ARTICLES ON CHOCTAW LIFE
All material should be assumed to be copyrighted by the author, whether specifically noted or not!
Tribal Rainmakers … fact or fiction?
H.B. Cushman, in the book, “History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez Indians”, published in Greenville, Texas, 1899, says of Choctaw rainmaking ceremonies …
In the matter of rain, the Choctaw Rainmaker truly swayed the sceptre of authority in that line of art, undisputed, and was regarded with reverential awe by his people. In all cases of protracted drouth, which was quite frequent at an early day in their ancient domains, the Hut-tak Umba Ikbi, (man rain maker) was regarded as the personage in whom alone was vested the power to create rain; therefore to him they went with their offerings and supplications, the former, however, partaking more of a persuasive nature than the latter, in the judgement of the Umba Ikbi, as an effectual means to bring into requisition his mysterious power in the matter of rain. He without hesitation promised to heed their solicitations, though gently hinting that, in his judgement, the offerings were not in as exact ratio to their importunities as they should have been. However, he now assumes an air of mysterious thoughtfulness and, “grand, gloomy and peculiar wrapped in the solitude of his own imagination,” strolled from village to village, gazing at the sun by day and the stars by night, seeming to hold communion with the spirits of the upper worlds; finally he ventured his reputation by specifying a certain day upon which he would make it rain.
The day arrived, and if haply came with it a rain the faith of his dupes was confirmed, his mystic power unquestioned, and the Umba Ikbi made comfortable. But if otherwise, he did not as the Alikchi, attribute his failure to the counteracting influence of a witch in the person of an old woman, but to that of a brother Umba Ikbi living in some remote part of the nation, with who he was just then at variance. He now informs his unfortunate but not faithless people that an Umba Ikbi’s mind must be free of all contending emotions while engaged in the mystic ceremonies of rain making; that he was now angry, too much mad to make it rain.
Upon which announcement, the now despairing people earnestly solicited to know if they, in any way could assuage his wrath. He replied in the negative; but promised, however, to consider the matter as soon as his anger abated. He now became more reserved; sought solitude where undisturbed he might scan the sky and perchance discern some sign of rain. Sooner or later, he discovers a little hazy cloud stretched along the distant western horizon; attentively and carefully watches it as broader and higher it ascends, until he feels sure he can safely risk another promise; then leaves his place of secret and thoughtful meditation and, with countenance fair as a summer morn, presents himself before his despairing people and announces his anger cooled and wrath departed, that now he would bring rain without delay, yet dropping a casual hint as to the efficiency of a coveted pony, cow, blanket, etc., being added, as a surer guarantee, since “the laborer was worthy of his hire.”
The hint was comprehended and fully complied with in hopeful expectation. Anon the low muttering thunder vibrates along the western horizon in audible tones, and the lightning flash is seen athwart the western sky heralding the gathering and approaching storm; soon the sky is overcast with clouds of blackest hue while the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s roar seem to proclaim to the people their Wonderful Umba Ikbi’s secret power in the affair of rain; and, as the vast sheets of falling water wet the parched earth they sing his praise; which he, with assumed indifference, acknowledged with an approving grunt; then, with measured steps, sought his home, there to await another necessity that would call him forth to again deceive his credulous admirers.
Little Choctaw ponies – dependable and strong
The famous little Choctaw pony was a veritable forest camel to the Choctaw hunter, as the genuine animal is to the sons of Ishmael. His unwearied patience, and his seemingly untiring endurance of hardships and fatigue, were truly astonishing surpassing, according to his inches, every other species of his race – and providing himself to be a worthy descendant of his ancient parent, the old Spanish war-horse, introduced by the early Spanish explorers of the continent. In all the Choctaws’ expeditions, except those of war in which they never used horses, the chubby little pony always was considered an indispensable adjunct, therefore always occupied a conspicuous place in the cavalcade.
A packsaddle which Choctaw ingenuity had invented expressly for the benefit of the worthy little fellow’s back, and finely adapted in every particular for its purpose, was firmly fastened upon his back, ready to receive the burden, which was generally divided into three parts, each weighing from forty to fifty pounds.
