The Mamas and the Papas were an American folk rock vocal group that recorded and performed from 1965 to 1968, reuniting briefly in 1971. They released five studio albums and seventeen singles, six of which made the top ten, and sold close to 40 million records worldwide. The group comprised John Phillips (1935–2001), Canadian Denny Doherty (1940–2007), Cass Elliot (1941–1974), and Michelle Phillips née Gilliam (b. 1944). Their sound was based on four-part vocal harmonies arranged by songwriter and leader, John Phillips, an innovator who adapted folk to the new beat style of the early sixties.
The band was formed by husband and wife John and Michelle Phillips, formerly of the New Journeymen, and Denny Doherty, formerly of the Mugwumps. Both of these earlier acts were folk groups active from 1964 to 1965. The last member to join was Cass Elliot, Doherty's bandmate in the Mugwumps, who had to overcome John Phillips' concern that her voice was too low for his arrangements, that her physical appearance would be an obstacle to the band's success, and that her temperament was incompatible with his. The group considered calling itself the Magic Circle before switching to the Mamas and the Papas, apparently inspired by the Hells Angels, whose female associates were called mamas.
The quartet spent the period from early spring to midsummer 1965 in the Virgin Islands "to rehearse and just put everything together", as John Phillips later recalled. Phillips acknowledged that he was reluctant to abandon folk music. Others have said he hung on to it "like death". Roger McGuinn's more measured view is that "It was hard for John to break out of folk music, because I think he was real good at it, conservative, and successful, too." Phillips also acknowledged that it was Doherty and Elliot who awakened him to the potential of contemporary pop, as epitomized by the Beatles – the New Journeymen had played acoustic folk, with banjo; the Mugwumps played something closer to folk rock, with bass and drums. Their rehearsals in the Virgin Islands were "the first time that we tried playing electric".
The band then traveled from New York to Los Angeles for an audition with Lou Adler, co-owner of Dunhill Records. The audition was arranged by Barry McGuire, who had befriended Elliot and John Phillips independently over the previous two years, and who had recently signed with Dunhill himself. It led to "a deal in which they would record two albums a year for the next five years", with a royalty of 5 per cent on 90 per cent of retail sales. Dunhill also tied the band to management and publishing deals, creating an obvious conflict of interest, although the practice was not unusual at the time. Cass Elliot's membership was not formalized until the paperwork was signed, with Adler, Michelle Phillips, and Doherty overruling John Phillips.
The Mamas and the Papas made their inaugural recording singing backing vocals on McGuire's album This Precious Time, although they had already released a single of their own by the time the album appeared in December 1965. This was "Go Where You Wanna Go", which was given a limited release in November and failed to chart. There are few copies of this single extant and the follow-up, "California Dreamin'", has the same B-side, suggesting that "Go Where You Wanna Go" may have been withdrawn. "California Dreamin'" was released in December, supported by a full-page ad in Billboard on the 18th of that month. It peaked at number four in the United States and number twenty-three in the United Kingdom.
The quartet's debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, followed in February 1966 and became its only number-one on the Billboard 200. The third and final single from the album, "Monday, Monday", was released in March 1966. It became the band's only number-one hit in the US, reached number three in the UK, and was the first number-one on Spain's new Los 40 Principales. "Monday, Monday" won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in 1967. It was also nominated for Best Performance by a Vocal Group, Best Contemporary Song, and Record of the Year.
Their second album, The Mamas and the Papas, is sometimes referred to as Cass, John, Michelle, Dennie, whose names appear thus above the band's on the cover. Recording was interrupted when Michelle Phillips became indiscreet about her affair with Gene Clark of the Byrds. A liaison the previous year between Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty had been forgiven; Doherty and John Phillips had reconciled and written "I Saw Her Again" about the episode, although they later disagreed on how much Doherty contributed to the song. This time, Phillips was determined to fire his wife. After consulting their attorney and record label, he, Elliot, and Doherty served Michelle Phillips with a letter expelling her from the group on June 28, 1966.
Jill Gibson was hired to replace Phillips. Gibson was a visual artist and singer-songwriter who had recorded with Jan and Dean. After being introduced to the band by its producer, Lou Adler, she was soon taking part in concerts (at Forest Hills, NY; Denver, CO; and Phoenix, AZ), television appearances (Hollywood Palace on ABC), and recording sessions. While Gibson was a quick study and well regarded, the three original members concluded that she lacked her predecessor's "stage charisma and grittier edge", and Michelle Phillips was reinstated on August 23, 1966. "Jill Gibson, so nearly a full-time Mama, left and was paid a lump sum from the group's funds."
It remains unclear whose vocals appear on The Mamas and the Papas as released on August 30, 1966. Gibson says she sang all but two songs. Studio documents appear to show that Michelle Phillips had already recorded six songs for the album in April 1966, including the singles "I Saw Her Again" and "Words of Love". Lou Adler has said, "We recorded Jill on six songs ... got six vocal performances out of her, which we later replaced, some of 'em." Michelle Phillips has said that she does not know who is singing on the album: "There's no way to know who sang on what, because we both sang on all the parts, and it was up to Bones [Howe] and Lou [Adler] and John [Phillips] what was in the final mix. And they had a lot to choose from! When you listen to the second album ... listen to it ... because I swear I don't have any idea who's singing on it."
The Mamas and the Papas peaked at number four in the US, continuing the band's success, but only made number twenty-four in the UK.
"I Saw Her Again" was released as a single in June 1966 and reached number five in the US and number eleven in the UK. There is a false start to the final chorus of the song. While mixing the record, Bones Howe inadvertently punched in the coda vocals too early. He then rewound the tape and inserted the vocals in their proper position. On playback, the mistaken early entry could still be heard, making it sound as though Doherty repeated the first three words, singing "I saw her ... I saw her again last night". Lou Adler liked the effect, and told Howe to leave it in the final mix. "That has to be a mistake: nobody's that clever," Paul McCartney told the group. The device was imitated by John Sebastian in the Lovin' Spoonful song, "Darlin' Be Home Soon" (1966), and by Kenny Loggins in the song "I'm Alright" (1980).
"Words of Love" was the second single from the album, appearing in November 1966. In the US it was released as a double A-side with "Dancing in the Street" and reached number five ("Dancing in the Street," which had been a hit two years earlier for Martha and the Vandellas, struggled to number seventy-three). In the UK it was backed with "I Can't Wait" and peaked at number forty-seven.
The band started work immediately on its third album, Deliver, which was recorded in the autumn of 1966. The first single from the album, "Look Through My Window", was released in September 1966 (before the last single from The Mamas and the Papas). It reached number twenty-four in the US, but did not chart in the UK. The second single, "Dedicated to the One I Love" (February 1967), did much better, peaking at number two in both the US and the UK. That success helped the album, also released in February 1967, reach number two in the US and number four in the UK. The third single, "Creeque Alley" (April 1967), chronicled the band's early history. It peaked at number five in the US and number nine in the UK.
The strain on the group was apparent when it performed indifferently at the first Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, as can be heard on Historic Performances Recorded at the Monterey International Pop Festival (1970). The band was badly under-rehearsed – partly because John and Michelle Phillips and Lou Adler were preoccupied with organizing the festival, partly because Doherty arrived at the last minute from another sojourn in the Virgin Islands, and partly, it is said, because he was drinking heavily in the aftermath of his affair with Michelle Phillips. They rallied for their performance before 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in August (with Jimi Hendrix as the opener), which both John and Michelle Phillips would remember as the apex of the band's career: "There would never be anything quite like it again."
Deliver was followed in October 1967 by the non-album single "Glad to Be Unhappy", which reached number twenty-six in the US. "Dancing Bear" from the group's second album was released as a single in November. It peaked at number fifty-one in the US. Neither of these singles charted in the UK.
The Mamas and the Papas cut their first three albums at United Western Recorders in Hollywood. The last two were recorded at the eight-track studio John and Michelle Phillips built at their home in Bel Air – this at a time when four-track recording was still the norm. John Phillips said, "I got the idea to transform the attic into my own recording studio, so I could stay high all the time and never have to worry about studio time. I began assembling the state-of-the-art equipment and ran the cost up to about a hundred grand."
While this gave him the autonomy he craved, it also removed an external discipline that may have been beneficial to a man who described himself as an "obsessive perfectionist". Doherty, Elliot, and Adler all found the arrangement uncongenial, with Elliot later complaining to Rolling Stone (October 26, 1968): "We spent one whole month on one song, just the vocals for 'The Love of Ivy' took one whole month. I did my [debut solo] album in three weeks, a total of ten days in the studio. Live with the band, not prerecorded tracks sitting there with earphones." The recording sessions for the fourth album eventually stalled completely, and in September 1967 John Phillips called a press conference to announce that the Mamas and the Papas were taking a break, which they confirmed on the Ed Sullivan Show on the 24th of that month.
The plan was to give concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Olympia in Paris before taking time out on Majorca to "get the muse going again", as John Phillips put it. When they docked at Southampton on October 5, Elliot was arrested on a charge of stealing two blankets and a hotel key worth ten guineas (US$28) when she was in England the previous February. Elliot was transferred to London, strip-searched, and spent a night in custody before the case was dismissed in the West London Magistrates' Court the next day. The hotel was less interested in the blankets than in an unpaid bill; it transpired that Elliot had entrusted the money to her companion, Pic Dawson (1943–1986), who neglected to settle the account. The police were less interested in the blankets or the bill than in Dawson, who was suspected of international drug trafficking, and was "the sole subject" of their questioning.
