenacity in writing everything down. She said histories rarely mention early Indians by name, with the exception of Pushmataha. “He ends up in the documents a lot, gets remembered, because he was the spokesman,” said Ethridge. Nonetheless, Pushmataha’s eloquence made him one of the most charismatic and efficient of Southeastern Indian leaders. His way with words was unmatched in his time. Even the words on his gravestone offer a sense of what set him apart. “Push-ma-ta-ha was a warrior of great distinction, he was wise in council – eloquent in an extraordinary degree, and on all occasions & under all circumstances the white man’s friend.”
ABOVE: This map shows the progression of treaties that cost the Choctaw their lands in Mississippi and eventually moved them to Oklahoma. COPY PHOTO COVER PHOTO: Chief Pushmataha, shown here in Charles King Bird's famous portrait, was known for his oratorical prowess.
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The Chief Who
Ran for Congress
Mushulatubbee was a Choctaw chief at a critical time of transition.
A traditionalist, Mushulatubbee embraced change when necessary. By Mrudvi Bakshi
n 1819, when a handful of students assembled for their first day of classes in the very first Choctaw school, teachers were impressed by the sight of old Chief Mushulatubbee bringing his two sons and nephew into the schoolhouse. With obvious pride, the chief addressed all 50 students across 9 classrooms. “When I was young, such a thing was not known here. I have heard of it but never expected to see it. You must be obedient to teachers and learn all you can. I hope I shall live to see my council filled with boys who are now in school and that you will know much more than we know, and do much better than we do.” Today his challenge hangs in a place of honor in the Choctaw Tribal Schools administration building on the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians reservation. Much of Mushulatubbee’s life is shrouded in the fog of early Mississippi Valley history. But the Choctaw remember him as the last of the great Mississippi minkos (chiefs) who led the northeastern division of the Choctaw Nation during an era of frantic change brought on by accelerating encroachment by citizens of the new American nation. With much of the rest of the tribe, he eventually moved westward into exile across the Mississippi River and died in Arkansas. Mushulatubbee was known as a traditionalist who opposed missionaries and disruptive changes to the tribe’s customary way of life. But when he realized change would benefit his tribe, he was willing to embrace it with open arms, as he did at the schoolhouse. Much of what historians know about him is
contained in historical records, journals and newspaper accounts of the time, some of which have proven to be of dubious accuracy. Gideon Lincecum, who resided 18 miles from Mushulatubbee’s Mississippi home and frequently hosted him, wrote prolifically about the Choctaw. He described the 18th century chief as having a lively, cheerful disposition. But it is clear that he often thrived in the roughand-tumble politics that went with being a district chief. After Pushmataha, he is often considered to be one of the most influential Choctaw leaders of the era that ended with the tribe’s removal. During his time as chief, he signed a succession of treaties that ceded millions of acres to the new, more powerful United States of America. Historian Greg O’Brien, in his study of Choctaw removal, recounts how Mushulatubbee earned a reputation as a fierce warrior during frequent skirmishes with Osage and Caddo Indians west of the Mississippi, where Choctaws had gone in search of deer after nearly depleting the deer population around their Mississippi base. His stature and influence grew after he led a band of warriors to help the American army quench a Creek uprising and after his unflinching bravery alongside Gen. Andrew Jackson at the critical Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Having made his name as a warrior, he prospered as a farmer and slave owner, raising cattle, hogs and horses on the rapidly developing Mississippi frontier. In 1830, the year Congress passed the Indian Removal Act that sealed the tribe’s fate, he even ran for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully. Choctaw Nation Part II
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His announcement ran in the Port Gibson Correspondent on July 15. Addressed to “fellow citizens,” it said, “I have fought for you, I have been by your own act, made a citizen of your state. … According to your laws, I am an American citizen … I have always battled on the side of the republic … I have been told by my white brethren, that the pen of history is impartial, and that in after years, our forlorn kindred will have justice and ‘mercy, too.’” In 1824, when the Choctaw discovered that white squatters already lived on the land the government wanted to send them to in Oklahoma, Mushulatubbee and other Choctaw leaders, including Chiefs Pushmataha and Appuckshunubbee, traveled to Washington to complain to President James Monroe and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. The trip ended in failure with the delegation returning disheartened, unable to stem the tide of white settlers and having lost both Appuckshunubbee and Pushmataha to death, thus roiling the tribe's leadership at a critical moment when forces were moving to push them out of their homeland. This movement would eventually send them down the infamous “Trail of Tears.” An imposing speaker, Mushulatubbee once encountered the Marquis de Lafayette at Congress and was not at a loss for words. “You are one of our fathers that fought in the War with Gen. George Washington. We take you here by the hand as a friend and a father. We have always walked in the white paths of peace; and in those paths we have traveled to visit you. We offer you pure hands, which have never been stained with the blood of Americans… We live in the south, where the sun shines hot upon us. We have been neighbors to the French, neighbors to the Spaniards, and neighbors to the English. But now our only neighbors are the Americans, in the midst of whom we live as friends and brothers,” the chief said, as reported in newspapers of the day.
