The Choctaw Indians

The Choctaw, at the time of European contact, were a loosely organized confederacy composed of three distinctly different divisions: Okla Falaya (Long People), Okla Tannap (People of the Opposite Side), and Okla Hannalia (Sixtown People). The people were living in more than 100 autonomous villages. While there is a stereotype that portrays Indians as “living by the hunt,” the Choctaw, like the other Indian nations in the Southeast, were farmers who had been cultivating corn for about 3,000 years. In addition to corn, they also raised beans, squash, sunflowers, and melons.

Choctaw agriculture was supplemented with some hunting and gathering of wild plants for food and fiber. While men generally hunted and women generally worked in the fields, this was not a rigid division of labor. There were times when the men helped with both the farming and the gathering of wild plants. It was not uncommon for girls to go with the men and boys on hunting expeditions. Older women usually stayed at home to tend the fields.


Choctaw oral tradition speaks of a time when they had lived to the northwest. However, their population increased and the game grew scarce which forced them to seek a new home. Their migration was led by Chahta (also spelled Chah-tah) who carried a magical staff. Each night when they camped, he would place the staff upright into the ground. In the morning, he would inspect it and then he would lead the people in the direction in which the staff leaned. At the ancient mound of Ninih Waiya (“Leaning Mountain”) near present-day Philadelphia, Mississippi, the staff remained upright in the morning. Thus it was here that the Choctaw settled. It was in this country that the Choctaw established their government.

According to one version of the story, a group of people led by Chikasa, Chahta’s brother, had camped on the other side of the creek. There was a heavy rain and flooding, following which the staff was still upright indicating that this is where the people were to stay. However, Chikasa’s party had proceeded on, not knowing that the promised land had been found. This is how the Choctaw and the Chickasaw became separate, though related, nations.

The Choctaw migration story tells that the people traveled for 43 years and that during this migration they carried the bones of the ancestors. The task of carrying the bones was a sacred duty and some were so overloaded that they would carry one load forward, deposit it, and then return for the remainder.

Another oral tradition says that the Indian peoples of the Southeast emerged from the underworld at the sacred hill at Ninih Waiya. The first to emerge were the Creek, who dried themselves in the sun and then went east. Next to emerge were the Cherokee who tried to follow the Creek but got lost and settled in the north. The third group to emerge was the Chickasaw who followed the Cherokee. The last group to emerge was the Choctaw who settled near the mound.

Another variation of the story tells that the Choctaw were the first to settle near Ninih Waiya following their migration. After a while, however, there were some internal disputes and some of the younger warriors and hunters abandoned the people to settle in distant regions. In this version, the other Southeastern nations—the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, Shawnee, and Delaware—came from the main body of the Choctaw nation.

Material Culture:

The Choctaw lived in one-room houses built of either log or adobe and then covered with mud and bark. The houses, built by the men, were windowless and had dirt floors. The house had a central fireplace which provided heat and served as a cooking hearth.  Along the outer walls were raised beds.

The Choctaw made two basic kinds of pottery: a black polished ware and a less well-finished gray cooking ware. The black polished ware was sometimes decorated while the cooking ware was not polished or decorated. Decoration was done primarily by incising with a comb-like tool which produced three to six parallel lines.


 Like the other Indian nations of the Southeast, the Choctaw had matrilineal clans. That is, each person belonged to the clan—the named extended family unit—of the mother. While Europeans tend to be somewhat obsessed about paternity, seeing the father as the most important person in the family, most Indian nations did not have this obsession. This does not mean that paternity was not recognized, but that it was less important.

Government and towns

The local Choctaw towns—estimated at 40 to 50—were grouped into three districts: Upper Towns, Lower Towns, and Sixtowns. At the district level, chiefs were selected from the senior matrilineal clan in the district. While there was a mingo (leader) for each district, there was no single overall mingo. The position of mingo was not inherited.

The Choctaw national council meetings would be held in the village of a host mingo. All would assemble in the village square where the delegates would take their seats on two rows of wooden benches. After lighting a fire on top of the burial mound of the village, the host mingo would hold up the appropriate number of fingers to indicate the number of issues that the council was to consider. He would then take his seat.

