Choctaw Government

Bishinik, February 1979, Page 14,  March 1979, page 14 and later?

Choctaw Government In The Nineteenth Century

The first written records concerning the Choctaws were those made by Hernando De Soto’s chroniclers, the Gentleman of Elvas and Ranjel. In 1540 De Soto was welcomed hospitably into the Choctaw country by a chief named Tuskaloosa (tushka lusa, black warrior) “the suzerain of many territories, and, of a numerous people.” When the Spaniard demanded carriers and women, Tuskaloosa promised to collect them at Mobila, a fortified town on the Gulf coast probably located at or near the site of Mobile, Alabama. But the Choctaw chief actually assembled his warriors there, strengthened the fortifications of the town, and almost defeated De Soto in the fight which ensued. The Spanish rallied, however, trapped the Choctaws inside their fortifications, and set fire to the town. Nearly all the Indians were burned to death or killed as they tried to escape. After a time, De Soto moved on west and north to the Mississippi River, but not until he had given the Choctaws their first experience with the avarice and lust of the European invaders.

For the century and a half following De Soto’s visitation, the Choctaws were relatively undisturbed by white encroachments, By 1700, however, the French had begun to establish themselves in the lower Mississippi valley – Biloxi in 1699; Mobile, 1702; and New Orleans, 1718 and French sources furnish the bulk of written information concerning the Choctaws during the eighteenth century. Because of their strategic location in the lower Mississippi valley, where French, Spanish, and English spheres of influence overlapped, the Choctaws were of interest to all three of these European powers. As a result, in addition to French sources, a few Spanish and English accounts exist concerning the Choctaws in the eighteenth century.  The United States, of course, replaced the English influence after the American Revolution and the French or Spanish capacity to affect the future of the Choctaws was eliminated by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and, the events which culminated in the so-called Florida Purchase of 1819.

“The fact of the matter is there were few customs observable among them sufficiently striking to attract the attention of European travelers- little copy stuff, in other words such as would interest officers of trading corporations or missionary societies or governmental functionaries back home, or such as could be used to circulate explorer’s narratives. Seemingly their unique way of disposing of the dead was the only feature of their lives thought worthy of much publicity, and that is about all that is purely Choctaw which early writers vouchsafe us.”

Swanton noted further that, “although the Choctaw people had moved toward some “political centralization” as aborigines, their government had not become spectacular or oppressive, and therefore interesting to white men.” He also observed among the Choctaws a lack of: “… complicated religious ceremonials to arrest the attention of the foreigner and the intelligence of the native, and it is the general testimony that the Choctaw were less inclined to display their superiority to other people by trying to kill them than is usual even in more civilized societies.”

He stated that they raised a surplus of corn for trade with both Europeans and neighboring tribes, who did not compete well with the Choctaws economically; that they were not aggressive in war, but defended themselves against invaders with “dauntless bravery;” and finally that they: ” … enjoyed the enviable position of being “just folks,” uncontaminated with the idea that they existed for the sake of political, religious, or military organization.”

Among the early French accounts of the Choctaws examined by Dr. Swanton was a section of a “French Relation” (Relation de la Louisianne) which he discovered in the Edward E. Ayer collection of the Newberry Library, Chicago. This document, which he dated as about 1755 or earlier, Dr. Swanton translated into English for publication in 1918 as Volume V, Part 2, of the Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association. He describes this record concerning the 18th century Choctaw institutions, although more complete than most others of that century, as still a “relatively feeble” effort. “Feeble” perhaps, but more informative then most other sources on primitive Choctaw society.