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“He was tribal minko during that pre- and postRemoval transitional period which witnessed rampant factionalism within the tribe, often pitting pure blood, traditionalists against mixed blood, progressives who merely through their blended ancestry claimed to better navigate a changing landscape that would be dominated by white Americans,” said Tupelo attorney Brad Prewitt, a direct descendant who recently visited Mushulatubbee’s purported final resting place in Latham, Okla., near Fort Smith, Ark. Leader of the full-bloods, the chief stood against rival mixed blood leaders David Folsom and Greenwood Leflore, who attempted to replace traditional Choctaw notions of culture and inheritance, arousing conflicts between the two sides and almost leading to civil war within the tribe. But the toughest major decision Mushulatubbee ever made turned out to be his last — the reluctant decision to sign the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which preceded the tribe’s long march to its new home in Oklahoma. He and other chiefs didn’t want to leave but, threatened by then-President Jackson’s forces and squeezed by a new state legislature that wanted them gone, they had little option. So Mushulatubbee went westward with the dispirited tribe. It was there, in what is now Arkansas, that he met his end. It is no small irony that his death was reportedly due to smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans and one against which Native Americans had no natural immunities. “No doubt the choices he made for himself and his clan were made carefully, with whatever measure of wisdom he possessed, and at times with great anguish,” Maxine W. Barker wrote in The Third Arrow: A Story of Mushulatubbee, Choctaw Chief. “But ultimately those choices made for his people were those of peace, not bloodshed.”
Chiefof Controversy Was Greenwood Leflore a traitor or a savvy negotiator? By Mitchell Dowden
he only visible remnants of the empire built by wealthy Choctaw chief Greenwood Leflore are the steps to what was once Malmaison, his palatial mansion in Carroll County. It burned down in 1942, but among his people, Leflore’s image was charred long before. Leflore negotiated and signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 that forced the tribe to give up its last 10.4 million acres and abandon its Mississippi homeland for a new home in Indian Country, in what is now Oklahoma. As a result, even today, most Choctaw consider Leflore a traitor. “The overall sentiment on Greenwood Leflore is that he betrayed his own people and agreed to the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek when the majority of the tribe opposed it. He betrayed his own people and benefitted from it,” said Jay Wesley, director of Chahta Immi, the cultural preservation agency for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Not long before treaty negotiations began, the tribe elected Leflore its principal chief, a new position. The tribe, perhaps 20,000 strong at that point, trusted him to negotiate the best deal available. When they
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realized they would have to move, Leflore began to get death threats. The knowledge that the treaty also gave Leflore 1,000 acres in Mississippi and a small annuity didn’t help his image with the tribe at large. When the main body of the tribe left on the “Trail of Tears,” the first of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Southeast to be removed, the chief stayed behind in Mississippi, quickly becoming a wealthy cotton planter, owner of 15,000 acres and 400 slaves. His 20,000-square-foot colonial style mansion, Malmaison, could comfortably host 200 guests at a time. Built in 1855 in the hills 11 miles above Greenwood, Malmaison was named after the Empress Josephine’s retreat near Paris. It was lavishly decorated with the finest of imported French furnishings, including Louis XIV furniture — mahogany finished in genuine gold and upholstered in crimson silk damask. The window shades were oil paintings on canvas and depicted Versailles, Fontainebleau, St. Cloud and Malmaison. A story in The Greenwood Commonwealth from 1942 reported that the Duchess of Orleans had tried to buy the same set of furniture before it left for America, but had to order a duplicate set after failing to secure it. Despite lingering Choctaw antagonism toward Leflore, Wesley said the chief probably had little choice but to sign the treaty. Congress, at the behest of President Andrew Jackson, had passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and Jackson had sent his Secretary of War, John Eaton, to help negotiate the treaty, which he saw as settling the terms of the tribe’s departure. The message was clear: sign this or face the consequences. The tribe could never have fended off the full force of the U.S. military. Resistance was futile. As Wesley explained it, “Greenwood Leflore understood the tribe basically had a gun to its head and it was going to shoot, by us being removed one way or another. Either we forcibly go or we’re going to pull the trigger ourselves.”