During the discussions, unlimited speaking time was allowed each delegate. At the conclusion of the discussions, the host mingo would summarize the decisions. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he would pause at the end of each sentence. If what he said met with approval, the delegates would exclaim ma! (yes).

Choctaw women participated in the political system indirectly through their power in the matrilineal clans. It was generally recognized that if the women wanted a certain man to become chief, then that man was generally elected to the position.


Prophecy played an important role in the community of many Southeastern cultures. Prophets were recognized by the community and they served in a fashion similar to that of other spiritual leaders. Among the Choctaw, the prophets provided practical, political, social, moral, and spiritual guidance. Prophecy provided a symbolic link between today’s world and the future; between the people and the spirit world.


 Among the Choctaw, the dead body would be placed on a platform and covered with a bear skin. The poles would be painted red if the deceased were a person of some prominence. The platform would then be fenced and left for some time. Later, the body would be taken down and defleshed.


Walking the Choctaw Trail of Tears

My sister, a friend, and I are planning on walking the Choctaw Trail of Tears on foot. At the moment, I’m working on plotting a route and I’m wondering if anyone knows exactly what the most accurate route to take would be, as I’ve been getting conflicting answers to this question in my searches. We would like the trip to be as accurately relived as possible, without any of us dying, of course. Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated. I figured you guys would be the best people to ask. Prove me right? =)

Choctaw Education After Removal

By 1840, some 40,000 Indians from the Five Civilized Tribes-Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole-had been resettled in what is now Oklahoma as a part of the efforts of the American government to remove all Indians from American territory east of the Mississippi. Each of the Five Civilized Tribes was organized into self-governing republics and was attempting to re-establish themselves in this new territory.

Under the terms of the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the United States had promised the Choctaw that it would construct schools for their children and pay for the teachers. In addition, the United States was to provide 20 scholarships per year for 20 years for Choctaw students to go to college.  

In 1831, the Choctaw removal began and they began to establish a new government and a new way of life west of the Mississippi River. By 1832, an estimated 6,000 Choctaw had settled in Oklahoma. In 1833, the Choctaw established a tribal school system and built 12 log schoolhouses.

Manual labor schools were established for Indians in Oklahoma by the United States government in 1834. The first of these was among the Choctaw. The school was run by a Baptist minister and was designed to teach letters, labor, mechanical arts, morals, and Christianity. The United States government felt that it had an obligation to force conversion to Christianity upon the Indians as a way of paying them for the land which the government had taken from them. Conversion to Christianity was seen as a required step in the process of becoming “civilized.”

By 1837, there were at least 15,000 Choctaw who had been removed to Oklahoma. By 1838, the teachers in the Choctaw’s 12 neighborhood schools were being paid from their treaty funds. The students were being supported by their parents.

In 1842, the Choctaw decided to re-establish their school system in Oklahoma. They decided to sever their ties with the Choctaw Academy in Kentucky and to establish six boarding schools: Spencer Academy, Fort Coffee Academy, Koonaha (Kunaha or Sunsha) Female Seminary, Ianubbee (Ayanubbe) Female Seminary, Chuwahla (Chuwalla) Female Seminary, and Wheelock Female Seminary.

The Choctaw Academy had been established near Lexington, Kentucky in 1826. While the school was partially funded by Choctaw annuities, the majority of its students were not Choctaw, but included Creek, Seminole, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Pawnee, and others. Upon arriving at the school, the students were given English names, usually the name of prominent political and government officials. The curriculum included both liberal arts and vocational education, together with preaching intended to convert the young students to Christianity. The religious objectives of the school were endorsed by the government. The Indian students at the Choctaw Academy were also considered to be hostages who would help prevent war between their tribes and the United States.

