A Thanksgiving Speech, 1976 – Chief Gardner

Hello Choctaw, December 1, 1976  Page 2


(at Thanksgiving, 1976)

By Chief David Gardner

Perhaps our earliest childhood memory of holidays is the traditional picture of early American settlers and Indians gathered around a bountiful table to feast in celebration of a year of survival in an alien wilderness. A vast amount of time has passed since the story of these white settlers of America unfolded. But there is another story, perhaps not so well known, of a group of settlers who faced many of the same problems the pilgrims did and whose story is not as well known, nor can it be. because it was never completely documented by the historian. These settlers do not have a moving portrait of their first step on the rock-strewn coast of New England and the famous Plymouth Rock. These settlers had no rock on which to stand. What they had was a river they must bridge and a wilderness they must tame before they could call again the place they lived their home. And these people faced many of the adversities of the early American pioneers – the hunger, the loneliness, the crippling illnesses of their loved ones and their ultimate death – and their story is truly a story of American history. I am speaking about the 60,000 Indians who were removed from the southern states of Mississippi and Alabama to their new homes in a vast wilderness west of the Mississippi River on land now known as the state of Oklahoma. These were the Cherokee, the Creek, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw and the Seminole Indians, who were known in the early 1800s as the Five Civilized Tribes – a name which the group bears to this day. Through close association, living side by side with white settlers, these Indians mastered many of the arts of the more numerous white men and along with his culture, they also learned some of the white man’s vices. Our interest and attention will be focused on the Choctaw Tribe of these people.

If the Choctaws were to be compared with other Indian tribes of the time, they would be described as of peaceful character and friendly disposition. They were dependent on agriculture in these early days and held a tremendous enjoyment for games, particularly stick-ball, and social gatherings. They were by nature a mild, quiet, and kindly people, practical minded and adaptable rather than strong and independent and fierce.

Prior to their removal to Oklahoma territory, the Choctaws had lived for almost three centuries among the white people. They found themselves under the rule of the Spanish, Great Britain, the French, and lastly, the U.S. Colonies. Oftentimes during the rule of these governments they were obliged to take warlike roles and stand beside whoever their parent country might be at the time. During all these periods the Choctaws were not only the victims, but the pupils of the white man’s diplomacy.

But the Indians were astute. They realized that if they were to survive in the white man’s world, which inevitably it appeared they must, education must be secured for them and for their children. They knew that missionaries would be allowed to come among them if they petitioned the government, so early in the 1800s these letters of request were answered by the emigration of numerous missionaries from the New England states. All the Indian tribes had been introduced to Christianity in the 1700s when missionaries from the Catholic church came among them. The Catholics were not too successful, but the Protestants who were to follow in the early 1820s began to convert the Indians. The Indians initial support of these Protestant missionaries was not religious, but it was an educational and economic interest. The missionaries established an effective system of schools for the Indians, and in this interest they received encouragement from the government.

When these missionaries first moved among the Choctaw people, they found a large majority living in one room cabins made of split logs chinked together with a combination of mud and grass. A center opening in the roof allowed the smoke from wood fires to escape. The only furnishings were generally a crude bed about 12 inches from the dirt floor which served as table, chair and bed. For the most part, these were agricultural people and their fields were generally small and poorly cultivated. Many families suffered from want of food. Their diets mainly consisted of three main staples and the loss of any one of these due to drought or bad crops would leave the people open to malnutrition and related illnesses. These were a quick people, eager to learn, and they made dramatic advances. By 1820, many were extremely wealthy, owning extensive heads of cattle and numerous slaves. They raised cotton which they carded, spun, and wove into clothes. But in proportion as they improved in culture. wealth, and enterprise, the white man coveted their land and encouraged their removal.

Naturally, this kept the Indians in a constant state of confusion and insecurity. Treaty after treaty was made and the Indian found himself pushed further and further westward. It was a sad time for the Indians. They knew the time was fast approaching when they must be removed from their homeland entirely and placed in the wilderness west of the Mississippi River. They, like their Puritan brothers, were being forced by circumstances over which they had little control to remove their families to a strange and alien land – a desolate wilderness. Behind them they must leave the bones of their beloved ancestors, their small homes, their cattle and livestock. Ahead of them lay an unknown land to which they would travel with few leaders of their race among them.

During these years the Indians found themselves pulled in many directions. Everyone it seemed, wanted to have a hand in shaping their destiny. In 1829 the Mississippi legislature provided for a state law over the Choctaws and on January 29, 1830. the Indians were granted Mississippi citizenship, which naturally abolished the Choctaw government and put them under penalty of fine and imprisonment should any Indian be found who exercised the office of chief or other post of power.

The missionaries were quick to note that the Choctaws would be better off away from the demoralizing contacts with the white people. They were particularly attuned to the fact that liquor served no good, and they were particularly faced with this problem when they came under Mississippi rule. Prior to that time the General Council of the Choctaw Nation had outlawed the traffic in liquor in the entire Nation. The Choctaws thus seem to have been the first people in our country to enact a “prohibition law”.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 negotiated the removal of the Indians to Oklahoma territory. It provided each Choctaw head of family a choice -the opportunity of remaining in Mississippi where he might select an allotment of land and become a citizen or moving on to Oklahoma Territory. About 7,000 elected to stay, and against their wishes the others agreed to the terms to move, believing as past experience had taught them that it would only be a matter of time before they were forced to move anyway – and in fact this did actually happen although a remnant of the original Choctaws still remain in Mississippi.