Two of these were suspended across the saddle by means of a rawhide rope one-fourth of an inch in diameter and of amazing strength, and the third securely fastened upon the top, over all of which a bear or deer skin was spread, which protected it from rain. All things being ready, the hunter, as leader and protector, took his position in front, sometimes on foot and sometimes astride a pony of such diminutive proportions, that justice and mercy would naturally have suggested a reverse in the order of things, and, with his trusty rifle in his hand, without which he never went anywhere, took up the line of march, and directly after whom, in close order, the loaded ponies followed in regular succession one behind the other, while the dutiful wife and children brought up the rear in regular, successive order, often with from three to five children on a single pony – literally hiding the submissive little fellow from view. Upon the neck of each pony a little bell was suspended, whose tinkling chimes of various tones broke the monotony of the desert air, and added cheerfulness to the novel scene.
Today, in the mountains not far from the Choctaw Capitol Grounds, on a ranch called Medicine Springs, Gilbert Jones has Choctaw ponies running freely. Some Spanish mustangs are visible from the road at the Capitol Grounds, close to the buffalo roaming the hills at Tushka Homma.
Choctaw basketry one of traditional talents
Basketry is a talent the Choctaws have carried into the present. In the old days, they collected the canes and made baskets from them in winter because cane is said to be too brittle in summer. The outside skins of the canes which were to be used were split off by means of a knife made especially for the purpose, and usually by the silversmith. Before the whites came it is claimed that they skinned the cane “with a whetstone made of a piece of hickory which had turned to rock.” Canes were kept in stacks covered an inch or two with water.
They had both single-woven baskets and double-woven baskets. The following names of baskets were given as:
Nanaskata tapushik, “a scrap basket.”
Bashpo apita, “knife basket.”
Shapo tapushik, the hamper carry basket, “load basket.”
Halat nowa tapushik, dinner basket, “to walk holding basket” hand basket
Okhinsh apita tapushik, “medicine basket,” a basket with a division in it, two lids and two handles.
Okhinsh ahoyo tapushik, “medicine gathering basket.”
Ufko tapushik, fanner, a basket for sifting corn, etc.
The word for a plait or weave is pana. A single weave, skipping one, is pana chafa, a double weave, skipping two is pana tukalo, a triple weave, skipping three, pana tuchina.
A double basket is called tapushik pothoma.
A yellowish dye for baskets was obtained from puccoon or “coon” roots, walnut was employed rather rarely to give a brownish color, and maple yielded a dark purple, Roots were gathered in the fall when all the substance was in them. They were boiled until the infusion was thick, then it was strained and put into bottles.
Cane was wound into a coil and boiled in a round pot containing the dye. It was turned over once unless the dye had taken hold rapidly. Then it was removed, and hung up after the liquid had been carefully shaken back into the pot. Sometimes they had pots of each of the three dyes in use at the same time.
The butt end of a cane where the outside skin was thick could be used just like a knife. It made a bad wound and cut meat like steel.
(Accompanying Photo Caption) These baskets are among some of the museum displays at the Tribal Capitol museum at Tushka Homma. They represent a variety of uses the Choctaws had for the handwoven vessels.
August 1994 Bishinik page 3
Choctaw Tradition:Raising Children
The children grew up in almost unrestrained freedom. Such slight control as was imposed upon them was vested in the mother in the case of the girls, while the maternal uncle had authority over the boys.
Neither boys nor girls were allowed to carry burdens, but they were encouraged to exercise freely to make them active. The boys roamed through the woods from village to village, shooting at birds and small animals with their blow guns, or, with the innate cruelty of little savages, tormenting dogs or other animals that fell into their hands. They began at an early age to play at the two games of ball, and to engage in violent feats of wrestling and running.