Later, at a party hosted by the band to celebrate her acquittal, John Phillips interrupted Elliot as she was telling Mick Jagger about her arrest and trial: "Mick, she's got it all wrong, that's not how it was at all." Elliot "screamed" at Phillips "before storming out of the room". Elliot was ready to quit, the Royal Albert Hall and Olympia dates were cancelled, and the four went their separate ways: John and Michelle Phillips to Morocco; Doherty back to the United States; and Elliot either back to the United States (according to John Phillips) or to a rendezvous in Paris with Pic Dawson (according to Michelle Phillips). In an interview with Melody Maker, Elliot unilaterally announced that the Mamas and the Papas had disbanded: "We thought this trip would give the group some stimulation, but this has not been so."
In fact, Phillips and Elliot patched things up sufficiently to complete The Papas and the Mamas, which was released in May 1968. It was relatively successful in both the UK and US, although it was their first not to go gold or reach the top ten in America. "12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)" had been released as a single in August 1967; it peaked at number twenty in the US, but failed to chart in the UK. After the second single, "Safe in My Garden" (May 1968), made it only to number fifty-three, Dunhill released Elliot's solo feature from the album, a cover of "Dream a Little Dream of Me", as a single credited to "Mama Cass with the Mamas and the Papas" in June 1968 – against John Phillips' wishes. It reached number twelve in the US and became the band's first single to chart in the UK after five failures, peaking at number eleven. It was the only Mamas and Papas single to chart higher in the UK than in the US. The fourth and final single from The Papas and the Mamas was "For the Love of Ivy" (July 1968), which peaked at number eighty-one in the US and did not chart in the UK. For the second time, Dunhill returned to their earlier work for a single. In this case it was "Do You Wanna Dance" from the debut album, released as a single in October 1968. It failed to chart in the UK and reached number seventy-six in the US.
The success of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" confirmed Elliot's desire to embark on a solo career, and by the end of 1968 it appeared that the band was no more. Its chart performance had become increasingly erratic, with three of its last four singles failing on both sides of the Atlantic. As John Phillips recalled, "Times had changed. The Beatles showed the way. Music itself was heading toward a technological and compositional complexity that would leave many of us behind. It was tough to keep up." The group "made it official" at the beginning of 1969: "Dunhill released us from our contracts and we were history, though we still owed the label another album." Elliot (billed as Mama Cass) had released her solo debut Dream a Little Dream in 1968, Phillips released John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.) in 1970, and Denny Doherty followed with Watcha Gonna Do? in 1971.
Dunhill maintained momentum by releasing The Best of the Mamas and the Papas: Farewell to the First Golden Era in 1967, Golden Era Vol. 2 in 1968, 16 of Their Greatest Hits in 1969, and the Monterey live album in 1970. It was also determined to get the promised last LP, for which it had given the band an extension until September 1971. It warned that each member of the group would be sued for $250,000 if they did not deliver (about $1.4 million apiece in 2010 values). John Phillips wrote another collection of songs, which were arranged, rehearsed, and recorded in fits and starts over about a year, depending on the availability of the other group members: "It was rare we were all together. Most tracks were dubbed, one vocal at a time." The Mamas and the Papas' last album of new material, People Like Us, was released in November 1971. The only single, "Step Out" (January 1972), reached number eighty-one in the US. The album peaked at number eighty-four on the Billboard 200, making it the only Mamas and Papas LP not to reach the top twenty in the US. Neither single nor album charted in the UK. Contractual obligations fulfilled, the band's split was now final.
Cass Elliot had a successful solo career, touring the US and Europe; appearing frequently on television, including in two specials (The Mama Cass Television Program on ABC in January 1969 and Don't Call Me Mama Anymore on CBS in September 1973); and producing hits such as "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and "It's Getting Better". That said, she never surpassed her two Dunhill albums, Dream a Little Dream (1968) and Bubblegum, Lemonade, and ... Something for Mama (1969). None of the three albums she recorded for RCA – Cass Elliot (1972), The Road Is No Place for a Lady (1972), and Don't Call Me Mama Anymore (1973) – produced a charting single.
Elliot died of heart failure in London on July 29, 1974 after completing a two-week engagement at the Palladium. The shows were mostly sold out and prompted standing ovations. Her former bandmates and Lou Adler attended her funeral in Los Angeles. Elliot was survived by her only child, Owen Vanessa Elliot (b. 1967).
John Phillips' country-influenced solo album, John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.), was not a commercial success, despite featuring the single "Mississippi", which reached number thirty-two in the US. Nevertheless, it continues to enjoy critical favor. Rolling Stone gave it four stars when it was reissued in 2006, calling it “a genuine lost treasure”. Denny Doherty said that if the Mamas and the Papas had recorded the album, it might have been their best. Phillips wrote songs for the soundtrack to Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman, 1970) and original music for the soundtracks to Myra Breckinridge (Michael Sarne,1970) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicholas Roeg, 1976). He also wrote the ill-fated stage musical Man on the Moon (1975) and songs with and for other artists, including most of the tracks on the album Romance Is on the Rise (1974) by his then wife Geneviève Waïte, which he also produced; and "Kokomo" (1988), which was a number-one hit for the Beach Boys.
Phillips was lost to heroin addiction through much of the 1970s, a period that culminated in his arrest and conviction in 1980 on a charge of conspiring to distribute narcotics, for which he spent a month in jail in 1981. In later years he performed with the New Mamas and the Papas (see below) and appeared in revival shows and television specials. He told his side of the Mamas and Papas' story in the memoir Papa John (1986), and in the PBS television documentary, Straight Shooter: The True Story of John Phillips and the Mamas and the Papas (1988). John Phillips died of heart failure in Los Angeles on March 18, 2001.
Two albums were released immediately after his death: Pay Pack and Follow (April 2001), which included material recorded in London and New York with members of the Rolling Stones in 1976 and 1977; and Phillips 66 (August 2001), an album of new material and reworkings that "takes its title from the age Phillips would have been when the album was originally slated for its release". A later archival series on Varèse Sarabande included a reissue of John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.) with bonus tracks (2006); the sessions he recorded for Columbia with the Crusaders in 1972 and 1973, released as Jack of Diamonds (2007); his preferred mix of the Rolling Stones sessions, released with other material as Pussycat (2008); and his demos for Man on the Moon, released as Andy Warhol Presents Man on the Moon: The John Phillips Space Musical (2009).
Phillips had five children: the businessman Jeffrey Phillips (b. 1957) and the actor and singer Laura Mackenzie Phillips (b. 1959) by his first wife Susan Adams; the singer Chynna Gilliam Phillips (b. 1968) of the band Wilson Phillips by his second wife Michelle Gilliam; and the songwriter Tamerlane Orlando Phillips (b. 1971) and the actor and model Bijou Phillips (b. 1980) by his third wife Geneviève Waïte. In 2009, Mackenzie Phillips wrote in her memoir, High on Arrival, that she had been in a long-term sexual relationship with her late father.
Denny Doherty's solo career faltered after the appearance of Whatcha Gonna Do? in 1971. The follow-up, Waiting for a Song (1974), was not released in the US, although a 2001 reissue by Varèse Sarabande gained wider distribution and the album is now available as a digital download. It features Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot as backing vocalists, the latter in what proved to be her last recorded performances. A single from the album, "You'll Never Know", made the adult contemporary charts. Doherty then turned to the stage, making a disastrous start in John Phillips’ Man on the Moon (1975). In 1977, he returned to his birthplace, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and started playing legitimate roles, including Shakespeare, at the Neptune Theater under the tutelage of John Neville. This led to television work, beginning with a variety program, Denny's Sho*, which ran for one season in 1978. He went on to host and voice parts in the children's program, Theodore Tugboat, and to act in various series, including twenty-two episodes of the drama Pit Pony. Doherty also performed with the New Mamas and the Papas (see below). An alcoholic through the 1960s and 1970s, Doherty recovered in the early 1980s and stayed sober for the remainder of his life. In 1996, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Doherty answered John Phillips' PBS documentary with the autobiographical stage musical Dream a Little Dream (the Nearly True Story of the Mamas and the Papas), which he wrote with Paul Ledoux and performed sporadically, starting in Halifax in 1997, and eventually reaching the off-Broadway Village Theater in New York in 2003. The original cast recording – featuring Doherty and supporting band – was released by Lewlacow in 1999. Denny Doherty died of kidney failure at his home in Mississauga, Ontario, on January 19, 2007. He was survived by his three children, Jessica Woods, Emberly Doherty, and John Doherty. A documentary by Paul Ledoux, Here I Am: Denny Doherty and the Mamas and the Papas, premiered at Halifax's Atlantic Film Festival in September 2009 and screened on the Bravo cable network as part of the Great Canadian Biographies series in February 2010.
While Michelle Phillips' only solo album, Victim of Romance (1977), made little impact, she went on to build a successful career as an actor. Her film credits include The Last Movie (1971), Dillinger (1973), Valentino (1977), Bloodline (1979), The Man with Bogart's Face (1980), American Anthem (1986), Let It Ride (1989), and Joshua Tree (1993). Her television credits include Hotel, Knots Landing, Beverly Hills, 90210, and many others. Phillips published a memoir, California Dreamin', in 1986, the same year John Phillips published his. Reading the two books together was, according to one reviewer, "like reading the transcripts in a divorce trial". As the co-writer and owner of the copyright to "California Dreamin'", Phillips was an important contributor to the 2005 PBS television documentary California Dreamin': The Songs of the Mamas and the Papas.