ABOVE: The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek removed the main body of the Choctaw to Oklahoma. PHOTO FROM THE CHOCTAW CULTURAL CENTER PREVIOUS PAGE: After negotiating the tribe's exit to Oklahoma, Greenwood Leflore became a prosperous planter and a member of the Mississippi Legislature. PHOTO FROM THE CHOCTAW CULTURAL CENTER
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Florence Rebecca Ray, Leflore’s great granddaughter, argues in her book “Chieftain Greenwood Leflore and the Choctaw Indians of the Mississippi Valley” that he made the best deal possible. Leflore got the tribe the most suitable and fertile land available. He also succeeded in adding a provision to the treaty — Article XIV — that allowed members of the tribe to stay in Mississippi and be given an allotment of 640 acres if within six months they registered their intention to become U.S. citizens. The government broke that promise as it broke many others. The Indian agent assigned to register the Choctaw refused to cooperate. Only a handful of those who stayed in Mississippi ever got their land. As for Leflore, he had said he would accompany the Choctaw to Oklahoma. But after a rash of death threats and complaints, he decided to stay in Mississippi. In time, both Greenwood and Leflore County were named for him. A confidant of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, Leflore nonetheless opposed secession, openly supported the Union and had his casket wrapped and buried with an American flag. Friends reported that when Confederate officers stopped by Malmaison to visit during the war, he required them to take off their uniform and wear civilian clothes. Leflore was the son of a French fur trader, Louie LeFleur, and a daughter of the powerful Choctaw chief Pushmataha. Due to the Choctaw matrilineal heritage, he was born into elite status within the tribe. Educated in Nashville at an American school where he learned English and government, the tribe would often seek his skills to deal with the encroaching white population and the federal government. At age 24, he succeeded Pushmataha. He was also an American citizen, and encouraged education, Christianity and agriculture among the Choctaw. In the years immediately after Dancing Rabbit Creek, as most of the Choctaw were trying to rebuild
their lives in a new land, Leflore was busy building a comfortable life as a popular Southern gentleman and politician. In the 1840s, he served two terms in the Mississippi House of Representatives from Carroll County and one term as a state senator. His biggest splash in the Legislature came when a few senators started to sprinkle their speeches with Latin phrases to impress the rest of the chamber. Over time, this became more prevalent until one lawmaker gave an entire speech in Latin. Leflore, irritated by what he considered an obvious waste of time and an egregious impediment to the flow of legislation, decided to take a stand. He gave a speech entirely in Choctaw. The discourse in his native tongue lasted an hour and he ignored the entreaties of colleagues to be done. He finished with these words in English, “My friends, which speech was better understood, the gentleman’s which was in Latin, or my speech, which was given in Choctaw?” And so ended the extravagant and impractical speeches in dead languages in the Mississippi Senate. In the 1990s there was a brief flurry of interest among the Choctaw to do something with the Leflore property. An attorney in Greenwood, Lee Abraham, had long dreamed of rebuilding Leflore’s famed home. He tipped off then-Chief Phillip Martin that the land was for sale. The old chief’s grave with its 12-foot-high tombstone still sits nearby, just over a hill from where Malmaison used to be. Newspapers reported the tribe’s purchase of the property and there was talk of rebuilding the house as a Choctaw museum. But after Martin lost his bid for reelection in 2007, the project languished. Today, the front steps are all that is left of Malmaison, bearing mute testimony to the rise and fall of the last of the 19th century Mississippi Choctaw chiefs, a man who, rightly or wrongly, is still resented by many of his own people.