They also practiced the use of the bow and arrow, and their skill was noticed and praised by the older men. Even the little boys took delight in proving their hardihood by self-inflicted pain, and when a youth was recognized as a warrior he was required to submit to a severe beating without flinching or showing any sign of suffering.<
Choctaw children were usually named after animals, or for some incident connected with their birth. Later in life they received new names as a recognition of some special achievement, or from some incident or adventure, or as an indication of some personal characteristic. Speeches and ceremonials usually accompanied the bestowal of this second title,
The word humma or homma, meaning”red,” was often added to a man’s name as a mark of distinction, and a great portion of the war names carried the termination abi, signifying “killer,” which was corrupted by the whites into the “tubbee” so frequently found in later native Choctaw names.
From: The Rise And Fall Of The Choctaw Republic, p. 17, by Angie Debo, Copyright © 1934, 1961 by the University of Oklahoma Press. (Portions taken from Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians by John R. Swanton, p. 125-126)
The Choctaw Flatheads
By Rita Laws
What looks beautiful to you? Some folks pierce their ears to look nice. In India, a woman may pierce one side of her nose! Some ladies like to wear make-up on their eyes. In Africa, many people decorate their entire bodies with paint. Men, too!
Long ago, what looked beautiful to the Choctaws looked strange to other people. Our ancestors believed that a flat forehead was the best looking feature a person could have. White men often called them “Flatheads” but it was only the front that was flat.
Is your forehead round? The Flatheads had foreheads so square, they looked like the side of a brick! From birth, parents placed a small bag of sand on a baby’s forehead when the baby was asleep. The bones were gently flattened over time, and it did not hurt at all!
Choctaw children grew up seeing many flattened foreheads that looked very beautiful to them. Imagine how shocked they must have been to meet other people with round heads!
Copyright ©1998 by Rita Laws
Tell me about my heritage
The Choctaw was extremely reluctant to pronounce his own name. The wife was also forbidden to speak the name of her husband; when it was necessary for her to distinguish him, she referred to him by the name of her child, as “Ok-le-wo-na’s father.” An even stricter taboo forbade them to name their dead. United States Commissioner Claiborne found in allotting lands, that the only way in which the parents could be induced to present claims for their deceased children was by asking them to arrange their families in a line according to ages; they invariably left a vacancy where the deceased would have stood.
Although the Choctaws held no strict notions of sexual morality, it would appear from the testimony of those who lived among them in later years that they were a relatively chaste people whose family life was pure. In cases of adultery the woman was subject to punishment by her husband. If her family chanced to be stronger or more numerous than his own, she usually escaped; otherwise she was cast off by her husband and exposed at a public place in the town as the victim of all the men who chose to be present. To a shocked French visitor the Choctaws explained that “the only way to disgust lewd women is to give them at once what they so constantly and eagerly pursue.”
It is evident from all accounts of Choctaw society that the women occupied an honored and important position within the tribe. Sensitive white observers sometimes spoke of the unequal division of labor between the sexes, where the women performed all the drudgery and the men occupied themselves in such pleasurable occupations as hunting and fishing; but such a generalization fails to take into account the importance and difficulty of the chase. The women performed a large part of the labor of the fields, made the clothing, prepared and stored the food, and carried the burdens; the men provided the game, built the houses, manufactured the wooden and stone implements, carried on the governmental activities, and protected the tribe in war.
PEACE AND WAR
As might have been expected from their interest in agriculture and their devotion to practical concerns, the Choctaws were an un-warlike people. They rarely made hostile excursions into the territory of their neighbors, but when their own country was invaded they defended their homes with great courage. The women sometimes accompanied their husbands to battle, standing beside them, handing them arrows, and exhorting them to fight bravely. Like other Indians the Choctaws depended more upon cunning than open combat, and they exercised a patience and skill in surprising their enemy that to white men seemed almost supernatural. Their military expeditions were always preceded by much dancing and “medicine,” and the return of a successful party with scalps was the occasion of village hilarity. They practiced less cruelty to captives than most Indian tribes; they adopted the women and children, and burned the warriors or dispatched them quickly with a blow of the hatchet.