The Choctaw boarding schools intended to teach Choctaw boys agriculture and mechanical arts. Choctaw girls were to learn how to sew and make clothing and to do household chores. Additional subjects taught by the schools included business skills and reading, writing, and spelling in the English language. Arithmetic, music, and geography were also taught, and in some schools pupils learned algebra, geometry, U.S. history, chemistry, philosophy, botany, astronomy, painting, drawing, and Latin grammar. Students were generally ten to sixteen years of age

The Wheelock Mission was chosen as the site for the female boarding school. In 1843, the Wheelock Female Seminary on the Choctaw Nation formally opened. While missionaries generally found the Choctaws’ native tongue to be the most effective language of instruction, the Choctaw Council, under the influence of the mixed-bloods, insisted that English be used exclusively in the boarding schools. Since English was a foreign language to most of the students this acted as a barrier to their progress. Students were forbidden to speak Choctaw not only in the classroom, but in addition the girls were forbidden to use it when conversing with each other.

With regard to instruction, five hours each day were dedicated to the classroom and four hours to domestic skills. Each of the girls was also assigned to household chores. In order to help defray the costs of operating the schools, the students helped operate the school. Academically, this was justified as a way of teaching them practical hands-on-experience in how to manage a dairy, feed a family, and care for a home. While they learned the skills necessary to run a non-Indian household, they were being purged of many traditional customs.

The school was viewed as an important instrument for spreading Christianity among the Choctaw. In nineteenth century terminology, a “seminary” was not a school dedicated solely to religious instruction, but one which offered a four-year high school curriculum.  

In 1844, the Choctaw finished construction of the Spencer Academy. The boarding school was intended to accommodate 100 boys. The school was named for John Spencer who served as Secretary of War from 1841-1843. Spencer donated a 250-pound bell to the school.

The Civil War interrupted the Choctaw school system and all of their schools were closed. After the war some of the boarding schools were re-opened. The New Hope Seminary and Spencer Academy were revived in 1871. In 1884 the Armstrong Academy was reopened as a school for orphan boys aged six to twelve, and the Wheelock Academy was reestablished as a school for orphan girls of the same age.

In 1898, the Curtis Act, intended to break up all of the Indian nations in Oklahoma, put the Choctaw schools under federal control. Slowly the federal government closed the Choctaw schools. By 1930 only two schools remained: the Jones Academy and the Wheelock Seminary. The Wheelock Seminary was merged with the Jones Academy in 1955. The Jones Academy is presently maintained under the direction of the Choctaw Nation as a residential care center for elementary and secondary age children.

The Choctaw Removal

By 1830, non-Indians in Mississippi, motivated by greed and racism, were strongly advocating the removal of the Choctaw from the state. According to the citizens of Mississippi (Indians could not be citizens at this time), the reasons for the Choctaw removal included:

(1) Mississippi needed more land to attract immigrants from the east

(2) The Choctaw imposed a heavy financial burden on the state because they did not pay taxes

(3) The Choctaw harbored runaway slaves and non-Indian criminals

(4) They were hunters, not farmers, and hence not devoted to cultivating their fields

(5) They were inferior human beings, incapable of being civilized and therefore Mississippi must remove them as one removes a cancer

(6) Their lands were all within state boundaries and therefore the land belonged to Mississippi

Choctaw Background:

In general, the Indian nations that occupied what is now the American South were skilled farmers. For more than a thousand years, they had been raising corn, beans, squash, and other plants and their surplus agricultural products had allowed the unskilled non-Indians to survive when they first invaded.

Among the Choctaw, it is estimated that corn provided about two-thirds of their diet. In addition to corn and beans, the Choctaw also grew squash, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, and tobacco.

Unlike the Europeans, the Indians of the Southeastern Woodlands did not view land as private property. Land was held in common with individuals and families having use rights. These farming rights were held as long as they continued to use the land. Use rights were generally respected and an individual or family would not seek access to a piece of land until it had been abandoned.

The Choctaw, at the time of European contact, were a loosely organized confederacy composed of three distinctly different divisions: Okla Falaya (Long People), Okla Tannap (People of the Opposite Side), and Okla Hannalia (Sixtown People). The people were living in more than 100 autonomous villages. Chiefs were selected from the senior matrilineal clan in the district. While there was a mingo (leader) for each district, there was no single overall mingo.