The “Relation,” which will be used to identify this document hereafter, noted that the “chaquetas” were divided into three cantons, or districts. These were the Eastern or “Ougoula annale” (Okla hannali or Six Towns people); the Western or “Ougoula tanama” (Okla tanampi or hostile people); and the Southern or “Taboka” (taboka or noon people). Most later students have placed the Six Towns people in the Southern District, but Swanton believes that probably the Six Towns comprised a fourth district, observing that: “… we must treat them (the number of Choctaw districts) as four in order to introduce any order into the several town classifications which have come down to us.” It seems pretty clear that the Sixtown Indians lived in the southern part of the old Choctaw territory, were clearly differentiated from the rest, the separation being partly linguistic and partly cultural. However that may be, most scholars have recognized only three Choctaw districts in parts of what are now Mississippi and Alabama, the northwest, northeast, and south sections of the nation. Boundaries were blurred and probably some border Choctaw villages for various reasons separated themselves from the sovereignty of one district chief to recognize that of another, or, of course, to flout any higher authority. We shall see that the power of any Choctaw ruler was likely to be quite limited at any period of Choctaw history.

The “Relation” mentioned a “grand chief” who had absolute power, but then severely qualified the statement by explaining that the chief’s power was ineffective in actual practice. His authority was recognized only if he seriously exerted his right to it and even then, according to the “Relation,” since: “… disobedience is not punished among them, and they do not usually do what is recommended to them, except when they want to, it may be said that it is an ill-disciplined government.”

Perhaps French observers during the eighteenth century did not comprehend fully the political organization of the Choctaws. The possibility exists that there was no “grand” chief for the whole nation, but only a head chief for each of the three or four districts. The writer of the “Relation” placed the residence of the “grand chief” at a town of the South district named “Coit chitou” with the explanation that, “This name means ‘a great league’; they say that formerly this village was a great league in circuit. It is where the grand chief lives.” Swanton follows the spelling of Du Roullet (1729) in mention of this village, using Koweh chito and noting that kowey or koi become the Choctaw word for an English “mile.” Du Roullet also noted that this was the home of the Minko chito” or “capitane.” The latter title obviously derived from the Spanish. It may be that the “grand chief” at Koweh chito exercised whatever sovereignty he possessed over only the Central and South districts, combined into one jurisdiction by the time the Choctaws came under American control, and that the Northeast and Northwest districts each had their own “grand chiefs.” If there were head chiefs for the entire Choctaw Nation during the 1700s, there was certainly no national capital, such as Koweh Chito. In 1748 the chief of Holihta asha (fort place) – holihta kullo aiasha – a town of the northeast district, was called the “head chief” of the Choctaws, and in 1787 Franchimastabe, a chief who resided in West Yazoo of the northwest district, was considered the chief of chiefs.

It is possible that during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both European and American observers were misled into perceiving one of the three district chiefs as the principal chief because he appeared to dominate the other two, by being more talkative, in conferences with white representatives. In the early 1800s, for instance, the Americans considered Pushmataha more forceful than either of his two fellow chiefs, Apukshunnubbee or Mushulatubbee, perhaps because he adapted himself more easily to the white man’s company. But the truth may have been quite the contrary, when viewed through Choctaw eyes, and the dominant chief may actually have been Apukshunnubbee, the one who kept himself most aloof from white influence. At least one Mississippi historian, J. F. Claiborne, wrote: The celebrated chief, Puk-sha-nubbee, was famous as a warrior and as an orator. In his life time his influence, though circumscribed formally by district lines, was supreme over the nation. His life span coincided closely with that of Pushmataha; their deaths occurred within a few weeks of each other, late in 1824. Whichever chief dominated, if either one, neither was ever officially designated the “principal” chief.

The “Relation” named forty-five villages or towns and the “number of men” estimated for each, the largest number for any town being four hundred and the smallest only thirty. The author of the “Relation” noted that many of the villages had the same name and admitted that: Besides these forty-five villages there are many little ones whose names I do not know, which have, however, their own chiefs like the big ones. But as these villages are very remote and very small, the French have scarcely any dealings with them, and have knowledge of them only when the savages speak of them themselves.
(To be continued next month)

Bishinik, March 1979, Page 14

Choctaw Government In The Nineteenth Century

Chief Puk-sha-nubbee further remarked that a few “Chaquetas” did not make villages at all, but were hunters who followed the herds of bison from which they secured meat for food. Practically all the Choctaws, however, lived in village communities and were agriculturists. Dr. Swanton, in Choctaw Social and Ceremonial Life, listed 115 Choctaw towns by name and location but made no attempt to give their populations. According to the “Relation” each Choctaw town or village with a few exceptions had a chief and a war chief as governing officials. Swanton found a 1729 list of fifteen villages and the chiefs of each to whom a French official, Du Roullet, had presented gifts. In three of the towns eight, seven, and six chiefs and warriors respectively received presents; four chiefs received gifts in three towns respectively; three each in three towns; two each in five towns; and one chief in a single town.