The New Mamas and the Papas were a by-product of John Phillips' desire to "round out the picture of reform" as he awaited sentencing on narcotics charges in 1980. He invited his children Jeffrey and Mackenzie, both drug addicts living in Los Angeles, and Denny Doherty, an alcoholic living in Canada, to join him at the Fair Oaks Hospital in Summit, New Jersey, where he was undergoing rehabilitation. The children arrived around Thanksgiving and Doherty around Christmas. The idea of reviving the group was born at this time, with Phillips and Doherty in their original roles, Mackenzie Phillips taking Michelle Phillips' part and Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane of Spanky and Our Gang taking the part of Cass Elliot. Little progress was made until after Phillips had been sentenced and served his time in jail. The quartet began rehearsing in earnest and recording demos in the summer of 1981. Its first performances were in March 1982, when it was praised for its "verve and expertise", the "impressive precision" of the harmonies, and the "feeling ... of genuine celebration" on stage.
The group toured the United States, including residencies in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, but lost $150,000 in its first eighteen months. Phillips called a halt in August 1983 and the New Mamas and the Papas did not perform again until February 1985. They then resumed touring, with concerts in Europe, East Asia, and South America, as well as in Canada and the United States; at their height, they were playing up to 280 nights a year. John Phillips stayed off heroin, but remained addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and pills, as did his daughter. This affected the group's performance, and it was occasionally booed off stage.
Doherty quit in 1987 and was replaced by Scott McKenzie (1939–2012). In 1991, Mackenzie Phillips was replaced by Laurie Beebe Lewis, a former vocalist with the Buckinghams who had earlier temped with the band when Mackenzie Phillips was pregnant. John Phillips dropped out after a liver transplant in 1992 and Doherty returned. Lewis and McFarlane left in 1993, to be replaced by Lisa Brescia and Deb Lyons. The band continued to perform with varying line-ups, including the recovering Phillips, until 1998, by which time, according to one critic, "the jingle singers who sang those fabulous Cass, Michelle, John, and Denny parts were an aural cartoon".
Phillips wanted the New Mamas and the Papas to make an album, "but I just couldn't bring myself to commit to it". Varèse Sarabande released the 1981 demos with other material as Many Mamas, Many Papas in 2010. Beyond that, the band is represented on record only by live albums of uncertain provenance, including The Mamas and the Papas Reunion Live (1987) featuring the Phillips-Doherty-Phillips-McFarlane line-up and released by Teichiku in Japan; and Dreamin' Live (2005) on a label called Legacy (not the Columbia-Sony imprint), which features John and Mackenzie Phillips, Spanky McFarlane, and (probably) Scott McKenzie.
In 1986, John and Michelle Phillips were featured in the music video for the Beach Boys' second recording of "California Dreamin'", which appeared on the album Made in the U.S.A. Denny Doherty was unavailable. The Mamas and the Papas' own version of "California Dreamin'" was reissued in the UK and peaked at number nine in 1997. The song received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2001.
The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009. Cass Elliot and Michelle Phillips, as "The Mamas", were ranked number twenty-one on the VH1 network's list of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock.
The band finally received a box set when the four-CD Complete Anthology was released in the UK in September 2004 and in the US in January 2005. It contains the five studio albums, the live album from Monterey, selections from their solo work, and rarities including their first sessions with Barry McGuire, all in "uniformly excellent" sound. The BBC called it "a treasure chest of pop gold".
In addition to the three documentaries (Straight Shooter, California Dreamin', and Here I Am), Doherty's musical, and the memoirs by John, Michelle, and Mackenzie Phillips, the group is the subject of Doug Hall's The Mamas and the Papas: California Dreamin' (2000) and Matthew Greenwald's Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas and the Papas (2002). Cass Elliot is the subject of Jon Johnson's Make Your Own Kind of Music: A Career Retrospective of Cass Elliot (1987) and Eddi Fiegel's Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of Mama Cass Elliot (2005). John Phillips' estate has authorized Chris Campion to write a biography of the group's leader. Provisionally called Wolfking, it was scheduled for publication in spring 2012, but had not appeared a year later.
Fox acquired the rights to make a film about the Mamas and the Papas in 2000. It was reported in 2007 that "The right script is in the process of being written." Peter Fitzpatrick's stage musical, Flowerchildren: The Mamas and Papas Story, was produced by Magnormos in Melbourne, Australia, in 2011 and revived in 2013.
The Mamas and the Papas' recordings were released on Dunhill Records until 1967, when the company was sold and the label became ABC-Dunhill. Around 1973, ABC-Dunhill discarded all multi-track session recordings and mono masters because they were deemed obsolete and too expensive to store; Jay Lasker (1924–1989), co-founder of Dunhill and by then president of ABC, is "usually the one blamed" for the decision. The original recordings of the Mamas and the Papas, and of labelmates such as Three Dog Night, are therefore lost, and it has been necessary to create digital versions from the stereo album masters, often second- or third-generation tapes. This is why the sound quality of Mamas and Papas' reissues does not match the best from the 1960s. In 2012, Sundazed Records located a mono master of If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears in the UK and released it on 180-gram vinyl and a limited edition of 500 compact discs.
Protestant, Roman Catholic, traditional beliefs
Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and later Seminole
The Choctaw (alternatively spelled Chahta, Chactas, Tchakta, Chocktaw, and Chactaw) are a Native American people originally from the Southeastern United States (modern day Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana). The Choctaw language belongs to the Muskogean linguistic group. The Choctaw are descendants of the peoples of the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures, who lived throughout the east of the Mississippi River valley and its tributaries. About 1,700 years ago, the Hopewell people built Nanih Waiya, a great earthwork mound, which is still considered sacred by the Choctaw. The early Spanish explorers of the mid-16th century encountered Mississippian-culture villages and chiefs. The anthropologist John Swanton suggested that the Choctaw derived their name from an early leader. Henry Halbert, a historian, suggests that their name is derived from the Choctaw phrase Hacha hatak (river people).
The Choctaw coalesced as a people in the 17th century, and developed three distinct political and geographical divisions: eastern, western and southern, which sometimes created differing alliances with nearby European powers. These included the French, based on the Gulf Coast and in Louisiana, the English of the Southeast, and the Spanish of Florida and Louisiana during the colonial era. During the American Revolution, most Choctaw supported the Thirteen Colonies' bid for independence from the British Crown. They never went to war against the United States prior to Indian Removal.
In the 19th century, the Choctaw became known as one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" because they adopted numerous practices of their United States neighbors. The Choctaw and the United States (US) agreed to nine treaties and, by the last three, the US gained vast land cessions and deracinated most Choctaw west of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory. They were the first Native Americans forced under the Indian Removal Act. The Choctaw were exiled because the U.S. wanted to expand territory available for settlement by European Americans, to save the tribe from extinction, and to acquire their natural resources. The Choctaw negotiated the largest area and most desirable lands in Indian Territory. Their early government had three districts, each with its own chief, who together with the town chiefs sat on the National Council. They appointed a Choctaw Delegate to represent them with the US government in Washington, DC.
By the 1831 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, those Choctaw who chose to stay in the newly formed state of Mississippi were one of the first major non-European ethnic groups to become U.S. citizens. (Article 8 in the 1817 treaty with the Cherokee stated Cherokees may wish to become citizen of the United States.) During the American Civil War, the Choctaw in both Oklahoma and Mississippi mostly sided with the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy suggested it would support a state under Indian control if it won the war. In a new treaty after the war, the US required them to emancipate their slaves and offer them full citizenship; they have become known as Choctaw Freedmen. After the Civil War, the Mississippi Choctaw fell into obscurity for some time.
The Choctaw in Oklahoma struggled to build a nation, transferring the Choctaw Academy there and opening one for girls in the 1840s. In the aftermath of the Dawes Act, the US dissolved tribal governments and appointed chiefs. During World War I, Choctaw soldiers served in the U.S. military as the first Native American codetalkers, using the Choctaw language. After the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Choctaw reconstituted their government, and the Choctaw Nation had kept their culture alive despite years of pressure for assimilation. The third largest federally recognized tribe, since the mid-twentieth century, they have created new institutions, such as a tribal college, housing authority, and justice system. Today the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are the two federally recognized Choctaw tribes; Mississippi recognizes another band, and smaller Choctaw groups are located in Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.
Many thousands of years ago groups classified by anthropologists as Paleo-Indians lived in what today is referred to as the American South. These groups were hunter-gatherers who hunted a wide range of animals, including a variety of megafauna, which became extinct following the end of the Pleistocene age. The 19th-century historian Horatio Cushman noted that Choctaw oral history accounts suggested their ancestors had known of mammoths in the Tombigbee River area; this suggests that the Choctaw ancestors had been in the Mississippi area for at least 4,000–8,000 years. Cushman wrote: "the ancient Choctaw through their tradition (said) 'they saw the mighty beasts of the forests, whose tread shook the earth." Scholars believe that Paleo-Indians were specialized, highly mobile foragers who hunted late Pleistocene fauna such as bison, mastodons, caribou, and mammoths. Direct evidence in the Southeast is meager, but archaeological discoveries in related areas support this hypothesis.
Later cultures became more complex. Moundbuilding cultures included the Woodland period people who first built Nanih Waiya. Scholars believe the mound was contemporary with such earthworks as Igomar Mound in Mississippi and Pinson Mounds in Tennessee. Based on dating of surface artifacts, the Nanih Waiya mound was likely constructed and first occupied by indigenous peoples about 0-300 CE, in the Middle Woodland period.
The original site was bounded on three sides by an earthwork circular enclosure, about ten feet high and encompassing a square mile. Occupation of Nanih Waiya and several smaller nearby mounds likely continued through 700 CE, the Late Woodland Period. The smaller mounds may also have been built by later cultures. As they have been lost to cultivation since the late 19th century and the area has not been excavated, theories have been speculation.