The Americans:

Beginning with the creation of the United States, its citizens and political leaders had discussed the idea that no Indians should be allowed in the new country. At the beginning of the nineteenth century this idea took root in the idea of removal. First promoted by Thomas Jefferson, the idea was simple: Indians should be removed west of the Mississippi River so that their lands could be developed. In order to promote this idea, it was necessary to ignore the fact that Indians had been farmers who had developed their lands for thousands of years and promote the idea of Indians as wandering hunters. With the purchase of the right to govern the Louisiana Territory in 1803, the U.S. had a place for Indian removal.

In 1803, President Jefferson told a Choctaw delegation:

“It is hereby announced and declared, by the authority of the United States, that all lands belonging to you, lying within the territory of the United States shall be and remain the property of your Nation forever, unless you shall voluntarily relinquish or dispose of the same.”

In that same year, Jefferson sent agents to the Choctaw to obtain lands from them. When the Choctaw leaders refused to discuss the matter of land cession, the United States officials then presented them with the overdue bills from Panton, Leslie and Company (a British trading company) and demanded immediate payment. As a result, the Choctaw chiefs signed the Treaty of Hoe Buckintoopa which ceded 853,760 acres of land to the United States. Two years later, the Americans used the same tactic to coerce the Choctaw leaders into signing another treaty in which they ceded four million acres of land in order to pay off debts to the trading company.  

In 1817, Mississippi became a state and thus put more pressure on the Choctaw to give up their lands so that non-Indians could develop cotton plantations. In this same year, President James Monroe tells Congress:

“The hunter state can exist only in the vast uncultivated desert. It yields to the more dense and compact form and great force of civilized population; and of right it ought to yield, for the earth was given to mankind to support the greatest number of which it is capable, and no tribe of people have a right to withhold from the wants of others more than is necessary for their own support and comfort.”

In 1818, the United States sent a delegation to meet with the Choctaw leaders and present them with a proposal to move to the west. The Choctaw leaders refused to discuss the matter. The non-Indians in Mississippi were not pleased with the failure of the negotiations and brought pressure for a “get tough” policy regarding the Choctaw.

The following year, the Secretary of War sent a new delegation, one led by Andrew Jackson, to meet with the Choctaw to discuss removal. For three days, Jackson lectured the Choctaw, threatened them, and cajoled them. Choctaw leader Pushmataha bluntly replied:

“We wish to remain here…and do not wish to be transplanted into another soil.”

Pushmataha also pointed out that the land west of the Mississippi was very poor and that the government was trying to cheat them by asking them to give up good farm lands for poor farm lands.

In 1820, the Mississippi state legislature proposed that the United States purchase Choctaw lands for “a small consideration.” Newspapers reported that the governor, the legislature, and the people of Mississippi (meaning Euroamericans) were greatly annoyed with the Choctaw and felt that Choctaw land ownership was a great detriment to the state.

In the same year, Andrew Jackson once again led a delegation to discuss removal with the Choctaw. The council was held at Doak Stand and the Americans provided each Indian with a daily ration of 1.5 pounds of beef, a pint of corn, and free access to alcohol. While most of the Choctaw drew the rations, the followers of Puckshunubbee refused as they did not want to accept American hospitality under false pretenses. At the council, the Choctaw leaders were told that if they did not cede their land to the United States, the government would stop protecting the Choctaw from non-Indian settlers and from the territorial designs of the states and that state government would simply assume control over Choctaw affairs and take the land anyway.

Under intense pressure from the U.S. government, the Choctaw leaders signed the Treaty of Doak’s Stand giving 6 million acres of land in Mississippi to the United States. In exchange, the United States was to give the Choctaw a similar piece of land west of the Mississippi River and to support all Choctaw migrants to this land for one year. In what was left of the Choctaw territory east of the Mississippi River, the Choctaw are to be allowed to live undisturbed and to eventually become American citizens. Each man who migrated to the west was to be given a blanket, kettle, rifle, bullet molds, powder, and enough corn to last his family for a year.