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Ole Miss’ first Choctaw softball player has become one of the nation’s best. By Tori Olker Photos by Chi Kalu
he Rebel softball team is down by one in the fifth inning. A runner on second. Freshman shortstop Hailey Lunderman, Ole Miss’s first Choctaw softball player, slaps an RBI single to left field, tying the score at 2-2 and giving the Rebels the momentum they need to beat Eastern Illinois, 4-2. It is just one example of what Lunderman did best in her first season at Ole Miss — deliver in the clutch, whether at the plate or at shortstop. It played a key role in getting the team to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. And it’s made her a hometown hero back on the reservation, a role model for Choctaw youth. But don’t worry about her getting a big head. Those who know her describe her as a quiet leader who goes about her business like a professional, someone head coach Mike Smith says has a “champion mentality.” “What makes Lunderman so valuable is that she is a consummate student of the game, and that she loves to learn and get better,” said Smith. “She learns more and more about the game each day. If every player could do this, they would become very successful. But it’s an internal thing that you have to want to do on your own. It can’t be forced. Hailey wants to be the best player in the SEC at her position and as a hitter.” Lunderman’s .371 batting average in the regular season was the team's best and one of the 10 best in school history. It helped her make the All-SEC Freshman team and made her a finalist for National Freshman of the Year. But there were other glittering statistics as well. She was the toughest player in the SEC to strike out, whiffing only 9 times all season. She stole 19 bases in 23 attempts and
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TOP: Waiting in the on deck circle, Lunderman eyes the opposing pitcher. BOTTOM: Lunderman's pre-game smile masks the intensity with which she plays the game. PREVIOUS PAGE: Freshman sensation Hailey Lunderman digs in to try to steal another base. She stole 19 bases out of 23 attempts.
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recorded 23 multi-hit games. She knocked in 17 runs. And she led the team in hits, doubles, total bases, games played and plate appearances. Not bad for a freshman. Not bad for anyone. “I’m honestly surprised that I’m doing so well,” Lunderman said. “In high school, I batted like .500 or .600, and I told myself that I probably wouldn’t bat that when I came to college, but I’m still right up there. I can’t believe it.” Trae Embry, Lunderman’s high school coach at Neshoba Central High, can definitely believe it. He had nothing but good things to say about her. “She brought the athletic ability, great knowledge of the game and was a good leader for us,” said Embry. “She wasn’t a vocal leader, but she led by example. As a player, she was the best around. She showed up early to work, she always played real hard, and she wanted to be the best. She’s kind of reserved, very humble and just does her own thing. That’s Hailey.” In the short time she’s been at Ole Miss, Lunderman has made the same impression upon her current coaches and teammates. Her character on and off the field hasn’t gone unnoticed. “She goes about her business with a quiet confidence,” said Smith. “She believes in herself and this translates into success on the field. As a person, she’s very quiet and has a good personality. She is liked by all
her teammates. When Hailey talks or makes a comment, it’s usually something very important, and worthwhile for everyone to perk their ears up and listen.” For Lunderman, it’s always been about sports. But at one point, she had to make a decision about which game she was going to take to the next level: softball or basketball. “I used to play basketball and softball, and I feel that if I would have stuck with basketball I still could have played in college,” said Lunderman. “But when I was about 12 years old, I saw how far advanced I was with softball compared to other people my age, and my dad told me I would probably have to make a decision between softball and basketball. I chose softball.” Ole Miss is lucky she did. One hundred and thirty miles away, Lunderman’s fellow tribal members in Philadelphia could not be more proud of their fellow Choctaw. “The tribe has been very supportive of my success here,” said Lunderman. “I get on Facebook and I’m just overflowed with comments and likes and positive notes. I guess it’s just because we’ve never had anyone do what I’m doing. We’ve never had anyone play at Ole Miss. It really is a huge thing for the tribe. Everyone is so proud.” Right now, Lunderman wants to be a physical therapist but she says that