The peace making ritual is described by an early French writer as follows:
“When they have promised to conclude a peace five or six leading men of the nation come, bearing a calumet or pipe made of a stone, red like coral, which is found in rocks in the Illinois country. This calumet has a stem about two or three feet in length surrounded by red feathers artistically worked, and from which hangs eight or ten black feathers. This serves them as a war standard, as a seal in alliances, as a mark of the continuation of faithfulness among friends, and as a sign of war with those with whom they wish to break. It is true that there is one which is the calumet of peace and another that of war. They are both made similarly. When they have concluded the peace the master of ceremonies lights this calumet and has all those who are in the assembly smoke two or three whiffs. Then the treaty is concluded and inviolable. They deliver this calumet to the chief with whom they make this contract which is as a hostage of their good faith and the fidelity with which they wish to observe the articles on which they have agreed. A red calumet was also presented to a tribe to invite them to form an alliance against a common enemy, and its acceptance was equivalent to a promise of assistance.”
From The Rise And Fall Of The Choctaw Republic by Angie Debo, pages 17, 18, 19, Copyright © 1934, 1961 by the University of Oklahoma Press. (Portions taken from Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians by John R. Swanton, pages 120-121, 110-111, 139, 169-170.)
Choctaw life before Removal
The Choctaws were primarily an agricultural people, raising corn, beans, pumpkins, and melons in the little plots by their cabins. Their method of cultivation was similar to that practiced all through the Southeast. They cleared their fields by burning the underbrush and girdling the larger trees. Their agricultural implements consisted of crude hoes made of a bent stick, the shoulder blade of a bison, or a piece of flint. Although they owned less land than any of the surrounding tribes, they raised more corn and beans than they needed for their own use and sold the surplus to their neighbors.
So important was corn in their economic life that they invented legends to account for its origin. According to one story it came as the gift of a beautiful woman to a couple of Choctaw hunters who shared their last meal with her. According to another story a child was playing in the yard when a crow flew over and dropped a single grain; the child planted it and in this way became the discoverer of their most important article of food.
Each family’s supply of corn was stored in a rude crib raised on poles about eight feet from the ground. Fruits, nuts, seeds, and roots that grew in the woods were also gathered, and stored in the houses. They ground their corn into meal with a wooden pestle, in a mortar which they made by burning a hollow in the side of a fallen tree.
Although hunting, with the primitive Choctaws, was an occupation secondary in importance to agriculture, it was an important source of their food supply. In his knowledge of woodcraft, and his skill in stalking and killing game, the Choctaw hunter showed characteristic Indian strategy. The deer was the main source of meat and clothing. The bear was prized for his fat which was rendered and stored in deerskins. Turkeys, pigeons, squirrels, beaver, otter, raccoon, opossum, and rabbits also abounded in the Choctaw country. The men, of course, used the bow and arrow; but the little boys became adept at killing birds and small animals with a blowgun made of cane and loaded with little arrows.
Fishing was also an important occupation. The Choctaws did not use fishhooks until the coming of the white man, but they killed fish to some extent with spears and arrows. The favorite method was dragging the pools, with a net made of brush fastened together with creepers, or poisoning them with winter-berries, buckeye, or devil’s shoestring. The Choctaws never wasted either fish or game; any surplus over the needs of one band was invariably divided with others.
From The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic by Angie Debo, pages 10-11, Copyright © 1934, 1961 by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Pre-Statehood town life in the Choctaw Nation
Town life in the Choctaw Nation before 1907 exhibited the characteristics of similar communities in the contemporary American West and South. The Oklahoma Star complained in 1875 that local coal prices, twenty to thirty cents a bushel, were much too high and should be only ten or fifteen cents. Bakeries and confectioneries were added to the more primitive business establishments as early as Reconstruction days. By the 189Os, undertakers and embalmers were advertising in the regional papers; Durant was proud to boast the arrival of a hearse in 1899. The usual American rivalry existed between nearby newborn cities. For instance, in 1899 when a Durant barber advertised “clean towels and courteous treatment”, a Caddo editor sarcastically remarked that in other towns “these things are expected.” Perhaps the sarcasm was justified since a Caddo barber had been advertising himself since 1894 as a “tonsorial artist.” Livery stables with “fine horses and substantial carriages” and hacks for rent to traveling men who desired to visit “all points in the country,” were located in every railroad town.