The additional chiefs, besides the head chief and war chief, were usually lieutenants and assistants of the two leading mingoes in each village. “Mingo” was derived from minko, a Choctaw word usually translated by the white man as “chief.” Probably “leader” would be a more realistic meaning, because “chief” indicated to the white man a leader with more power than that actually exercised by a minko. The “Relation” mentions a “Tichou-mingo” from tishu, servant, and mingo – who served as aide-de-camp to the head chief of a village. The author of the “Relation” wrote that the Tishu mingo was:
“… like a major. It is he who arranges for all of the ceremonies, the feasts, and the dances. He acts as speaker for the chief, and makes the warriors and strangers smoke.” The Tichou-mingo usually become village chiefs.

The war chief in each village was assisted by one or two lieutenants, identified in the “Relation” as “Tascamingoutchy.” More modern Choctaw spelling would make this Tuska-mingo-achi meaning the one or ones who spoke for, assisted, or represented the war chief.

The “Relation” divided the Choctaw population generally into four social classes. On top of the heap were the chiefs of various ranks, those in positions of authority in government. The next in rank were the “Atacoulitopa or beloved men (hommes de valleur).” These were undoubtedly the hatak holitopa, “men honorable,” whom Cyrus Byington in his dictionary variously defined as gentlemen, or respected, rich, and-or worthy men. They formed a primitive Choctaw aristocracy. Those of the third class were called simply the “tasca” (tuska or tushka), meaning warriors. Finally, come the general public, but men only, whom the “Relation” identified as “atoc emittla,” or “those who have not struck blows or have killed only a woman or a child.” Atoc emittla probably derived from hatak (man) and perhaps imatali, is defined as a “supporter” or provider.”

The situation of women and children in Choctaw society, however, was not as bad as the explanation of atoc emittla might suggest, since both enjoyed freedom from arbitrary oppression by the men in their daily lives. In truth, the women in primitive Choctaw society were the “keepers of life,” while the men were the “keepers of death,” obviously, the ancient Choctaws realized the importance of women and gave them such powers that their position might be considered not inferior, but superior. As “keepers of life” the women owned the home and fields and had charge of rearing the children – actually, Choctaw children were allowed great freedom. In addition, ancestral lineage was determined through the mother’s family. At least in everday life, local Choctaw Society was a matriarchy.

The “powerful indefiniteness,” mentioned by Swanton as his state of mind after studying available sources on primitive Choctaw society, frustrates anyone who seeks an understanding of how Choctaw chiefs attained positions of leadership in prehistoric times. It is not clear that formal elections were ever held. Perhaps a mingo secured and maintained his position by sheer force of character in time of crisis when leadership was desperately needed. There is some indication that chiefs earned their positions by acceptable performance in lesser offices. For example, the “Relation” states that a servant chief a “Tichou-Mingo,” usually moved into the position of village chief when a vacancy occurred in that office. These promotions could have been by common consent, but some formal election procedure surely must have been the practice. Israel Folsom, mixed-blood Choctaw minister, was quoted by H. B. Cushman in the History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez Indians as writing that the “tribal or national government was vested in the royal family,” as if the office of head chief were hereditary. But Folsom did not elaborate on the statement and little real evidence has been uncovered elsewhere to support the idea that a chieftainship among the Choctaws was ever inherited. In fact, in the same paragraph in which he mentioned a “royal family,” Israel Folsom also observed that the “chief’s office was one merely of supremacy or leadership, and consequently there was no pay attached to it……”