might change later. “I might come back and live on the reservation when I’m older. I’d like to better it. I’d like to make the education better. And I’d like to be a mentor to the young,” she said. Lunderman hopes that she’s able to inspire Choctaw youth to pursue their dreams just like she pursued hers. “I know I’m different from everyone else, being half Choctaw and half Sioux,” said Lunderman. “You don’t see a lot of Native Americans come to college and play Division 1 and do really, really well,” she said. “I really just want to show the younger ones that I lived on the reservation and I got myself here, and that they can too. Me being successful like I am right now, I think it’s really opening their eyes to opportunity.”
Give Me That Mainstream Religion On Sundays, you might just hear a prayer or a hymn sung in Choctaw.
By Josie Slaughter
orget shamans, medicine men, and the “little people” that are supposed to haunt the forests. Today’s Choctaw worship Jesus. They go to church on Sundays. They are Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Mennonites, and other denominations. The Choctaw turned from their ancient spiritual traditions long ago and are now predominately a Baptist society. They not only have the same beliefs, but their churches face the same problems that the country’s mainstream churches face. As is the case with many churches across the country, attendance is flat. “I’ve always said that the church is really not increasing Choctaw Nation Part II
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ABOVE: New Blackjack Baptist Church is one of 13 Baptist churches that serve the Choctaw reservation. PHOTO BY CHI KALU FAR RIGHT: Weathered hands hold a Bible open to the story of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush. PHOTO BY ARIEL COBBERT PREVIOUS PAGE: The parking lot at Spirit of Life Christian Center is nearly full on Wednesday night when the youth gather. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
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anywhere because a lot of people are church hopping. There’s really not new people,” says Thomas Ben, pastor of the nondenominational Spirit of Life Church. As in much of America, alcoholism and drug use are a consistent problem. Daniel Tubby, who pastors three Choctaw churches for the United Methodist Church, said he tries to explain to those struggling with addiction that there is a higher power available to help them. He says that the challenge for churches is getting people to understand that. Charles Doby Henry, the association mission director of the New Choctaw Baptist Association, says that the Baptist churches usually have prayer services that encourage those struggling with alcoholism. The Spirit of Life Church holds conferences and seminars for those who need help as well. “For the most part, just mainly dealing with them, addressing the situation and providing the answers they need by way of seminars, conferences, one-on-one counseling that will directly target the situation,” said Ben. Just like society at large, pastors say most Choctaw do not make church their first priority. “Just looking not only within the
membership but at the society in general within our tribe, [the problem] would be prioritizing,” Ben said. “Many times we see that ball-games come first. Activities come first before their relationship with God. I think it just goes back to a mindset.” Stickball almost always takes preference to church, just as football does in many American households, pastors say. But the Choctaw churches are trying to overcome this. One way they are doing so is by focusing on the youth. Henry says that many churches in the association have youth directors and children’s ministries. Ben says the Spirit of Life Church brings in contemporary artists and other well-known speakers to talk with kids and host special events for youth. Tubby says that at one of his churches, Great Spirit, there is a large presence of children and consequently a greater focus on youth ministry. There is another reason to focus on youth, of course. It is a great way to reach parents. “Parents don’t mind sending their children to church, but they themselves do not attend church with their children,” Tubby says. “We’re just praying and hoping that they will begin to see the importance of parents