For meticulous dressers, early steam laundry services were to be found in Texas and Arkansas, the shipments going and returning to Oklahoma by rail express. Eventually this inconvenience was remedied as the towns grew in population and wealth, and by the turn of the century dirty linen could be processed at local steam laundries. A bottling company, an ice plant, and a dairy which made daily deliveries of milk and butter house-to-house were all prosperous businesses of South McAlester by the mid-1890s. The Choctaw government happily found these and other enterprises to be new, sources of taxable income. An act of the Council in 1896 assessed annual taxes of five to twenty-five dollars each on drink stands, billiard halls, ice factories, tailors merchants, milliners, restaurants and lunch counters, bottling works, steam laundries, bowling alleys, and banks.
From The Social History of the Choctaw Nation: 1865-1907, by James D. Morrison, edited by James C. Milligan and L. David Norris, pages 112-113, copyright © 1987, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Material conditions of our ancestors – what were their homes of long-ago like?
In the book “Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians” by John R. Swanton, a section describes the material condition of the Choctaw in past history.
The house is merely a cabin made of wooden posts of the size of the leg, buried in the earth (at one end), and fastened together with lianas, which make very flexible bands. The rest of the wall is of mud and there are no windows; the door is only from three to four feet in height. The cabins are covered with bark of the cypress or pine. A hole is left at the top of each gable-end to let the smoke out, for they make their fires in the middle of the cabins, which are a gunshot distance from one another. The inside is surrounded with cane beds raised from three to four feet from the ground on account of the fleas which exist there in quantities, because of the dirt, When they are lying down the savages do not get up to make water but let it run through the canes of their bed. They lie with the skin of a deer or bear under them and the skin of a bison or a blanket above. These beds serve them as table and chair. They have by way of furniture only an earthen pot in which to cook their food, some earthen pans for the same purpose, and some fanners or sieves and hampers for the preparation of their corn, which is their regular nourishment. They pound it in a wooden crusher or mortar, which they make out of the trunk of a tree, hollowed by means of burning embers. The pestle belonging to it is sometimes ten feet long and as small round as the arm. The upper end is an unshaped mass which serves to weight it down and to give force to this pestle in falling back, so that the corn may be crushed more easily. After it is thus crushed, they sift it in order to separate the finer part. They boil the coarser in a great skin which holds about three or four buckets of water, and mix it sometimes with pumpkins, or beans, or bean leaves. When this stew is almost done, they throw into it the finest of the corn which they had reserved for thickening, and by way of seasoning they have a pot hung aloft in which are the ashes of corn silk, beanpods, or finally oak ashes, and having thrown water upon this they take the lye collected in a vessel underneath, and with it season their stew, which is called sagamite. This serves as their principal food, and as well that of the French in the colony who have not the means of living otherwise.
They sometimes make bread without lye, but rarely, because that consumes too much corn, and it is difficult to make, since they reduce it to flour only with the strength of their arms; after which it is kneaded, or they boil it in the past to the thickness of two crowns (ecus), and the diameter of the two hands. They cook it on a piece of a pot on the embers. They also eat it with acorns. Having reduced the acorns to flour they put them in a cane sieve placed near the bank of a stream, and from time to time throw water upon them. By the means of this lye they cause it to lose its bitterness, after which they put paste around a piece of wood which they cook in the fire. When they have meat they boil it in water, without washing it, however dirty it is, saying that washing would make it lose its flavor. When it is cooked they sometimes put some of the acorn flour into the broth. They also cook unpounded corn with their meat, and when it is dry they reduce it to bits by pounding. This they boil along with the corn. It has no taste and one must be a savage to eat it.