While non-Indians in Mississippi were pleased with this treaty, those in Arkansas, where the Choctaw were to be removed, were not. People in Mississippi told them that they should accept the “burden” of the Indians until they obtained statehood and then they could force the Indians to move farther west. The editor of the Mississippi Gazette wrote:

“In the course of time, the territory of Arkansas, will also claim a state of independence, the Indians must be removed from her soil-and she will set but little importance upon the arguments now volunteered for her, against the treaty which may effect it.”

In 1824, a ten-member Choctaw delegation under the leadership of Pushmataha traveled to Washington, D.C. to protest the fact that their western allotments in Oklahoma and Arkansas are already occupied by non-Indians. In Washington, the Secretary of War provided the delegation with a whiskey allowance of $3 per day per delegate, but this proved to be inadequate. Over a period of three months, each Indian averaged $8.21 per day for whiskey.

In 1825, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) met with the Choctaw and Chickasaw to convince them to move west. The tribal leaders tell him in no uncertain terms that they are not interested. The non-Indian citizens of Mississippi were outraged at this refusal and some demanded that the Indians be driven out by force.

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. In making the case for Indian removal, Lewis Cass, the Secretary of War, wrote in the North American Review:

“A barbarous people, depending for subsistence upon the scanty and precarious supplies furnished by the chase, cannot live in contact with a civilized community.”

President Andrew Jackson stated:

“It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy; and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”

Dancing Rabbit Creek:

In 1830 the Secretary of War (who is in charge of Indian affairs in the United States at this time) called the Choctaw leaders together at Dancing Rabbit Creek to negotiate a removal treaty. The United States ordered all missionaries to stay away from the council grounds under the pretext that their presence would be improper as the meeting was not a religious service, but a treaty negotiations session. The American negotiators feared that the missionaries would speak out against the treaty and convince the Choctaw, many of whom were Christian, that it was a bad deal. The missionaries complained bitterly about this decision, but to no avail.

According to the proposal which the Americans submitted to the Choctaw leadership, in removing to the west each Choctaw tribal member would receive money, farm and household equipment, subsistence for a full year, and they would be paid for all improvements made to their Mississippi lands. While the American negotiators were confident that the Choctaw would accept the treaty, the Choctaw council voted unanimously to reject it. They gave two reasons for the rejections: (1) they wanted a perpetual guarantee that the United States would never try to possess their new lands in the west, and (2) they were dissatisfied with the lands which had been offered to them in Indian territory.

In response to the Choctaw rejection of the treaty, the Americans informed the Choctaw that they must either move west or be placed under Mississippi law. Under Mississippi law they would lose their lands, receiving nothing for them. If they resisted, the Americans told them, then the American armed forces would destroy them. As a result of these threats, the Choctaw leaders and the American negotiators reached an agreement in which the Choctaw got a perpetual guarantee of their new home. Under the treaty, non-Indians were not to be allowed to enter the Choctaw nation without the consent of tribal government. The exception to this is the Indian agent who was to be appointed by the President every four years.

The removal of the Choctaw from Mississippi was to take place over a period of three years, with one group (supposedly one-third of the nation) moving west each year. By 1833, according to the treaty, the Choctaw nation would no longer be in Mississippi.

Recognizing that not all tribal members might want to move, the treaty allowed for some to remain in Mississippi. Chiefs who remained were to receive four sections of land and an annual payment of $250;  adults were to receive 640 acres; children over 10, 160 acres. Indians failing to register within 6 months would be barred from registering.

In response to the treaty, Chief David Folsom said:

“Our doom is sealed. There is no other course for us but to turn our faces to our new homes toward the setting sun.”

The Removals:

In December of 1830, 400 individuals left for the west. This initial group was composed of Choctaw captains and high-ranking warriors who felt that they could sell their lands for a handsome price at this time and feared that if they delayed the land values would decrease.

A second group of about 4,000 left in 1831. They were transported by steamboat as far as possible up the Arkansas and Ouachita Rivers. They arrived at their new homes after a five month journey. Many of them were sick and all of them were exhausted and discouraged.