The Mississippian culture was a Native American culture that flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States from 800 to 1500 CE. The Mississippian culture developed in the lower Mississippi river valley and its tributaries, including the Ohio River. In present-day Mississippi, Moundville, Plaquemine,
When the Spanish made their first forays inland in the 16th century from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, they encountered some chiefdoms of the Mississippians, but others were already in decline, or had disappeared. The Mississippian culture are the peoples encountered by other early Spanish explorers, beginning on April 2, 1513, with Juan Ponce de León's Florida landing and the 1526 Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón expedition in South Carolina and Georgia region. A Spanish expedition in the later 16th century, in what is now western North Carolina, encountered people of the Mississippian culture at Joara and settlements further west. The Spanish built a fort at Joara and left a garrison there, as well as five other forts. The following year all the Spanish garrisons were killed and the forts destroyed by the Native Americans, who ended Spanish colonization attempts in the interior.
The contemporary historian Patricia Galloway argues from fragmentary archaeological and cartographic evidence that the Choctaw did not exist as a unified people before the 17th century. Only then did various southeastern peoples, remnants of Moundville, Plaquemine, and other Mississippian cultures, coalesce to form a self-consciously Choctaw people. The historical homeland of the Choctaw, or of the peoples from whom the Choctaw nation arose, included the area of Nanih Waiya, an earthwork mound in present-day Winston County, Mississippi, which they considered sacred ground. Their homeland was bounded by the Tombigbee River to the east, the Pearl River on the north and west, and "the Leaf-Pascagoula system" to the South. This area was mostly uninhabited during the Mississippian -culture period.
While Nanih Waiya mound continued to be a ceremonial center and object of veneration, scholars believe Native Americans traveled to it during the Mississippian culture period. From the 17th century on, the Choctaw occupied this area and revered this site as the center of their origin stories. These included stories of migration to this site from west of the great river (believed to refer to the Mississippi River.)
In Histoire de La Louisiane (Paris, 1758), French explorer Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz recounted that "...when I asked them from whence the Chat-kas [sic] came, to express the suddenness of their appearance they replied that they had come out from under the earth." American scholars took this as intended to explain the Choctaws' immediate appearance, and not a literal creation account. It was perhaps the first European writing that included part of the Choctaw origin story.
Early 19th century and contemporary Choctaw storytellers describe that the Choctaw people emerged from either Nanih Waiya mound or cave. A companion story describes their migration journey from the west, beyond the Mississippi River, when they were directed by their leader's use of a sacred red pole.
After the castaway Cabeza de Vaca of the ill-fated Narváez expedition returned to Spain, he described to the Court that the New World was the "richest country in the world." It commissioned the Spaniard Hernando de Soto to lead the first expedition into the interior of the North American continent. De Soto, convinced of the "riches", wanted Cabeza de Vaca to accompany him on the expedition. Cabeza de Vaca declined because of a payment dispute. From 1540–1543, Hernando de Soto traveled through present-day Florida and Georgia, and then into the Alabama and Mississippi areas that would later be inhabited by the Choctaw.
De Soto had the best-equipped militia at the time. As the brutalities of the de Soto expedition through the Southeast became known, ancestors to the Choctaw rose in defense. The Battle of Mabila, an ambush arranged by Chief Tuskaloosa, was a turning point for the de Soto venture. The battle "broke the back" of the campaign, and they never fully recovered.][
The archaeological record for the period between 1567 and 1699 is not complete or well-studied. It appears that some Mississippian settlements were abandoned well before the 17th century. Similarities in pottery coloring and burials suggest the following scenario for the emergence of the distinctive Choctaw society.
According to Patricia Galloway, the Choctaw region of Mississippi, generally located between the Yazoo basin to the north and the Natchez bluffs to the south, was slowly occupied by Burial Urn people from the Bottle Creek Indian Mounds area in the Mobile, Alabama delta, along with remnants of people from the Moundville chiefdom (near present-day Tuscaloosa, Alabama), which had collapsed some years before. Facing severe depopulation, they fled westward, where they combined with the Plaquemines and a group of “prairie people” living near the area. When this occurred is not clear. In the space of several generations, they created a new society which became known as Choctaw (albeit with a strong Mississippian background).
Other scholars note the Choctaw oral history recounting their long migration from west of the Mississippi River.
In 1682 La Salle was the first French explorer to venture into the southeast along the Mississippi River. His expedition did not meet with the Choctaw; it established a post along the Arkansas River. The post signaled to the English that the French were serious at colonization in the South. The Choctaw allied with French colonists as a defense against the English, who had been taking Choctaws as captives for the Indian slave trade.
The first direct recorded contact between the Choctaw and the French was with Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1699; indirect contact had likely occurred between the Choctaw and British settlers through other tribes, including the Creek and Chickasaw. The Choctaw, along with other tribes, had formed a relationship with New France, French Louisiana. Illegal fur trading may have led to further unofficial contact.][
As the historian Greg O'Brien has noted, the Choctaw developed three distinct political and geographic regions, which during the colonial period sometimes had differing alliances with trading partners among the French, Spanish and English. They also expressed differences during and after the American Revolutionary War. Their divisions were roughly eastern, western (near present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi) and southern (Six Towns). Each division was headed by a principal chief, and subordinate chiefs led each of the towns within the area. All the chiefs would meet on a National Council, but the society was highly decentralized for some time.
The French were the main trading partners of the Choctaw before the Seven Years' War, and the British had established some trading. After Great Britain defeated France, it ceded its territory east of the Mississippi River. From 1763 to 1781, Britain was the Choctaw main trading partner. With Spanish forces based in New Orleans in 1766, when they took over French territory west of the Mississippi, the Choctaw sometimes traded with them to the west. Spain declared war against Great Britain during the American Revolution in 1779.
During the American Revolution, the Choctaw divided over whether to support Britain or Spain. Some Choctaw warriors from the western and eastern divisions supported the British in the defense of Mobile and Pensacola. Chief Franchimastabé led a Choctaw war party with British forces against American rebels in Natchez. The Americans had left by the time Franchimastabé arrived, but the Choctaw occupied Natchez for weeks and convinced residents to remain loyal to Britain.
Other Choctaw companies joined Washington's army during the war, and served the entire duration. Bob Ferguson, a Southeastern Indian historian, noted, "[In] 1775 the American Revolution began a period of new alignments for the Choctaws and other southern Indians. Choctaw scouts served under Washington, Morgan, Wayne and Sullivan."
Over a thousand Choctaw fought for Britain, largely against Spain's campaigns along the Gulf Coast. At the same time, a significant number of Choctaw aided Spain.
Ferguson wrote that with the end of the Revolution, "'Franchimastabe', Choctaw head chief, went to Savannah, Georgia to secure American trade." In the next few years, some Choctaw scouts served in Ohio with U.S. General Anthony Wayne in the Northwest Indian War.][
George Washington (first U.S. President) and Henry Knox (first U.S. Secretary of War) proposed the cultural transformation of Native Americans. Washington believed that Native Americans were equals but that their society was inferior to that of the European Americans. He formulated a policy to encourage the "civilizing" process, and Thomas Jefferson continued it. The historian Robert Remini wrote, "[T]hey presumed that once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity, these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans."
Washington's six-point plan included impartial justice toward Indians; regulated buying of Indian lands; promotion of commerce; promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Indian society; presidential authority to give presents; and punishing those who violated Indian rights. The government appointed agents, such as Benjamin Hawkins, to live among the Indians and to teach them through example and instruction, how to live like whites. While living among the Choctaw for nearly 30 years, Hawkins married Lavinia Downs, a Choctaw woman. As the people had a matrilineal system of property and hereditary leadership, their children were born into the mother's clan and gained their status from her people. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a number of Scots-Irish traders lived among the Choctaw and married high-status women. Choctaw chiefs saw these as strategic alliances to build stronger relationships with the Americans in a changing environment that influenced ideas of capital and property. The children of such marriages were Choctaw, first and foremost. Some of the sons were educated in Anglo-American schools and became important interpreters and negotiators for Choctaw-US relations.
Starting in October 1785, Taboca, a Choctaw prophet/chief, led over 125 Choctaws to the Keowee, near Seneca Old Town, now known as Hopewell, South Carolina. After two months of travel, they met with U.S. representatives Benjamin Hawkins, Andrew Pickens, and Joseph Martin. In high Choctaw ceremonial symbolism, they named, adopted, smoked, and performed dances, revealing the complex and serious nature of Choctaw diplomacy. One such dance was the eagle tail dance. The Choctaw explained that the Bald Eagle, who has direct contact with the upper world of the sun, is a symbol of peace. Choctaw women painted in white would adopt and name commissioners as kin. Smoking sealed agreements between peoples and the shared pipes sanctified peace between the two nations.
After the rituals, the Choctaw asked John Woods to live with them to improve communication with the U.S. In exchange they allowed Taboca to visit the United States Congress. On January 3, 1786, the Treaty of Hopewell was signed. Article 11 stated, "[T]he hatchet shall be forever buried, and the peace given by the United States of America, and friendship re-established between the said states on the one part, and all the Choctaw nation on the other part, shall be universal; and the contracting parties shall use their utmost endeavors to maintain the peace given as aforesaid, and friendship re-established."
The treaty required Choctaws to return escaped slaves to colonists, to turn over any Choctaw convicted of crimes by the U.S., establish borderlines between the U.S. and Choctaw Nation, and the return any property captured from colonists during the Revolutionary War.