While the corn is green is the time when they hold the most feasts and they prepare it in different ways. First they roast it in the fire and eat it so; many Frenchmen eat it thus. When it is very tender they pound it and make porridge of it, but the dish most esteemed among them is the cold meal. It is corn, considerable mature, which they boil, then roast in order to dry it, and then pound; and this flour has the same effect in cold water as wheat flour put into hot water over the fire and has a fairly agreeable taste; the French eat it with milk. They also have a species of corn which is smaller than the other and comes to maturity in three months. That they dry and then without pounding it boil it with meat. This “little corn,” boiled with a turkey or some pieces of fat meat, is a favorite dish with them.
*From Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association, vol. v, No. 2, 1918, pp. 57-59.
In the “Narrative of a Journey Through Several Parts of the Province of West Florida in the Years 1770 and 1771,” by a Mr. Mease, is the following description of the house of a Choctaw Indian of Imoklasha town named Astolabe:
This house is nearly of a circular figure and built of clay mixed with haulm (straw or grass). The top is conical and covered with a kind of thatch (the nature of) which I could not make out, The inside roof is divided into four parts and there are cane seats raised about two feet from the ground which go round the building (I mean on the inside), broad enough to lie upon, making the wall serve the purpose of a pillow. Underneath these seats or beds they keep their potatoes and pumpkins, covered with earth, but their corn is in a building by itself raised at least eight feet from the ground. The fire place is in the middle of the floor, just as in some parts of the Highlands of Scotland only they have no aperture at top to evacuate the smoke. The door is opposite one side (for the house is round without, yet on the inside it approaches near to the figure of an octagon) and is exceeding small both in height and breadth.
Law and Disorder in the Choctaw Nation in the 1800’s
In 1866 Chief Allen Wright declared that “every species of lawlessness, violence, robbery and theft” infected the Choctaw country as a result of the Civil War. The following year he reported improved conditions, with a decrease in drunkenness; but the number of murders remained about the same, a fact attributed to transient residents or “those passing through the country from the States”. Therefore the principal chief issued a proclamation requiring noncitizens to get permits (to enter?) or to leave the Nation. Many left as the state of the public peace temporarily improved. In 1869, however, the chief reported that crime was again on the increase. This he attributed in part to the frequent change of county officers, as many resigned before their terms were served so that “few arrests were made and fewer punished.”
The chief recommended to the General Council that certain laws be enacted to alleviate the most serious social problems in the Nation. On the chiefs advice the Council prohibited the bearing of firearms in public places or societal gatherings except by officer of the law. Another recommendation passed into law was to make the first offense of highway robbery punishable by death by hanging, The strong feeling Chief Wright feared that: “this crime will soon be as common as horse stealing. Who can endure such a thing in our midst?”
Previously, the Council had prescribed death for armed robbery but not by hanging, a type of death considered very degrading by his people. Hanging was designated only for the two most heinous crimes the Choctaws could conceive: for sodomy and for the second conviction of horse stealing. Only one Choctaw is known to have been hanged by court sentence, one Silas Peters, executed in 1891 for stealing a horse. Other capital crimes included second offense rape, as well as murder and treason. Although hanging was seldom used as a punishment, many death sentences were carried out by firing squad. For most minor offenses the punishments were either fines, thirty-nine to one hundred lashes “well laid on the bare back,” or both. The penalty for kidnapping was one hundred dollar hundred lashes plus a letter “T”‘ branded on the forehead. This law was a holdover from pre-civil war days and includes the phrase, cause to be sold as a slave.” The branding penalty does not appear to have been used, at least after 1865, and the significance of the “T” is obscure. Laws passed after 1865 occasionally prescribed a short jail sentence: for example, one month for malicious poisoning of livestock; a minimum of six months for alteration of public records; one to three months for failure to pay fines assessed on conviction for the sale of liquor; and six months for the illegal sale of timber, if a hundred dollar fine were not paid.
FromThe Social History of the Choctaw Nation: 1865-1907, by James D. Morrison, edited by James C. Milligan and L. David Norris, page 80, copyright © 1987, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.