In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, storytelling was part of the formal education for Choctaw youth. With no written language, the Choctaw depended on a rich oral tradition to maintain a sense of history and identity. Today, storytelling continues to help tribal members construct a sense of shared identity, even though its role has become less formal, with stories shared more casually among friends and family.
For all the diversity of types of stories, the Choctaw have few native terms to distinguish one kind of story from another. The major exception is shukha anumpa, literally “hog talk” but translated perhaps more accurately as “hogwash.” Shukha anumpa are stories marked by humor, often raucous and outrageous, whose explicit function is to induce laughter. But rarely are such stories confined to humor alone. Animal tales about a possum burning all the hair off its tail or a rabbit trying to carve a steak from its side reveal the dangers of imitation and of appropriating the roles or skills of another. The turtle who beats the rabbit in a race is as much an indictment on the boastful rabbit as it is a testament to the importance of family who help the turtle win. Inept hunters who try to compensate for their lack of skill through trickery end up losing respect among their peers as well as from women they are courting. Told among children, these animal stories can be moralistic; told among adults, however, they tend to critique contemporary social and cultural norms.
While many of the animal tales have clear cognates in the Indo-European narrative tradition, all of the stories have distinctly Choctaw elements. The tall tales and humorous anecdotes that are also told as shukha anumpa are even more specific to Choctaw social life. Particularly humorous are the Ashman stories, which describe a hapless Choctaw trying to understand a world that is changing too fast. Air-conditioning baffles him, as does the English language more generally. Anglo culture is seen at worst as incompatible with Choctaw culture and at best as perplexing, highlighting the struggles of synthesizing two cultures.
Alongside the shukha anumpa are a group of stories more serious in tone, often referred to as the “talk of the elders.” While these stories can be humorous, laughter is not their explicit goal. Instead, they reflect the narratives that elders are expected to tell to their grandchildren—how the world was formed, how the Choctaw were created, how corn was brought to the people. These are the tribe’s sacred myths. Talk of the elders also includes historical legends that document the past and pass down the names of leaders so that they are remembered. Pushmataha, for example, is said to have been born when a lightning bolt split an oak in half. This past cast in narrative is populated first by Indians and then by a steady stream of white settlers, bringing with them new technology to be embraced and new vices such as alcohol that continue to haunt the community. The historical legends are dominated by these interactions with whites and provide a means to critique contemporary social relations.
This social critique is nowhere more evident than among the prophecies that continue to be shared and interpreted anew. Stories of fulfilled prophecies tend to focus on modern conveniences cast in descriptive metaphor: prophecies of metal birds, spiderwebs covering the earth, and two-eyed monsters racing across the ground are revealed to be airplanes, telephone wires, and cars. Far more dire, however, are those prophecies that have yet to be fulfilled—prophecies dominated by cultural, economic, and geographic loss in which the future suffers in comparison to the past. Yet hope remains. The future described in these prophetic stories is not necessarily unalterable. This loss can be avoided, but one must work hard to turn the tide. And in virtually all cases, the maintenance of one’s cultural identity, whether by continuing to wear traditional Choctaw clothing or speaking the language, is the key to salvation in upcoming wars.
By far the most widespread and vibrant stories involve the supernatural—both legends of supernatural beings such as kashehotapalo and kashikanchak, who once roamed the Mississippi woods, and contemporary personal encounters with supernatural beings who continue to lurk under the cloak of pine forests, murky waters, or dark of night. Virtually every tribe member has either encountered one of these supernatural beings or knows someone who has. Stories about floating lights, dark shadowy figures, and half-animal, half-human creatures are shared to interpret both nature and the significance of the encounter. Floating lights could be hashok okwa hui’ga (will-o’-the-wisp), bohpoli (little people), witches, or any of a number of mundane things such as streetlights, headlights, or swamp gas. Tales of these encounters may be told as scary stories among youth but are at least as common among adults, who recognize deep spiritual and cultural significance in interactions with supernatural beings.
- Tom Mould, Choctaw Tales (2004)