After the Revolutionary War, the Choctaw were reluctant to ally themselves with countries hostile to the United States. John R. Swanton wrote, "the Choctaw were never at war with the Americans. A few were induced by Tecumseh (a Shawnee leader who sought support from various Native American tribes) to ally themselves with the hostile Creeks [in the early 19th century], but the Nation as a whole was kept out of anti-American alliances by the influence of Apushmataha, greatest of all Choctaw chiefs."
Early in 1811, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh gathered Indian tribes in an alliance to try to expel U.S. settlers from the Northwest area south of the Great Lakes. Tecumseh met the Choctaws to persuade them to join the alliance. Pushmataha, considered by historians to be the greatest Choctaw leader, countered Tecumseh's influence. As chief for the Six Towns (southern) district, Pushmataha strongly resisted such a plan, arguing that the Choctaw and their neighbors the Chickasaw had always lived in peace with European Americans, had learned valuable skills and technologies, and had received honest treatment and fair trade. The joint Choctaw-Chickasaw council voted against alliance with Tecumseh. On Tecumseh's departure, Pushmataha accused him of tyranny over his own Shawnee and other tribes. Pushmataha warned Tecumeseh that he would fight against those who fought the United States.
On the eve of the War of 1812, Governor William C. C. Claiborne of Louisiana sent interpreter Simon Favre to give a talk to the Choctaws, urging them to stay out of this "white man's war." Ultimately, however, the Choctaw did become involved, and with the outbreak of the war, Pushmataha led the Choctaws in alliance with the U.S., arguing in favor of opposing the Creek Red Sticks' alliance with Britain after the massacre at Fort Mims. Pushmataha arrived at St. Stephens, Alabama in mid-1813 with an offer of alliance and recruitment. He was escorted to Mobile to speak with General Flournoy, then commanding the district. Flournoy initially declined Pushmataha's offer and offended the chief. However, Flournoy's staff quickly convinced him to reverse his decision. A courier with a message accepting the offer of alliance caught up with Pushmataha at St. Stephens.
Returning to Choctaw territory, Pushmataha raised a company of 125 Choctaw warriors with a rousing speech and was commissioned (as either a lieutenant colonel or a brigadier general) in the United States Army at St. Stephens. After observing that the officers and their wives would promenade along the Alabama River, Pushmataha summoned his own wife to St. Stephens to accompany him.
He joined the U.S. Army under General Ferdinand Claiborne in mid-November, and some 125 Choctaw warriors took part in an attack on Creek forces at Kantachi (near present day Econochaca, Alabama) on 23 December 1813. With this victory, Choctaw began to volunteer in greater numbers from the other two districts of the tribe. By February 1814, a larger band of Choctaws under Pushmataha had joined General Andrew Jackson's force for the sweeping of the Creek territories near Pensacola, Florida. Many Choctaw departed from Jackson's main force after the final defeat of the Creek at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. By the Battle of New Orleans, only a few Choctaw remained with the army; they were the only Native American tribe represented in the battle.][
In October 1820, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hinds were sent as commissioners representing the United States, to conduct a treaty that would require the Choctaw to surrender to the United States a portion of their country located in present day Mississippi. They met with chiefs, mingos (leaders), and headsmen such as Colonel Silas Dinsmore and Chief Pushmataha at Doak's Stand on the Natchez Trace.
The convention began on October 10 with a talk by "Sharp Knife", the nickname of Jackson, to more than 500 Choctaws. Pushmataha accused Jackson of deceiving them about the quality of land west of the Mississippi. Pushmataha responded to Jackson's retort with "I know the country well ... The grass is everywhere very short ... There are but few beavers, and the honey and fruit are rare things." Jackson resorted to threats, which pressured the Choctaws to sign the Doak's Stand treaty. Pushmataha would continue to argue with Jackson about the conditions of the treaty. Pushmataha assertively stated "that no alteration shall be made in the boundaries of the portion of our territory that will remain, until the Choctaw people are sufficiently progressed in the arts of civilization to become citizens of the States, owning land and homes of their own, on an equal footing with the white people." Jackson responded with "That ... is a magnificent rangement and we consent to it, [American Citizenship], readily." Historian Anna Lewis stated that Apuckshunubbee, a Choctaw district chief, was blackmailed by Jackson to sign the treaty. On October 18, the Treaty of Doak's Stand was signed.
Article 4 of the Treaty of Doak's Stand prepared Choctaws to become U.S. citizens when he or she became "civilized." This article would later influence Article 14 in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.][
Apuckshunubbee, Pushmataha, and Mosholatubbee, the principal chiefs of the three divisions of Choctaw, led a delegation to Washington City (the 19th century name for Washington, D.C.) to discuss the problems of European Americans' squatting on Choctaw lands. They sought either expulsion of the settlers or financial compensation for the loss of their lands. The group also included Talking Warrior, Red Fort, Nittahkachee, who was later Principal Chief; Col. Robert Cole and David Folsom, both Choctaw of mixed-race ancestry; Captain Daniel McCurtain, and Major John Pitchlynn, the U.S. interpreter, who had been raised by the Choctaw after having been orphaned when young and married a Choctaw woman. Apuckshunubbee died in Maysville, Kentucky of an accident during the trip before the party reached Washington.
Pushmataha met with President James Monroe and gave a speech to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, reminding him of the longstanding alliances between the United States and the Choctaws. He said, "[I] can say and tell the truth that no Choctaw ever drew his bow against the United States ... My nation has given of their country until it is very small. We are in trouble." On January 20, 1825, Pushmataha and other chiefs signed the Treaty of Washington City, by which the Choctaw ceded more territory to the United States.][
Pushmataha died in Washington of a respiratory disease described as croup, before the delegation returned to the Choctaw Nation. He was given full U.S. military burial honors at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The deaths of these two strong division leaders was a major loss to the Choctaw Nation, but younger leaders were arising who were educated in European-American schools and led adaptation of the culture. Threatened with European-American encroachment, the Choctaw continued to adapt and take on some technology, housing styles, and accepted missionaries to the Choctaw Nation, in the hopes of being accepted by the Mississippi and national government. In 1825 the National Council approved the founding of the Choctaw Academy for education of its young men, urged by Peter Pitchlynn, a young leader and future chief. The school was established in Blue Spring, Scott County, Kentucky; it was operated there until 1842, when the staff and students were transferred to the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory. There they founded the Spencer Academy in 1844.
With the election of Andrew Jackson as president in 1828, many of the Choctaw realized that removal was inevitable. They continued to adopt useful European practices but faced Jackson's and settlers' unrelenting pressure.
In March 1830 the division chiefs resigned, and the National Council elected Greenwood LeFlore, chief of the western division, as Principal Chief of the nation to negotiate with the US government on their behalf, the first time such a position had been authorized. Believing removal was inevitable and hoping to preserve rights for Choctaw in Indian Territory and Mississippi, LeFlore drafted a treaty and sent it to Washington, DC. There was considerable turmoil in the Choctaw Nation among people who thought he would and could resist removal, but the chiefs had agreed they could not undertake armed resistance.
At Andrew Jackson's request, the United States Congress opened what became a fierce debate on an Indian Removal Bill. In the end, the bill passed, but the vote was very close. The Senate passed the measure 28 to 19, while in the House it narrowly passed, 102 to 97. Jackson signed the legislation into law June 30, 1830, and turned his focus onto the Choctaw in Mississippi Territory.
On August 25, 1830, the Choctaw were supposed to meet with Andrew Jackson in Franklin, Tennessee, but Greenwood Leflore, a district Choctaw chief, informed Secretary of War John H. Eaton that his warriors were fiercely opposed to attending. President Jackson was angered. Journalist Len Green writes "although angered by the Choctaw refusal to meet him in Tennessee, Jackson felt from LeFlore's words that he might have a foot in the door and dispatched Secretary of War Eaton and John Coffee to meet with the Choctaws in their nation." Jackson appointed Eaton and General John Coffee as commissioners to represent him to meet the Choctaws at the Dancing Rabbit Creek near present-day Noxubee County, Mississippi.][
The commissioners met with the chiefs and headmen on September 15, 1830, at Dancing Rabbit Creek. In a carnival-like atmosphere, they tried to explain the policy of removal to an audience of 6,000 men, women, and children. The Choctaws faced migration or submitting to U.S. law as citizens. The treaty required them to cede their remaining traditional homeland to the United States; however, a provision in the treaty made removal more acceptable.][
On September 27, 1830, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed. It represented one of the largest transfers of land that was signed between the U.S. Government and Native Americans without being instigated by warfare. By the treaty, the Choctaw signed away their remaining traditional homelands, opening them up for European-American settlement. Article 14 allowed for some Choctaw to stay in Mississippi, and nearly 1,300 Choctaws chose to do so. They were one of the first major non-European ethnic group to become U.S. citizens. Article 22 sought to put a Choctaw representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Choctaw at this crucial time split into two distinct groups: the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The nation retained its autonomy, but the tribe in Mississippi submitted to state and federal laws.
