Choctaw Law 2

BISHINIK February 1996, page 3

Laws of the (Old) Choctaw Nation

by Susan H. DePrim

Although the Choctaws were, in essence, a simple culture, a basic comprehension of the social and political structure is necessary to understand reasoning and motivation behind several of the Choctaws’ strictest laws. The tribe was divided into two moieties, the upper, Imoklasha and the lower, Iholahata. Each moiety was further divided into several clans, and these clans were divided into family-clans, or “iksa.” The Choctaws were historically a people of town-dwellers, with each town being headed by a council of elders. The elders were “elected” by the men of the iksa, but the election was not formal or traditional by today’s standards. Election of a “mingo” or “miko” (chief) happened continuously and informally, each man’s choice manifesting through loyalty and following, with no formal office held and no specific term.

“Each miko present at the council had achieved his status by the manner in which he conducted his life. He was admired by many, the degree of admiration felt for him related directly to his stature among the people. A miko was not elected to his position, and did not inherit it; the position carried no term of office. For indeed, if his following for some reason deserted him, he immediately lost his stature and many Choctaws ceased to look to him for guidance.”

Within the clan-iksas, there was a simple class hierarchy structure, as well. The highest were the chiefs (mingos or mikos), comprised of grand chiefs, village chiefs and war chiefs. The second class was the Atacoulitoupa or “beloved men,” and the third class was the tasca, or “warriors.” The fourth class of men were called “atac emittla,” which approximately means “supporting man,” and members of this class were limited to those who had either not struck blows at all, or had only killed a woman or child.

Leadership within the Choctaw Nation was not only comparatively tenuous on the political front due to the informality as well as the basis on which leadership was granted, but other aspects of Choctaw society may also be described as having suffered from the same malady. The legal system was established through custom, not legislation, with political, as well as national defense decisions made on the basis of consensus. Due to the combination of consensus based decision-making, the Choctaws’ well documented fierce and unabiding emphasis on individual liberty, and the amorphous nature of formal leadership, the Choctaws necessarily developed an unequaled power of persuasion over their own, as well as outsiders. An early account of the Choctaws hypothesizes that within their own military ranks, the Choctaw leadership was forced to develop these powers of persuasion in order to get his men to follow orders.

In sum, the political and social structure of the ancient Choctaw Nation focused primarily on accountability, egalitarianism, and negotiated political decision-making, with the people as the sovereign power.

Susan Neiswender DePrim is currently a third year law student at the University of Florida College of Law. She has a Master of Public Administration Degree from the University of Central Florida, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Public Relations/Journalism from Florida State University. (1996)

Of Equity and Democracy

The Legal History of the Choctaw Nation, Before Removal

by Susan H. DePrim

about the author Susan Neiswender DePrim is a law student at the University of Florida College of Law. She has a Master of Public Administration Degree from the University of Central Florida, and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Public Relations/Journalism from Florida State University. Prior to entering law school, Ms. DePrim was the Marketing and Business Development Manager for two regional engineering firms in Florida. Ms. DePrim will take the July, 1996 Bar Examination, and plans to remain in Florida to pursue her legal career.

Due to the length, Ms. DePrim’s legal history research report is being published in BISHINIK in portions. The first part was printed in the February 1996 issue. This is the second.

Morality and the Law

The operative body of the Choctaw law was not legislative in nature. The Choctaw society depended on each person following accepted social customs and mores as communicated through their oral stories, fables and legends. Reeves (Carolyn Keller Reeves, The Choctaw Before Removal, pub. 1985) explains the differences in the classes of stories: “The different types of stories served to maintain different aspects of Choctaw society. Legends imparted a knowledge of Choctaw history, manner of government, and responsibilities, the discharge of which ensured the well-being of the people. Myths provided spiritual explanations for the existence of environmental phenomena which could not otherwise be understood. The fables helped regulate social behavior by giving instruction regarding the consequences of unrestrained actions.”

Behavior regulation through storytelling could naturally lead in the direction of establishing religious parameters of right and wrong. By most accounts, the Choctaw were not a highly religious nation, in the traditional meaning of the term. One early account described the Choctaw aggregate sense of moral obligation as “extremely feeble.” (from Alfred Wright, Choctaws: Religious Opinions, Traditions, Etc., pub. 1828). That particular writing was in the context of the encroaching Christian religion, and spoke mainly of the Choctaw’s general ignorance of the Christian God.

Apart from an apparent lack of “religious sophistication,” though, the Choctaws are viewed as historically possessing strong moral fiber. For example, Young (F.B. Young, Esq., Notices of the Chaktaw or Choktah Tribe of North American Indians, pub. 1830) writes, “It may be observed that, without arts, riches, and luxury, the great instruments of subjection in polished societies, the Chactaw (sic) Indian has no method by which he can render himself conspicuous among his companions, but by a superiority in personal qualities of body and mind.”

Although most accounts of the Choctaw Nation report a belief in a superior being, the general belief system mostly has been described as being a combination of sun-worship and animism. In linking religion with the legal system via the path of morality, Choctaw history becomes somewhat nebulous. Competing sources tell of a similar theory of Choctaw afterlife being the “good, hunting ground” for those who conducted themselves properly during this life. These sources diverge, though, when detailing the Choctaw theory of the spirits of those who, failed to conduct themselves properly. One line of authority tells of the spirit of a “bad” person walking a suspended log on its way to the “good hunting ground,” and slipping off the log.

The other line of authority states that there was never historical mention of disposition of one’s soul, and the story of the suspended log only developed after the introduction of Christianity and the concept of good and evil as they relate to the after life. (Jesse 0. McKee and Jon A. Schlenker, The Choctaws: Cultural Evolution of a Native American Tribe, pub. 1980).

All accounts agree, though, that the Choctaws depended heavily on magic, and their belief in the supernatural. They believed (in) benevolent spirits that wished them (no) harm as long as they observed certain “natural… laws,” and followed their customs and rituals. It was for this reason that the Choctaws made the continuous effort to maintain a balance between their needs and the needs to their surrounding environment. The Choctaws’ global environmental morality functioning as their prevailing religion seems to provide a strong foundation for their legal system, which stressed respect for the individual and the environment and punitive measures which would restore the “balance of the universe.”