and children attending church together for their spiritual growth, spiritual formation, spiritual development.” Long ago, the tribe believed that everything had a spirit; that life was everywhere. Now, very few follow their tribe’s ancient faith. Harold (Doc) Comby, one of the few Choctaw who still practice some of the ancient ways, says that most members are no longer fluent in the Choctaw language or bother with the traditional dances. Traditionally, the Choctaw believed in a good and an evil spirit, in harmony and balance both in one’s own life but also in the circle of life, between humans and nature. They believed that there is a God or creator with whom one could have a relationship. A person’s spirituality was between each individual and God. It all began to change when French explorers arrived. The French and Choctaw soon became allies and trading partners, and due to a command from the Vatican to spread their Catholic faith in the new land, the French sent missionaries to the tribe. Slowly the tribe began to turn from their own beliefs until they were a predominately Catholic nation. This changed when the French were
defeated by the Protestant British. The British became an ally of the Choctaw, and they, too, sent in missionaries to the tribe and many Catholic Choctaw soon became Protestant. After the Revolutionary War, many Americans began adapting their Protestant beliefs and created new denominations. The two that dominated the South, where the Choctaw resided, were Methodists and Baptists. Missionaries from both of these denominations began to reach out to the tribe. Then came the removal of the main body of the Choctaw to Oklahoma. When many of the Choctaw left Mississippi in 1831 and thereafter, most of the missionaries left with them. This meant that the remaining Choctaw in Mississippi had almost no missionaries. According to Dr. Theda Perdue, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of award-winning books about the Choctaw and other tribes of the Southeastern United States, AfricanAmericans stepped in during this time and helped the tribe by building churches they could use. Eventually, Christian Choctaw from Oklahoma began to move back to the area
and reach out to those who had remained here. These missionaries were readily accepted simply because they had a common language, Perdue found. In the 1900s, Methodists and Baptists dominated the South. They began to send more missionaries to the Choctaw in Mississippi and built more churches. The churches not only provided a safe and respectful sanctuary for the tribe, but many even taught tribal members about the history of their own tribe, Perdue said. She even goes as far as to say that Christianity helped reinforce and articulate the meaning of being Native American. Because of that aggressive outreach, most Choctaws today are Baptist or Methodist, but not all. There are 13 Baptist, 2 Mennonite, 3 Catholic and 3 United Methodist churches on the reservation. The only differences a casual observer might detect that set them apart from any other church of that denomination in America is that a prayer or a hymn might be sung in Choctaw. So next time you are around Philadelphia, listen. You might just get to hear the Choctaw lyrics of “Amazing Grace” as they make their journey to heaven.
Give Him the
To Doc Comby, the spirits are everywhere. You just have to look for them.
By Josie Slaughter Photo by Ariel Cobbert
oc is one Choctaw who still believes in spirits. He says he has even encountered them, sometimes dramatically. Doc grew up on the Choctaw Reservation. When he was a boy, he said, there was a dirt road through the reservation with a dumpster alongside a tree where African-Americans were once hanged. There were rumors of spirits living in that tree, but few believed the stories, including the son of a Choctaw Methodist minister. One night Doc, his sister, five other friends, and the preacher’s kid hopped into a car and drove to the tree. “He [the preacher’s son] turned off the engine and turned off the lights,” Doc said. “We sat there and then all of a sudden, something goes” — he makes a knocking sound — “on my side of the window. I was crawling back to the other side. The girls, — like my sister, two of them were in there, — started screaming. He tried to start the ignition but it wouldn’t start. We just screamed, and then about five minutes later, the guy turned the ignition on and it started. We left that area. He was spinning tires and everything.” That was proof enough for Harold (Doc) Comby. But today he finds himself one of the very few Choctaw who still practice the ancient spiritual traditions of the tribe. The old beliefs are dying. Now the majority of the tribe is Methodist and Baptist. Very few even remember the ancient ways. Traditionally, the Choctaw believed in a good and an evil spirit, in harmony and balance both in one’s own life and the circle of life: between humans and nature, Doc said. One way this connection could be achieved was by going barefoot, a luxury that most stores no longer allow. They believed that there is a God or creator Comby still adheres with whom one to some of the old could have spiritual practices a personal and beliefs. relationship.