After ceding nearly 11,000,000 acres (45,000 km2), the Choctaw emigrated in three stages: the first in the fall of 1831, the second in 1832 and the last in 1833. Nearly 15,000 Choctaws made the move to what would be called Indian Territory and then later Oklahoma. About 2,500 died along the Trail of Tears. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was ratified by the U.S. Senate on February 25, 1831, and the President was anxious to make it a model of removal. Principal Chief George W. Harkins wrote a farewell letter to the American people before the removals began. It was widely published
Alexis de Tocqueville, noted French political thinker and historian, witnessed the Choctaw removals while in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831:
Approximately 4,000–6,000 Choctaw remained in Mississippi in 1831 after the initial removal efforts. The U.S. agent William Ward, who was responsible for Choctaw registration in Mississippi under article XIV, strongly opposed their treaty rights. Although estimates suggested 5000 Choctaw remained in Mississippi, only 143 family heads (for a total of 276 adult persons) received lands under the provisions of Article 14. For the next ten years, the Choctaws in Mississippi were objects of increasing legal conflict, racism, harassment, and intimidation. The Choctaws described their situation in 1849: "we have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died." Joseph B. Cobb, who moved to Mississippi from Georgia, described the Choctaw as having "no nobility or virtue at all, and in some respect he found blacks, especially native Africans, more interesting and admirable, the red man's superior in every way. The Choctaw and Chickasaw, the tribes he knew best, were beneath contempt, that is, even worse than black slaves." Removal continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1846 1,000 Choctaw removed, and in 1903, another 300 Mississippi Choctaw were persuaded to move to the Nation in Oklahoma. By 1930 only 1,665 remained in Mississippi.
In the 1840s, the Choctaw chief Greenwood LeFlore stayed in Mississippi after the signing of Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek and became an American citizen, a successful businessman, and a state politician. He was elected as a Mississippi representative and senator, was a fixture of Mississippi high society, and a personal friend of Jefferson Davis. He represented his county in the state house for two terms and served as a state senator for one term. Some of the elite used Latin language, an indulgence used by some politicians. LeFlore, in defense of his heritage, spoke in the Choctaw language and asked the Senate floor which was better understood, Latin or Choctaw.
Midway through the Great Irish Famine (1845–1849), a group of Choctaw collected $710 (although many articles say the original amount was $170 after a misprint in Angi Debo's The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Nation) and sent it to help starving Irish men, women, and children.
"It had been just 16 years since the Choctaw people had experienced the Trail of Tears, and they had faced starvation ... It was an amazing gesture. By today's standards, it might be a million dollars" according to Judy Allen, editor of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma's newspaper, Bishinik, based at the Oklahoma Choctaw tribal headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma.
To mark the 150th anniversary, eight Irish people retraced the Trail of Tears. In the late 20th century, Irish President Mary Robinson extolled the donation in a public commemoration.
For the Choctaw who remained in or returned to Mississippi after 1855, the situation deteriorated. Many lost their lands and money to unscrupulous whites. The state of Mississippi refused the Choctaw any participation in government. Their limited understanding of the English language caused them to live in isolated groups. In addition, they were prohibited from attending any of the few institutions of higher learning, as the European Americans considered them free people of color and excluded from the segregated white institutions. The state had no public schools prior to those established during the Reconstruction era.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, Albert Pike was appointed as Confederate envoy to Native Americans. In this capacity he negotiated several treaties, including the Treaty with Choctaws and Chickasaws in July 1861. The treaty covered sixty-four terms, covering many subjects, such as Choctaw and Chickasaw nation sovereignty, Confederate States of America citizenship possibilities, and an entitled delegate in the House of Representatives of the Confederate States of America.
Some Choctaw identified with the Southern cause and a few owned slaves. In addition, they well remembered and resented the Indian removals from thirty years earlier, and the poor services they received from the federal government. The main reason the Choctaw Nation agreed to sign the treaty was for protection from regional tribes. Soon Confederate battalions were formed in Indian Territory and later in Mississippi in support of the southern cause.
The Confederacy wanted to recruit Indians east of the Mississippi River in 1862, so they opened up a recruiting camp in Mobile, Alabama. The Confederacy advertised in the Mobile Advertiser and Register for recruits:
General Arnold Spann organized the first battalion of Choctaw in Mississippi in February 1863. After a Confederate troop train wreck, referred to as the Chunky Creek Train Wreck of 1863, near Hickory, Mississippi, the new Choctaw Battalion led rescue and recovery efforts. Led by Jack Amos and Elder Williams, the Indians rushed to the scene, stripped, and plunged into the flooded creek. Many of the passengers were rescued due to their heroic acts." The noted Choctaw historian Clara Kidwell writes, "in an act of heroism in Mississippi, Choctaws rescued twenty-three survivors and retrieved ninety bodies when a Confederate troop train plunged off a bridge and fell into the Chunky River."
Major S. G. Spann, Commander of Dabney H. Maury Camp of Meridian, Mississippi, wrote about the deeds of the Choctaw years after the Civil War had ended. After the Union captured Mississippi Choctaws in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, they were taken to New York, where several died in a Union prison. Spann describes the incident,
"[Maj. J.W. Pearce] established two camps—a recruiting camp in Newton County and a drill camp at Tangipahoa—just beyond the State boundary line in Louisiana in the fall of 1862. New Orleans at that time was in the hands of the Federal Gen. B.F. Butler. Without notice a reconnoitering party of the enemy raided the camp, and captured over two dozen Indians and several non-commissioned white officers and carried them to New Orleans. All the officers and several of the Indians escaped and returned to the Newton County camp; but all the balance of the captured Indians were carried to New York, and were daily paraded in the public parks as curiosities for the sport of sight-seers."
From about 1865 to 1918, Mississippi Choctaws were largely ignored by governmental, health, and educational services and fell into obscurity. In the aftermath of the Civil War, their issues were pushed aside in the struggle between defeated Confederates, freedmen and Union sympathizers. Records about the Mississippi Choctaw during this period are non-existent. They had no legal recourse, and were often bullied and intimidated by local whites, who tried to re-establish white supremacy. They chose to live in isolation and practiced their culture as they had for generations.
Following the Reconstruction era and conservative Democrats' regaining political power in the late 1870s, white state legislators passed laws establishing Jim Crow laws and legal segregation by race. In addition, they effectively disfranchised freedmen and Native Americans by the new Mississippi constitution of 1890, which changed rules regarding voter registration and elections to discriminate against both groups. The white legislators effectively divided society into two groups: white and "colored," into which they classified Mississippi Choctaw and other Native Americans. They subjected the Choctaw to racial segregation and exclusion from public facilities along with freedmen and their descendants. The Choctaw were non-white, landless, and had minimal legal protection.
At the turn of the 20th century, only 1,253 Choctaw Indians remained in Mississippi. "The beginning of the 20th century found Mississippi Choctaws struggling to overcome poverty, discrimination, and lack of opportunity."
After a US Congressional investigation discovered their poor living conditions, in 1918 the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) established the Choctaw Agency. Under segregation, few schools were open to Choctaw children, whom the white southerners classified as non-whites. The Choctaw agency was based in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a center of several Indian communities. It set up elementary schools and worked to address the poor health conditions of the Choctaw, building a hospital in Philadelphia for tribal members. Dr. Frank McKinley was the first superintendent. Prior to McKinley's arrival, the Choctaw had grouped themselves in six communities.][
Because the state remained dependent on agriculture, despite the declining price of cotton, most landless men earned a living by becoming sharecroppers. The women created and sold traditional hand-woven baskets. Choctaw sharecropping declined following World War II as major planters had adopted mechanization, which reduced the need for labor.][
The Confederacy’s loss was also the Choctaw Nation’s loss. Prior to removal, the Choctaws had interacted with Africans in their native homeland of Mississippi, and the wealthiest had bought slaves. The Choctaw who developed larger plantations adopted chattel slavery, as practiced by European Americans, to gain sufficient labor. During the antebellum period, enslaved African Americans had more formal legal protection under United States law than did the Choctaw. Moshulatubbee, the chief of the western region, held slaves, as did many of the Europeans who married into the Choctaw nation. The Choctaw took slaves with them to Indian Territory during removal, and descendants purchased others there. They kept slavery until 1866. After the Civil War, they were required by treaty with the United States to emancipate the slaves within their Nation and, for those who chose to stay, offer them full citizenship and rights. Former slaves of the Choctaw Nation were called the Choctaw Freedmen. After considerable debate, the Choctaw Nation granted Choctaw Freedmen citizenship in 1885. In post-war treaties, the US government also acquired land in the western part of the territory and access rights for railroads to be built across Indian Territory. Choctaw chief, Allen Wright, suggested Oklahoma (red man, a portmanteau of the Choctaw words okla "man" and humma "red") as the name of a territory created from Indian Territory in 1890.
The improved transportation afforded by the railroads increased the pressure on the Choctaw Nation. It drew large-scale mining and timber operations, which added to tribal receipts. But, the railroads and industries also attracted European-American settlers, including new immigrants to the United States.
With the goal of assimilating the Native Americans, the Curtis Act of 1898, sponsored by a Native American who believed that was the way for his people to do better, ended tribal governments. In addition, it proposed the end of communal, tribal lands. Continuing the struggle over land and assimilation, the US proposed the end to the tribal lands held in common, and allotment of lands to tribal members in severalty (individually). The US declared land in excess of the registered households needs to be "surplus" to the tribe, and took it for sale to new European-American settlers. In addition, individual ownership meant that Native Americans could sell their individual plots. This would also enable new settlers to buy land from those Native Americans who wished to sell. The US government set up the Dawes Commission to manage the land allotment policy; it registered members of the tribe and made allocations of lands.
Beginning in 1894, the Dawes Commission was established to register Choctaw and other families of the Indian Territory, so that the former tribal lands could be properly distributed among them. The final list included 18,981 citizens of the Choctaw Nation, 1,639 Mississippi Choctaw, and 5,994 former slaves, most held by Choctaws in the Indian/Oklahoma Territory. (At the same time, the Dawes Commission registered members of the other Five Civilized Tribes for the same purpose. The Dawes Rolls have become important records for proving tribal membership.) Following completion of the land allotments, the US proposed to end tribal governments of the Five Civilized Tribes and admit the two territories jointly as a state.