Thus the first Indians began their removal as early as October, 1830, although the main removal was to occur during the years 1831, 32, and 33. It was a 350 mile journey. Most of the territory covered was wild and unsettled. It was not uncommon for the emigrants to walk or half a day through waist high water in a swamp.

Little has been documented about this transfer of human beings from one domain to another. It was properly known as the Trail of Tears. Death followed every step. When they arrived at their destination, few of their elders had survived the trip. They were a bewildered, dirty, bedraggled and ill group when they arrived. After all they had been through together, it was natural when this first group settled they would choose to remain close together for comfort. They settled along the river bottoms in what is now McCurtain and Choctaw counties. Through the streams and woods and mountains of this beautiful, wild country, roads and trails were established and settlements sprang up.

The shock of the removal appeared to be over. but in 1833 there was a vast amount of rain and illness swept over the settlements. About 600 died as a result of fever following the flood. No home was left untouched by death. Cattle and livestock were lost. Crops were ruined. The Indians again faced the confusion and uncertainty they had lived with for many years in Mississippi. Many families were left completely homeless and destitute for food. Some went for a week, ten days, even two weeks without meat or bread. The settlements were plagued with illness and death. Chickasaws arriving in the Choctaw Nation in 1838 brought an epidemic of smallpox which quickly spread throughout the Nation. Particularly hard hit were the people who lived along the Arkansas River where the pox caused the deaths of 400 to 500 Choctaws. Added to these problems were prairie and forest fires which devastated the property and bands of hostile Indians who roamed the country and continued to disturb their peace.

During these trying years, their leaders were not completely at a loss to bring some order to the people. They built up a comprehensive law code out of a curious mixture of English law and savage customs. Use of lighthorsemen as policemen was their first formal law enforcement agency. Through the use of lighthorsemen they accepted the principle that law enforcement was a matter of tribal concern rather than of private revenge. When they began to modify their ancient customs by decision of their warriors in council, they recognized the legislative character of their legal code. They established a system of courts and adopted jury trial and their General Council became strictly a law making body in the Anglo-American sense. They adopted several constitutions after moving to their new homeland. They built a commodious council house near the present site of Tuskahoma, the Nation’s capitol, and there was held the first tribal council meeting in 1838.

Another thing all the tribes realized was the need to live together in peace and harmony. So in 1835 they met and a pact was agreed upon between the Osages, Comanches, Wichitas, and other native tribes and the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws. In truth, the Choctaws felt, and probably with good reason, that they had lost their national identity through this consolidation of tribes.

Most of the missionaries had journeyed west with the Indians and they were a constant source of encouragement. As early as 1833, they worked toward establishing schools in the new territory. At first the schools did not enjoy too much success. It was not because the Indian pupils were not as quick to learn as they might be, but because their families were in such poor states of near starvation that schooling was of little importance to them. In the summer they were needed to help on the farm, in the winter there was scarcely enough clothing to cover their bodies. And there was never enough food for them to have a meal at school.

But this did not always remain the same. Gradually as things became better for the Choctaws, they again turned their interest to education. They eagerly attended all of the graduation exercises of the students, making an outing of the occasion and camping out during the examination periods which sometimes lasted as long as twenty hours. The adult Choctaws were most interested in learning and they found it very easy to learn to read Choctaw. Before they had been in their new home a generation; the Choctaws, became, at least as far as their, own language was concerned,, a literate people.

During the Civil War period, all the schools in the Choctaw Nation were closed and again the Indians found themselves forced into a war. They sided with the Confederacy probably because so many of the people owned slaves. But by 1867 the schools began to open one by one. During the winter of 1869, it was reported an enrollment of 1764 students in Choctaw Nation schools and this did not include those in schools in the “states” that is Kentucky and elsewhere. Many of the teachers were not properly qualified to teach, but the students seemed to learn under them.

The missionaries served the Choctaw people faithfully. Gradually. the old guard who had carried the burden of the Indian missionary work so many years began to lay down their arms. The names which had emerged as foremost in assisting the Choctaws and developing them into Christians were: Kingsbury, Copeland, Byington, and Stark. The decade ending in 1870 saw the passing of these veterans who had worked tirelessly with the Indian people. But other missionaries were to take their place and continue to serve the people. The Choctaw Nation had been influenced by Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians and other denominational groups and all had strived toward one goal – the birth of a Nation in Oklahoma Territory. These servants of God had not only brought Christianity to the people, but they had encouraged education and formed many schools for the training of Indian youth. They had assisted the Indians in their political renewal and had constantly been their friend. Is it not surprising then that religion still remains an important part of the Choctaws daily life. That religion remains such a simple thing with the people. It is not something which is shown by the way they dress, by the houses in which they live, by the cars they drive or by the food they eat. But it is shown in the very simplicity of their worship for a higher Power, Chitokaka. And as we stand and sit here today celebrating another Thanksgiving we must remember the past history of your people and my people that has brought us together in this one place to give thanks to this one God for the blessings that are ours, for the future that belongs to our children, and for the heritage that makes us strong and steadfast.