The Choctaw Fair began in 1949 and has been held annually ever since in the Pearl River community, just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. The weeklong fair is the largest community event held by the tribe and attracts members as well as non-Choctaw visitors.
The fair is an outgrowth of less formal events held during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. Tribe members from the eight Choctaw communities spread across central Mississippi gathered for several days of eating, socializing, dancing, and playing stickball. Some Choctaw trace the fair to an even more distant antecedent, the Green Corn Ceremony, a southeastern Indian sacred and social ritual thanking the Great Spirit for the corn grown that year. Today’s fair formalized the events of the informal reunions and transformed selected elements of Choctaw culture into symbols of a unique tribal identity. While the sacred elements of the Green Corn Ceremony are gone, the social and cultural aspects remain. Further, the fair now serves another function: to introduce Choctaw culture to the tribe’s non-Indian neighbors. The result is an eclectic event that highlights three layers of Choctaw identity—tribal, ethnic, and regional.
Displays of traditional Choctaw culture are set up on one side of the road that runs through the center of the Pearl River community. Pots of hominy simmer in large black kettles over open fires while groups perform a series of social dances in formal traditional Choctaw clothing: long embroidered dresses for the women, black pants, ribbon shirts, and black hats for the men. A chanter stands nearby, providing vocal accompaniment while dancers weave back and forth in shifting lines, performing the Snake Dance, Coon Dance, Quail Dance, Duck Dance, and other dances that recognize the intimate relationship between the Choctaw and the natural world. Other dances, among them the Stealing Partners Dance and Losing Wife Dance, are equally playful but comment on human relationships. Here the distinction between Choctaw and visitor is clear. Across the road, however, ethnic identity blurs into shared regional identity, with amusement park rides whirring, barkers shouting, and the smell of corn dogs and elephant ears permeating the air. Identical to any rural county fair, the scene helps break down stereotypes and remind visitors that the Choctaw are southerners, too, with shared cultural traditions and ideas of entertainment.
The Choctaw realize that many non-Indians consider Choctaw culture and American Indian culture synonymous and create divisions to help guide visitors. Choctaw arts and crafts appear on one side of the road, while the arts and crafts of other American Indian tribes are on the other. The Choctaw are Indian, but tribal distinctions are important: feathered headdresses and turquoise jewelry, for example, are Indian but not Choctaw.
The fair’s main performance stage synthesizes all three layers of identity. Tribal identify is reified and honored in the Choctaw Princess Pageant, where young women compete in formal wear appropriate at any American prom as well as in formal Choctaw dresses with traditional handcrafted jewelry to match. Later that evening, American Indian music stars perform, followed by nationally known country music stars who draw large crowds from across the state.
For tribe members, however, the main event is the World Championship Stickball tournament, held each evening of the fair. Stickball is played with a small leather ball and sticks that have a basket at one end. With these sticks, players catch the ball and throw it at the opponent’s goal, a tall, narrow post. Games are rough and often bloody; an ambulance remains on the sidelines for the more serious injuries. While stickball has traditionally been played by men, women’s and youth teams now compete in their own tournaments earlier in the day.
- Jesse O. McKee and Jon A. Schlenker, The Choctaws: Cultural Evolution of a Native American Tribe (1980)
- John R. Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (1931)