The establishment of Oklahoma Territory following the Civil War was a required land cession by the Five Civilized Tribes, who had supported the Confederacy. The government used its railroad access to the Oklahoma Territory to stimulate development there. The Indian Appropriations Bill of 1889 included an amendment by Illinois Representative William McKendree Springer, that authorized President Benjamin Harrison to open the two million acres (8,000 km²) of Oklahoma Territory for settlement, resulting in the Land Run of 1889. The Choctaw Nation was overwhelmed with new settlers and could not regulate their activities. In the late 19th century, Choctaws suffered almost daily from violent crimes, murders, thefts and assaults from whites and from other Choctaws. Intense factionalism divided the traditionalistic "Nationalists" and pro-assimilation "Progressives," who fought for control.
In 1905, delegates of the Five Civilized Tribes met at the Sequoyah Convention to write a constitution for an Indian-controlled state. They wanted to have Indian Territory admitted as the State of Sequoyah. Although they took a thoroughly developed proposal to Washington, DC, seeking approval, eastern states' representatives opposed it, not wanting to have two western states created in the area, as the Republicans feared that both would be Democrat-dominated, as the territories had a southern tradition of settlement. President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, ruled that the Oklahoma and Indian territories had to be jointly admitted as one state, Oklahoma. To achieve this, tribal governments had to end and all residents accept state government. Many of the leading Native American representatives from the Sequoyah Convention participated in the new state convention. Its constitution was based on many elements of the one developed for the State of Sequoyah.
In 1906 the U.S. dissolved the governments of the Five Civilized Tribes. This action was part of continuing negotiations by Native Americans and European Americans over the best proposals for the future. The Choctaw Nation continued to protect resources not stipulated in treaty or law. On November 16, 1907, Oklahoma was admitted to the union as the 46th state.
In the closing days of World War I, a group of Choctaws serving in the U.S. Army used their native language as the basis for secret communication among Americans, as Germans could not understand it. They are now called the Choctaw Code Talkers. The Choctaws were the Native American innovators who served as code talkers. Captain Lawrence, a company commander, overheard Solomon Louis and Mitchell Bobb conversing in the Choctaw language. He learned there were eight Choctaw men in the battalion.
Fourteen Choctaw Indian men in the Army's 36th Division trained to use their language for military communications. Their communications, which could not be understood by Germans, helped the American Expeditionary Force win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in France, during the last big German offensive of the war. Within 24 hours after the US Army starting using the Choctaw speakers, they turned the tide of battle by controlling their communications. In less than 72 hours, the Germans were retreating and the Allies were on full attack. The 14 Choctaw Code Talkers were Albert Billy, Mitchell Bobb, Victor Brown, Ben Caterby, James Edwards, Tobias Frazer, Ben Hampton, Solomon Louis, Pete Maytubby, Jeff Nelson, Joseph Oklahombi, Robert Taylor, Calvin Wilson, and Captain Walter Veach.
More than 70 years passed before the contributions of the Choctaw Code talkers were fully recognized. On November 3, 1989, in recognition of the important role the Choctaw Code Talkers played during World War I, the French government presented the Chevalier de L'Ordre National du Mérite (the Knight of the National Order of Merit) to the Choctaws Code Talkers.][
The US Army again used Choctaw speakers for coded language during World War II.
During the Great Depression and the Roosevelt Administration, officials began numerous initiatives to alleviate some of the social and economic conditions in the South. The 1933 Special Narrative Report described the dismal state of welfare of Mississippi Choctaws, whose population by 1930 had declined to 1,665 people. John Collier, the US Commissioner for Indian Affairs (now BIA), had worked for a decade on Indian affairs and been developing ideas to change federal policy. He used the report as instrumental support to re-organize the Mississippi Choctaw as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. This enabled them to establish their own tribal government, and gain a beneficial relationship with the federal government.
In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Indian Reorganization Act. This law proved critical for survival of the Mississippi Choctaw. Baxter York, Emmett York, and Joe Chitto worked on gaining recognition for the Choctaw. They realized that the only way to gain recognition was to adopt a constitution. A rival organization, the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Federation, opposed tribal recognition because of fears of dominance by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). They disbanded after leaders of the opposition were moved to another jurisdiction. The first Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians tribal council members were Baxter and Emmett York with Joe Chitto as the first chairperson.
With the tribe's adoption of government, in 1944 the Secretary of the Interior declared that 18,000 acres (73 km2) would be held in trust for the Choctaw of Mississippi. Lands in Neshoba and surrounding counties were set aside as a federal Indian reservation. Eight communities were included in the reservation land: Bogue Chitto, Bogue Homa, Conehatta, Crystal Ridge, Pearl River, Red Water, Tucker, and Standing Pine.
Under the Indian Reorganization Act, the Mississippi Choctaws re-organized on April 20, 1945 as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. This gave them some independence from the Democrat-dominated state government, which continued with enforcement of racial segregation and discrimination.
World War II was a significant turning point for Choctaws and Native Americans in general. Although the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek stated Mississippi Choctaws had U.S. citizenship, they had become associated with "colored people" as non-white in a state that had imposed racial segregation under Jim Crow laws. State services for Native Americans were non-existent. The state was poor and still dependent on agriculture. In its system of segregation, services for minorities were consistently underfunded. The state constitution and voter registration rules dating from the turn of the 20th century kept most Native Americans from voting, making them ineligible to serve on juries or to be candidates for local or state offices. They were without political representation.
A Mississippi Choctaw veteran stated, "Indians were not supposed to go in the military back then ... the military was mainly for whites. My category was white instead of Indian. I don't know why they did that. Even though Indians weren't citizens of this country, couldn't register to vote, didn't have a draft card or anything, they took us anyway."
Van Barfoot, a Choctaw from Mississippi, who was a sergeant and later a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, 157th Infantry, 45th Infantry Division, received the Medal of Honor. Barfoot was commissioned a second lieutenant after he destroyed two German machine gun nests, took 17 prisoners, and disabled an enemy tank.
After World War II, pressure in Congress mounted to reduce Washington's authority on Native American lands and liquidate the government's responsibilities to them. In 1953 the House of Representatives passed Resolution 108, proposing an end to federal services for 13 tribes deemed ready to handle their own affairs. The same year, Public Law 280 transferred jurisdiction over tribal lands to state and local governments in five states. Within a decade Congress terminated federal services to more than sixty groups despite intense opposition by Indians. Congress settled on a policy to terminate tribes as quickly as possible. Out of concern for the isolation of many Native Americans in rural areas, the federal government created relocation programs to cities to try to expand their employment opportunities. Indian policy experts hoped to expedite assimilation of Native Americans to the larger American society, which was becoming urban. In 1959, the Choctaw Termination Act was passed. Unless repealed by the federal government, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma would effectively be terminated as a sovereign nation as of August 25, 1970.
President John F. Kennedy halted further termination in 1961 and decided against implementing additional terminations. He did enact some of the last terminations in process, such as with the Ponca. Both presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon repudiated termination of the federal government's relationship with Native American tribes.
The Choctaw people continued to struggle economically due to bigotry, cultural isolation, and lack of jobs. The Choctaw, who for 150 years had been neither white nor black, were "left where they had always been"—in poverty. Will Campbell, a Baptist minister and Civil Rights activist, witnessed the destitution of the Choctaw. He would later write, "the thing I remember the most ... was the depressing sight of the Choctaws, their shanties along the country roads, grown men lounging on the dirt streets of their villages in demeaning idleness, sometimes drinking from a common bottle, sharing a roll-your-own cigarette, their half-clad children a picture of hurting that would never end." With reorganization and establishment of tribal government, however, over the next decades they took control of "schools, health care facilities, legal and judicial systems, and social service programs."
The Choctaws witnessed the social forces that brought Freedom Summer and its after effects to their ancient homeland. The Civil Rights Era produced significant social change for the Choctaw in Mississippi, as their civil rights were enhanced. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, most jobs were given to whites, then blacks. Donna Ladd wrote that a Choctaw, now in her 40s, remembers "as a little girl, she thought that a 'white only' sign in a local store meant she could only order white, or vanilla, ice cream. It was a small story, but one that shows how a third race can easily get left out of the attempts for understanding." On June 21, 1964 James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (renowned civil rights workers) disappeared; their remains were later found in a newly constructed dam. A crucial turning point in the FBI investigation came when the charred remains of the murdered Mississippi civil rights workers' station wagon was found on a Mississippi Choctaw reservation. Two Choctaw women, who were in the back seat of a deputy's patrol car, said they witnessed the meeting of two conspirators who expressed their desire to "beat-up" the boys. The end of legalized racial segregation permitted the Choctaws to participate in public institutions and facilities that had been reserved exclusively for white patrons.
Phillip Martin, who had served in the U. S. Army in Europe during World War II, returned to visit his former Neshoba County, Mississippi home. After seeing the poverty of his people, he decided to stay to help. Martin served as chairperson in various Choctaw committees up until 1977.
Martin was elected as Chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He served a total of 30 years, being re-elected until 2007. Martin died in Jackson, Mississippi, on February 4, 2010. He was eulogized as a visionary leader, who had lifted his people out of poverty with businesses and casinos built on tribal land.
Changes after the civil rights era were reflected in sports and other venues. In 1981, the African-American athlete, Marcus Dupree, played his final high school football game at Warriors Stadium of the Choctaw Indian Reservation's tribal high school. He finished with 5,284 rushing yards on 8.3 yards per carry; there was considerable media coverage to witness the record-breaking event that was praised by many Mississippians.
