On 12 May 1934 in Union, the leadership of the Mississippi Choctaw communities met with allies Earl Richardson, a state senator, and E. T. Winston, a newspaper editor and friend of Gov. Theodore Bilbo, to draft a government under the auspices of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which permitted Indians to create tribal councils. Naming the organization the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Federation (MCIF), these leaders proclaimed the political rebirth of the Choctaw nation in Mississippi. Choctaw superintendent Archie C. Hector, however, had already created a Tribal Business Committee (TBC) to consider acceptance of the IRA. Despite the fact that two-thirds of his committee supported the MCIF, Hector denounced it as the work of a handful of malcontents. Over the next year, Hector and the MCIF engaged the federal government’s Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) in a passionate debate over which organization had the right to construct the new tribal government, and the MCIF ultimately failed to win recognition. At first glance, this story appears to be a simple tale of a political initiative that failed. Yet the MCIF’s campaign reveals a Choctaw political strategy deeply rooted in historical patterns of activism. The Mississippi Choctaw used the conflict over the government to strengthen their relationships with their political allies at the state level and thus assert greater control over their lives.
The struggle to establish a tribal government in the 1930s represented the continuation of a century of Choctaw assertions of political sovereignty. Article 14 of the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek had promised that the Choctaw who remained in Mississippi would receive land and that anyone who resided on the land for five years would hold the political status of a free white citizen. The allotment process was hopelessly corrupt, however, and the Choctaw became poor sharecroppers without political standing. In response, they retreated into ethnic enclaves, organized around churches and schools, where they could preserve their cultural distinctiveness. They also pressed their treaty claims at every opportunity, building up a network of political allies. In 1918 the Choctaw and their elected officials won the establishment of an OIA agency in Mississippi, which offered schools, reimbursable farm allotments, and vocational training; it did not, however, provide the tribal government that the Choctaw had desired since 1830.
Hector’s TBC was a start, but the Choctaw had reservations about how it functioned and consequently created another organization to address these concerns. The committee had been appointed, not elected, and Indians living outside of the seven official communities had no representation. In contrast, the MCIF granted membership to any half-blood Choctaw over age twenty-one who headed a family as husband, wife, or guardian. Choctaw leaders also feared that they lacked education in governmental affairs, so the MCIF aligned with Richardson and Winston, who was an expert in Indian history, to provide political expertise. Finally, the TBC had noted the Choctaw people’s dire need for financial assistance. The MCIF and its allies addressed that anxiety, planning to seek compensation for lost land and funding to develop tourism on Choctaw lands. The MCIF thus met needs that the TBC did not.
Moreover, the federation’s actions were crucial when all the Choctaw voted on the IRA on 19 March 1935. Heeding the MCIF’s complaints, Hector allowed Indians outside the seven communities to participate in the vote. Moreover, rather than appointing people to form the new government, as he had with the TBC, Hector called for elections during the vote on the IRA. The majority of the Choctaw approved the IRA and elected a new TBC to construct the government. Hector assumed that this new committee would disband the MCIF. It did not.
Instead, the Choctaw used the federation to lobby for greater control over their lives. Several members of the state’s congressional delegation contacted the OIA on behalf of the MCIF, and their interventions appear to have affected decisions regarding agency matters. For example, the OIA transferred several employees whom the MCIF had criticized. The OIA also instructed Hector to include delegates from the federation in all meetings to construct the new government. The committee’s refusal to disband the “rival” MCIF government, then, suggested that the Choctaw viewed the federation as another method of protecting Choctaw interests.
A few months later, however, the OIA decided that the Choctaw were not eligible for the IRA because they were not a tribe and did not live on trust lands. The savvy Choctaw political strategies had failed. Then, in 1944, Shell Oil became interested in oil leases on Choctaw lands in the Pearl River district. After much legal wrangling, Choctaw lands were reclassified as a reservation and the OIA declared that the Choctaw were indeed a tribe, meaning that a tribal council could negotiate oil leases.
The Choctaw elected another council to draft a constitution. Following the example of the all-inclusive MCIF, these representatives then called meetings in their communities to gather input for the new constitution. On 20 April 1945 the Choctaw approved this council and constitution by a 346–71 vote, and the Mississippi Choctaw officially became a tribe under the IRA.
While the MCIF eventually disbanded, its campaign for recognition had demonstrated the continuing political acumen of the Choctaw. Choctaw interactions with elected officials through the federation reinforced the Indians’ position as constituents within Mississippi political networks. The Choctaw subsequently worked with their elected officials to access federal funds to help them fight the poverty of rural Mississippi. In upholding the MCIF as one means of asserting their interests, the Mississippi Choctaw maneuvered around the OIA and used the implementation of the IRA to strengthen their relationship with Mississippi’s elected officials and thus to buttress their self-determination.
- Arizona State UniversityBureau of Indian Affairs Records (Record Group 75), Central Classified Files: Choctaw, National Archives and Records Administration; “Condition of the Mississippi Choctaws,” Hearings at Union, Mississippi, 16 March 1917
- Vine Deloria Jr. and Clifford Lytle, The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty (1984)
- Lawrence Hauptman, The Iroquois and the New Deal (1981)
- Lawrence C. Kelly, The Navajo Indians and Federal Indian Policy, 1900–1935 (1968)
- Katherine M. B. Osburn, Choctaw Resurgence in Mississippi: Race, Class, and Nation Building in the Jim Crow South, 1830–1977 (2014)
- Donald Parman, The Navajos and the New Deal (1976)
- Kenneth R. Philp, John Collier’s Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954 (1977)
- Kenneth R. Philp, Termination Revisited: American Indians on the Trail to Self-Determination, 1933–1953(1999)
- Graham D. Taylor, The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934–1945 (1980)
- US House of Representatives, Hearings before the Committee on Investigation of the Indian Service, 12–14 March, 1917, vol. 1