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As Doc puts it, “It’s not a religion. It’s spirituality.” People believed that everything had a spirit; that life was everywhere. And where did the spirit dwell in a person? The hair, Doc says. There were many rules about the treatment of one’s hair. People were to cut their hair only after a relative’s death. This is called ‘tabashi,’ the mourning process. Mourners would place the snipped lock of their hair in the casket of the deceased. Choctaw legends say that the spirits moved through the earth trying to tell people things. They forewarn of things to come through random and unusual events. “You have, let’s say, a plastic cup on the kitchen sink that’s been sitting there for three days. You’re watching TV in the living room and it falls down. That’s a sign that the spirit is telling you something’s going to happen,” says Doc. One tradition that is still practiced, but very rarely, is that of sweat houses. With effects similar to a sauna, sweat houses provide a way of cleansing oneself from toxins or releasing the stress of life. Through the use of giant hot rocks and water, a room is turned into a cloud of steam in which people can sweat out toxins and commune with the spirits and God. “A lot of people attend because they may have a problem,” Doc said. “They say prayers and some of them have prayer songs that they make. That is to help, to call the spirits to help them out.” These practices are fast fading away. Ceremonies are no longer practiced openly. The old skills that used to relate to spirituality, such as drumming, dancing, and making stick ball sticks, are no longer explained in those terms. “We don’t teach them the reason why we do these things,” Doc said with a sigh. Most of the tribe has moved on. But Doc is happy to be in the past: barefoot and speaking the Choctaw language.
The Choctaw encourage entrepreneurship. By Mrudvi Bakshi
yrus Ben always had a knack for business. So when the tribe was selling its office supply business, Ben couldn’t wait to transform his dream of running his own business into reality. And he knew just where to get the money to put his bid in – the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians' Choctaw Loan Program. Born and raised on the reservation, he longed to run his own business among his own people. So with a 100 percent financing loan from the tribe, Ben placed his bid and won, opening Choctaw Office Supply in January of 2006, the same year his first child was born and just a year before he was elected to the Tribal Council. Ben felt it was the perfect business for him to take on because after all, every business needs office supplies. “Office supply products are an everyday need, and from the business perspective it’s not an item that’s going to totally dissipate or a need that’s going to dissipate,” he said. Ten years later, Ben, who speaks fluent Choctaw, feels like he is giving back to the tribe that he loves. The business is thriving, it employs Choctaws and he is pumping taxes into the local economy, exactly what the tribe hopes for when it gives startup loans to tribal members with ideas for new businesses on the reservation. Ben could easily have gone somewhere else to do business. But he loves the reservation. On completion of his English degree from Mississippi College, he knew he wanted to get back home and eventually run his own business on tribal land.