In 1832, the removal of the remaining Mississippi Choctaw was turned over to the army. Under orders to economize, rations were decreased and transportation was provided only for the very young and those who were very sick. Nine thousand Choctaw were removed, most of whom walked all the way to their new homes. They had no time to prepare for the trip and were told that the American government would provide all supplies. They were issued one blanket per family (there were an average of six people per family). They were forced by the government to leave during the winter and en route they encountered a snow storm. Ice flows prevented them from crossing the Mississippi River and they huddled in the freezing rain for several days. Many died of starvation and exposure. During the 350 mile forced march, in which many did not have shoes to wear, it was estimated that 2,500 died. The Choctaw were not allowed to care for the bodies of the dead in their traditional way. Instead, the Americans forced them to bury the dead in a European fashion.

Staying Behind:

Those Choctaw who wanted to remain in Mississippi under the terms of their treaty found it difficult to do so. The Indian agent was strongly opposed to having any Choctaw remain, so he simply put off registering them as long as he could. He pretended to be sick, and sometimes went into hiding. He was determined to deny the Choctaw their treaty rights. Reluctantly, he registered a few-69-so he could show at least token compliance with the terms of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.

Indians & Race in the South After the Civil War

Following the Civil War, attitudes regarding race in the South hardened. Reinforced by pseudo-scientific reports that claimed that Whites were a superior race, and by religious claims that Whites had been chosen by God to have dominion over others, the Southern states passed laws regarding miscegenation and other forms of racial mixing (including segregated schooling, housing, and health care). Race functioned to rationalize thoughts and behavior; to explain both human behavior and social status as being innate.  

As a biracial South developed, the Indians were placed in a difficult position. Many had been slave owners prior to the Civil War and had attitudes toward African Americans that were similar to Southern Americans. On the other hand, the Southern Americans viewed the world as having only two kinds of people: Whites and Others (including African-Americans, Coloreds, and Indians). Thus in the eyes of many non-Indians, Indians in the South were the same as African-Americans: they were an inferior race and were to be segregated from White Americans. The greatest challenge faced by the Native people who remained in the South was that racism distinguished only between black and white. The dominant white society often refused to acknowledge any distinction among ‘people of color’ and placed African Americans and Native Americans in the same category. This biracial obsession denied the distinct cultures, histories, and problems of Native people.

The concept of Indians as a distinct race is neither an Indian concept nor an ancient European one. Indians were originally seen by Europeans not as racial inferiors but as people in a less developed state of culture, not unlike English peasants before the Romans arrived. When the Creek first came into contact with Europeans and for several generations afterward, they had no concept of race. Any child of a Creek mother was also Creek, sharing her town and clan affiliations.

Many Southern Americans strongly believed (and some still continue to believe) that all Indians had voluntarily left the South and relocated to Oklahoma. Therefore, anyone who claimed to be Indian was obviously a fraud, perhaps a Black trying to pass as non-Black. Therefore, it was easy to dismiss claims of Indianness and to assign these people to the inferior legal status of “colored.”

The American federal government also reinforced the concepts of race which had been reported by some of the pseudo-scientific studies of the nineteenth century. In order to determine who was Indian, the federal government adopted and promoted the idea of blood quantum. According to the blood quantum theory, the amount of ‘blood’ a person possesses from a particular race determines the degree to which that person resembles and behaves like other members of that race.

Blood quantum is based on the idea that race, and therefore behavior, is somehow carried in the blood, and that an Indian who has some European “blood” would be superior to a “full-blood” Indian. From the viewpoint of the federal government, a person with less than one-half or one-quarter Indian “blood” could be considered non-Indian. However, the social rules regarding miscegenation clearly indicate that a single drop of black blood made the individual black.  

In the century following the Civil War, Indian people in the Southeast had to fight to carve out for themselves an identity that retained their Indian culture in an environment that denied this heritage. In Mississippi, for example, the Choctaw refused to be lumped with the black community and they constantly sought to assert their separate Indian identity. Among the Mississippi Choctaw, native dress, language, dances, music, games, and crafts have had an important function as symbols of a distinct ethnic identity, and this function has served to foster their survival.