The Mississippi Choctaw live in eight recognized communities throughout east-central Mississippi. Despite one of the highest blood quorum requirements of any American Indian tribe (50 percent), tribal rolls have been steadily increasing in recent years, with approximately ten thousand members today.
Two distinct myths explain how the Choctaw came to live in Mississippi. In the migration myth, two brothers, Chahta and Chikasa, traveled from the West looking for more fertile hunting grounds. Each night they planted a pole in the ground, and each morning the pole leaned in the direction the group was to travel that day. One rainy night, the two groups became separated, with Chikasa’s group continuing across the swelling waters of the Pearl River while Chahta’s group remained behind. In the morning, Chahta found the pole upright, indicating that they had finally reached their new home at the Nanih Waiya mound, translated variously as “leaning hill” or “mother mound.” In the second myth, the Choctaw emerged from the center of the earth out of a hole in the sacred Nanih Waiya mound, following the Seminole, Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw, who scattered throughout the Southeast. Emerging last, the Choctaw were granted the lands of their birthplace as their home. Although the two myths differ dramatically, both describe connections to neighboring tribes and identify Nanih Waiya as the spiritual and geographical center of the Choctaw homeland, granted to the tribe by divine right. Archaeological, historical, and linguistic records support both a migration from the West and the coherent founding of a distinct tribe in the Nanih Waiya area in Winston County.
Written documents first record the name Choctaw at the end of the seventeenth century. At this time, the Choctaw lived in three distinct districts, with two divisions and multiple clans within each division that established social and political boundaries. As an exogamous, matrilineal community, tribe members were expected to marry outside their clan. While clan identity is no longer recognized, some tribe members, particularly in the more conservative communities of Bogue Chitto and Conehatta, continue to encourage dating and marriage outside a member’s community.
With the increase in Europeans in America during the eighteenth century, the Choctaw formed alliances first with the French in wars against the British and their Indian allies, the Chickasaw, and then, after the Revolutionary War, with the new Americans against the Spanish and their Indian allies, the Creek. However, while Western histories focus on colonial powers and alliances, oral traditions within the tribe today emphasize relations with neighboring Indian tribes, in particular the cyclical conflicts with the Chickasaw and Creek over hunting grounds. The major exception is Removal, a cataclysmic policy that dominates both written and oral accounts. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Andrew Jackson was struggling with the “Indian problem”—that is, too many autonomous Indian groups unwilling to allow unrestricted access to the lands and resources of their homelands. His solution was to remove the Indians east of the Mississippi to lands far west of it even though those lands were less agriculturally fertile and less forested and thus less suitable for the game Indians traditionally hunted. This Removal eventually became known as the Trail of Tears, and an estimated 20–25 percent of the southeastern Indians died during Removal. The Choctaw were the first of the southeastern tribes to be removed, following the signing the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830. Over the next seventy years, the US government exerted consistent pressure to remove all of the Choctaw to Oklahoma, with at least one other major Removal effort at the turn of the century. According to estimates, roughly fourteen thousand of the twenty thousand Choctaw were removed to Oklahoma, with approximately twenty-five hundred dying along the way. In light of the two tribal creation myths, forced Removal from what they viewed as their divinely given lands was particularly traumatic. Today, Choctaw prophecies warn of the Third Removal, which will signal dramatic changes for Choctaw and non-Choctaw alike, perhaps a sign of the end of the world.
Each Choctaw who remained in Mississippi was promised 640 acres of land in return for agreeing to become an American citizen. However, few Choctaw ever received their land, and those who did often lost it through swindles perpetrated by unscrupulous land speculators. Most who stayed were soon driven onto undesirable swampland, where they attempted to continue farming. Eventually, they became sharecroppers on land they had once owned, entering a period of intense geographical and social isolation. As brown-skinned people in a color-conscious South that saw things in black and white, the Choctaw did not fit in. They fought aggressively to avoid being categorized as black and thus subjected to intense discrimination, but the white community refused to accept the Choctaw.
The tribe’s increasingly visible and powerful role in the Mississippi economy has begun to change this isolation. The creation of an industrial park in 1979 opened an era during which the tribe enticed major businesses to build factories on Choctaw lands. As part of the effort to develop industry and factory jobs, the tribe eventually started establishing tribal businesses, including casinos that opened in 1994 and 2000. Today, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is one of the state’s largest employers. Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (which permitted the organization of tribal governments) and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (which permitted tribes to have greater ownership of services and programs on the reservation), the Mississippi Choctaw have reestablished an autonomous tribal government that has received federal recognition.
Despite brief periods of isolation, the Choctaw generally have been open to new ideas and new technologies, readily transforming other American Indian or Anglo rituals, clothing, weapons, and political systems to fit within their own culture. This borrowing and sharing have led to some of the most iconic symbols of Choctaw identity today, such as the black felt hats worn by the men, known in the Choctaw language as shapo (from the French chapeau [hat]), and the men’s traditional ribbon shirts, which are worn by Indian tribes throughout the Southeast. Women’s dresses draw from both European settlers and neighboring Indian tribes, employing the basic form worn by European missionary women in the nineteenth century but adding ribbons and beadwork to transform their clothing within a Choctaw and more broadly southeastern Indian aesthetic. Of course, European missionaries brought with them much more than clothing styles. Written records from early missionaries suggest the Choctaw had a coherent belief system that governed their views on both earthly and otherworldly matters, including sources of supernatural power, with the ultimate source being the sun. However, those belief systems were organized only loosely in terms of a single pervasive religion. Written records and oral traditions do not provide enough evidence for contemporary Choctaw interested in following a native religion to do so. By choice or by default, the majority of contemporary Choctaw are Christian.
The synthesis of multiple cultures continues today. Modern Choctaw homes are indistinguishable from the homes of their socioeconomically comparable non-Choctaw neighbors in terms of technological amenities. However, aesthetic and decorative elements articulate a distinct ethnic identity as both American Indian and Choctaw. Many homes display arts and crafts from other Indian tribes, particularly items bought on visits out west. Virtually all homes, however, have specifically Choctaw items hanging on walls, among them star quilts and stickball sticks and swamp cane baskets, which are still made from materials drawn directly from nearby forests and swamps. While tribe members continue to prepare traditional foods such as banaha—a mixture of corn and peas—and hominy, their dinner tables are more likely to be indistinguishable from those of their non-Indian neighbors, featuring southern staples such as cornbread, fried chicken, greens, and slow-cooked vegetables seasoned with meat.
- Arthur H. DeRosier Jr., The Removal of the Choctaw Indians (1970)
- Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis: 1500–1700 (1995)
- Clara Sue Kidwell, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918 (1995)
- Jesse O. McKee and Jon A. Schlenker, The Choctaws: Cultural Evolution of a Native American Tribe (1980)
- Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians website, www.choctaw.org
- Tom Mould, Choctaw Prophecy: A Legacy of the Future (2003)
- Tom Mould, Choctaw Tales (2004)
- Katherine M.B. Osburn, Choctaw Resurgence in Mississippi: Race, Class, and Nation Building in the Jim Crow South, 1830–1977 (2014)
- John H. Peterson Jr., The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians: Their Recent History and Current Social Relations (1971)
- John R. Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians (1931)
- Samuel Wells and Roseanna Tubby, eds., After Removal: The Choctaw in Mississippi (1986)