Ben desired two things of his maiden venture as a business owner. The business had to be located on the reservation and it had to employ tribal members. A family man, he looked for a business that would spare him some time to spend with his growing family, which at the time included his wife and young son. Today, the Ben family numbers five. A very active and busy family of five. “To me it was not only an opportunity to operate a small business but to be involved in something which is family-friendly,” he said. No one could ever accuse Ben of lacking ambition. He has always tried to work another job, so that the pressure of owning a business is not too much for the family, leaving the everyday task of running Choctaw Office Supply to his wife Tarita. His eight years of running the Tribal Council ended in the summer of 2015 and he has since strapped on yet another business, taking on the task of President/CEO of Choctaw-Ikhana. It is a tribal business that calibrates a wide range of measurement equipment, including meteorological instruments, torque wrenches and torque screwdrivers. Over the past 10 years, he feels his success at Choctaw Office Supply has helped him establish strong personal connections on and off the reservation. “I perceive it as building a relationship with my community, and a medium through which I can reciprocate for all that they’ve given me,” he says. Ben first got interested in doing business when he saw his parents cultivate their large garden. He has fond memories of helping them work it, nursing tasty Choctaw Nation Part II
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fruit from the red clay soil. “I think my first step to being a business brain was selling watermelons and cantaloupes. We would raise an excess of cantaloupes and watermelons and we would sell them to the community,” he says. As Ben sees it, his new business doesn’t just help him. He gives Choctaws jobs to support their families. ◊ When he graduated from Choctaw Central High School in 1997, Demando Mingo was as clueless as his peers about his next course of action. Little did he know that his hobby would eventually take over his life and give him his debut business venture. A friend who had a one-man barber shop, the only one on the reservation, decided to quit. Having bounced through odd jobs for about 10 years, Mingo saw this as an opportunity. Throughout high school and college, Mingo cut hair for his friends, something he thoroughly enjoyed. But before taking it up professionally, he enrolled in Brock’s Hair Design College in Carthage to sharpen his skills. Before he knew it, he was a master barber, running D’s Native Edge barber shop on the reservation. It opened its doors on Oct. 1, 2013, with the help of a loan from the tribe, just like Ben. Besides enjoying his job and meeting new people, it allows him to stay close to home. Both Ben and Mingo are deeply immersed in Choctaw culture. “I think because of the way Mississippi Choctaw is structured we’ve been able to retain our culture and our language a lot better than many other tribes owing to our tribal school system, because in a way our lands keep us incorporated and together versus other tribes that are spread abroad geographically,” says Ben. Both businessmen feel that it helps that the tribe’s schools teach tribal culture and language. Moreover, they feel that it helps that the tribe has a closeknit reservation. To start their businesses, both Ben and Mingo had to present a proposal to the tribal business council for approval. Like every other businessman, both Mingo and Ben have had their share of highs and lows. “Those not from the tribe never perceived tribal members as business owners, and that sort of negativity was a bit of a setback for us,” says Mingo. After all, he wants customers from outside the reservation as well. Ben says that to stay in line with current business trends, especially outside the reservation, he had to
PREVIOUS PAGE: The shelves are stocked for business at Choctaw Office Supply. PHOTO BY MRUDVI BAKSHI
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Demando Mingo is proud that his little shop, opened with the tribe's help, is doing well, sometimes drawing 30 to 40 customers a day. PHOTO BY CHI KALU
revamp his business plan. “We’ve changed some tactics, business practices, that have been able to be more successful than … 10 years ago,” says Ben. Ben has already made adjustments in “product mix.” Right now, Mingo and another employee are the only two in his shop. But he believes that in a couple of years he’ll be able to expand his little barber-shop into a bigger one with a couple more helping hands. He is also thinking about setting up a barber school on the reservation. Where Demando Mingo has lived most of his life on the reservation, Cyrus Ben has at least done business beyond the tribal borders. In fact, even before he opened Choctaw Office Supply, he worked for a commercial printing operation in nearby Philadelphia. “To have had my name and recognition in the community outside of the tribe was a benefit, but… I think regardless of if they accept you, you still have to show your performance. You still have to provide the product. You have to provide the service, and of highest quality,” says Ben. Sometimes both men feel that being Choctaw places them at a disadvantage in the outside world, which is predominantly white. But they are determined to succeed and just as determined that their businesses will help the tribe as a whole. “I think if you recognize trouble or a challenge there, you'll have created the challenge,” Ben says. “ I think you have to have that optimistic mindset. This is a business. There's no colors.”
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LEFT TO RIGHT: Ariel Cobbert, Mrudvi Bakshi, Taylor Bennett, Lana Ferguson, SECOND ROW: Tori Olker, Josie Slaughter, Kate Harris, Zoe McDonald, Anna McCollum, THIRD ROW: Bill Rose, Chi Kalu, Slade Rand, Mitchell Dowden, Will Crockett. Not pictured: Tori Hosey PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
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