One of Swanton’s sources concerning early Choctaw government was Simpson Tubby, great-grandson of Mushulatubbee, chief of the Northeast District in the early 1800s. Swanton was not certain that Tubby’s account pictured the prehistoric Choctaw government as it actually functioned, but he believed that Tubby told the truth as he had learned and remembered it. Tubby understood that:

After the death of a head chief the vice-chief took his place until the people had a chance to assemble and elect a new one, and the vice-chief was not necessarily the one chosen. It was said that if the women wanted a certain chief he was almost certain of election. . . . If the head chief, . died suddenly and the vice-chief could not be present at an assembly which had already been summoned, the wife of the deceased spoke for him, she having been kept informed by him of any business in hand. She wore a blue veil as a symbol of truth (red was a symbol of war or anything hostile) and when she rose to speak with this on, all kept quiet and listened attentively. This supports both the idea that chiefs were elected and that the position of women among the Choctaws was invested with greater respect than the early French chroniclers had perceived it to be.

Alfred Wright, missionary sent to the Choctaws by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionary, was a competent observer of early Choctaw society. He explained in 1828 that the Choctaws: “… were divided into two great families, or clans, embracing the whole tribe, or nation. Intermarriages between those of the some clan were forbidden. The husband and wife must always be of different clans. The children are reckoned with the clan to which the wife belongs …. there is a division in every family, the father on one side, the mother and children on the other. And at their funeral solemnities and other public meetings, where they are arranged according to this order, the father is seen sitting at one fire, and the mother and children at another. As the mother takes her children into her own clan, the father has no control over them, but the woman’s brothers are considered the natural guardians of the children.

Each of the two great clans, Wright believed, was divided into three sub-divisions, so that perhaps six clans were identifiable. Even though all six were represented among the people of a village, each individual knew to which clan he belonged. Possibly clan membership was one of the qualifications considered when selecting a chief for a village or district, but certainly family relationships, force of character, charisma, and a demonstrated concern for the welfare of the people would all be important factors in the choice of leaders.

Most American observers of the Choctaws, who wrote in the nineteenth century concerning primitive Choctaw society, reinforce Swanton’s impression of “powerful indefiniteness,” especially in government. Swanton himself, for example, after listing 115 Choctaw towns, qualified the results of his bit of research with the following:

My list of towns contains 115 entries, but the places designated were probably not all occupied at the same time and there is reason to suspect that, on moving to a new site, a Choctaw community sometimes changed its name. Moreover, certain of the names no doubt belonged to villages never permanently detached from some larger town. Making all due allowances, however, there were probably at one time from 40 to 50 small communities constituting small states, each with its chief, or war chief, two, lieutenants of the war chief, or Taskaminkochi, and on assistant to or speaker for the town chief, the Tishu minko. Just as no hard-and-fast list of primitive Choctaw communities is possible, neither can indisputable conclusions be drawn concerning primitive Choctaw government.

Was the prehistoric Choctaw government ever controlled by a single chief? If so, did he exercise real power? Did a ruling chief always reside in a single town which served him as a capital? As previously indicated, available evidence makes unqualified answers to these questions impossible, but strongly indicates that no truly “principal” chief ever played an effective role in primitive Choctaw government. Alfred Wright wrote from Mississippi in 1829 that: “The Choctaw nation is divided into three districts, each of which has a principal chief elected by the people; and … each of these districts is divided into many smaller portions, over each of which a headman or captain presides, who is elected by the people of his clan.”

Perhaps Wright had incomplete information from his Choctaw informants, but it is interesting that he should designate each district chief as a “principal chief.” A Mississippi historian of the nineteenth century, J. F. H. Claiborne, had the same concept when he wrote: “The Choctaws, from time immemorial, were divided into three beats or districts, each under charge of a head chief, who never exercised (his) authority, in important junctures, without the counsel and consent of the sages and warriors….”
(To be continued next month)

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