In the social changes around the Civil Rights Era, between 1965 and 1982 Native Americans renewed their commitments to the value of their ancient heritage. Working to celebrate their own strengths and exercise appropriate rights; they dramatically reversed the trend toward abandonment of Indian culture and tradition. During the 1960s, Community Action programs connected with Native Americans were based on citizen participation. In the 1970s, the Choctaws repudiated the extremes of Indian activism. The Oklahoma Choctaw sought a local grassroots solution to reclaim their cultural identity and sovereignty as a nation. The Mississippi Choctaw would lay the foundations of business ventures. Policy continued toward the ideology of Self-Determination.][
Soon after this, Congress passed the landmark Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, completing a 15-year period of federal policy reform with regard to American Indian tribes. The legislation included means by which tribes could negotiate contracts with the BIA to manage more of their own education and social service programs. In addition, it provided direct grants to help tribes develop plans for assuming responsibility. It also provided for Indian parents' involvement on school boards.
Beginning in 1979 the tribal council worked on a variety of economic development initiatives, first geared toward attracting industry to the reservation. They had many people available to work, natural resources and no taxes. Industries have included automotive parts, greeting cards, direct mail and printing, and plastic-molding. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is one of the state's largest employers, running 19 businesses and employing 7,800 people.
Starting with New Hampshire in 1963, numerous state governments began to operate lotteries and other gambling to raise money for government services. In 1987 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that federally recognized tribes could operate gaming facilities on reservation land free from state regulation. In 1988 the U.S. Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). It set the terms for Native American tribes to operate casinos.
After years of waiting under the Ray Mabus administration, Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice in 1992 gave permission for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to develop Class III gaming. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) has one of the largest casino resorts in the nation; it is located in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The Silver Star Casino opened its doors in 1994. The Golden Moon Casino opened in 2002. The casinos are collectively known as the Pearl River Resort.][
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has its own gaming operations: the Choctaw Casino Resort and Choctaw Casino Bingo, popular gaming destinations in Durant. Near the Oklahoma-Texas border, they serve residents of Southern Oklahoma and North Texas. The largest regional population base from which they draw is the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.][
After nearly two hundred years, the Choctaw have retaken control of the ancient site of Nanih Waiya. For years protected as a Mississippi state park, Nanih Waiya was returned to the Choctaw in 2006, under Mississippi Legislature State Bill 2803.][
In the second half of the 1990s, Abramoff was employed by Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP, the lobbying arm of Preston Gates & Ellis LLP law firm based in Seattle, Washington. In 1995, Abramoff began representing Native American tribes with gambling interests, starting with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
The Choctaw originally had lobbied the federal government directly, but beginning in 1994, they found that many of the congressional members who had responded to their issues had either retired or were defeated in the "Republican Revolution" of the 1994 elections. Nell Rogers, the tribe's specialist on legislative affairs, had a friend who was familiar with the work of Abramoff and his father as Republican activists. The tribe contacted Preston Gates, and soon after hired the firm and Abramoff.
Abramoff succeeded in gaining defeat of a Congressional bill to use the unrelated business income tax (UBIT) to tax Native American casinos, sponsored by Reps. Bill Archer (R-TX) and Ernest Istook (R-OK). Since the matter involved taxation, Abramoff enlisted help from his college Republican acquaintance Grover Norquist, and his Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). The bill was eventually defeated in 1996 in the Senate, due in part to grassroots work by ATR, for which the Choctaw paid $60,000.
According to Washington Business Forward, a lobbying trade magazine, Senator [Tom DeLay] was a major factor in those victories. The fight strengthened Abramoff's alliance with him.
Purporting to represent Native Americans before Congress and state governments in this new field, Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon used fraudulent means to gain profits of $15 million in total payments from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Congressional hearings were held on the issue and charges were brought against Abramoff and Scanlon. In an e-mail sent January 29, 2002, Abramoff wrote to Scanlon, "I have to meet with the monkeys from the Choctaw tribal council."
On January 3, 2006, Abramoff pled guilty to three felony counts — conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion — involving charges stemming principally from his lobbying activities in Washington on behalf of Native American tribes. In addition, Abramoff and other defendants must make restitution of at least $25 million that was defrauded from clients, most notably the Native American tribes.
For generations Choctaw lived in Mobile and Washington counties in southwestern Alabama. These Indians traced their lineage to two groups of Choctaw who settled the area in the early 19th century. The first group had been allies of the Red Sticks during the Creek War of 1813-14 and hid in the remote swamps after their defeat.The second group arrived in the 1830s, when they hid rather than be removed to the western Indian Territories. These two groups merged and lived in relative isolation from white contact for several decades.
Over the years, the MOWA (for Mobile and Washington) faced discrimination, persecution, and debt peonage because of their racial status, which the federal government considered undocumented and ambiguous. Some had intermarried with African Americans or European Americans, and been classified socially by the state as black or white in the binary racial culture of the South, rather than being allowed to preserve their identity as Choctaw. In the 21st century, the MOWA Choctaw were recognized as a Native American tribe by the state of Alabama, but they are still seeking federal recognition.
The 2010 Census found Choctaw living in every state of the Union. The states with the largest Choctaw populations were:
The Choctaw people are believed to have coalesced in the 17th century, perhaps from peoples from Alabama and the Plaquemine culture. Their culture continued to evolve in the Southeast. The Choctaw practiced Head flattening as a ritual adornment for its people, but the practice eventually fell out of favor. Some of their communities had extensive trade and interaction with Europeans, including people from Spain, France, and England greatly shaped it as well. After the United States was formed and its settlers began to move into the Southeast, the Choctaw were among the Five Civilized Tribes, who adopted some of their ways. They transitioned to yeoman farming methods, and accepted European Americans and African Americans into their society. In mid-summer the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians celebrate their traditional culture during the Choctaw Indian Fair with ball games, dancing, cooking and entertainment.
Within the Choctaws were two distinct moieties: Imoklashas (elders) and Inhulalatas (youth). Each moiety had several clans or Iskas; it is estimated there were about 12 Iskas altogether. The people had a matrilineal kinship system, with children born into the clan or iska of the mother and taking their social status from it. In this system, their maternal uncles had important roles. Identity was established first by moiety and iska; so a Choctaw identified first as Imoklasha or Inhulata, and second as Choctaw. Children belonged to the Iska of their mother. The following were some major districts:
By the early 1930s, the anthropologist John Swanton wrote of the Choctaw: "[T]here are only the faintest traces of groups with truly totemic designations, the animal and plant names which occur seeming not to have had a totemic connotation." Swanton wrote, "Adam Hodgson ... told ... that there were tribes or families among the Indians, somewhat similar to the Scottish clans; such as, the Panther family, the Bird family, Raccoon Family, the Wolf family." The following are possible totemic clan designations:
Choctaw stickball, the oldest field sport in North America, was also known as the "little brother of war" because of its roughness and substitution for war. When disputes arose between Choctaw communities, stickball provided a civil way to settle issues. The stickball games would involve as few as twenty or as many as 300 players. The goal posts could be from a few hundred feet apart to a few miles. Goal posts were sometimes located within each opposing team's village. A Jesuit priest referenced stickball in 1729, and George Catlin painted the subject. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians continue to practice the sport.
Chunkey was a game using a stone-shaped disk that was about 1–2 inches in length. Players would throw the disk down a 200-foot (61 m) corridor so that it could roll past the players at great speed. As the disk rolled down the corridor, players would throw wooden shafts at it. The object of the game was to strike the disk or prevent your opponents from hitting it.
Other games included using corn, cane, and moccasins. The corn game used five to seven kernels of corn. One side was blackened and the other side white. Players won points based on each color. One point was awarded for the black side and 5-7 points for the white side. There were usually only two players.
The Choctaw language is a member of the Muskogean family and was well known among the frontiersmen, such as Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, of the early 19th century. The language is closely related to Chickasaw, and some linguists consider the two dialects a single language. The Choctaw language is the essence of tribal culture, tradition, and identity. Many Choctaw adults learned to speak the language before speaking English. The language is a part of daily life on the Mississippi Choctaw reservation. The following table is an example of Choctaw text and its translation:
English Language: That all free men, when they form a special compact, are equal in rights, and that no man or set of men are entitled to exclusive, separate public emolument or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services.
The Choctaw believed in a good spirit and an evil spirit. They may have been sun, or Hushtahli, worshippers. The historian Swanton wrote,
"[T]he Choctaws anciently regarded the sun as a deity ... the sun was ascribed the power of life and death. He was represented as looking down upon the earth, and as long as he kept his flaming eye fixed on any one, the person was safe ... fire, as the most striking representation of the sun, was considered as possessing intelligence, and as acting in concert with the sun ... [having] constant intercourse with the sun ..."
The word nanpisa (the one who sees) expressed the reverence the Choctaw had for the sun.
Choctaw prophets were known to have addressed the sun. Swanton wrote, "an old Choctaw informed Wright that before the arrival of the missionaries, they had no conception of prayer. He added, "I have indeed heard it asserted by some, that anciently their hopaii, or prophets, on some occasions were accustomed to address the sun ..."
The colorful dresses worn by today's Choctaw are made by hand. They are based on designs of their ancestors, who adapted 19th-century European-American styles to their needs. Today many Choctaw wear such traditional clothing mainly for special events. Choctaw elders, especially the women, dress in their traditional garb every day. Choctaw dresses are trimmed by full diamond, half diamond or circle, and crosses that represent stickball sticks.
Land was the most valuable asset, which the Native Americans held in collective stewardship. The United States systematically obtained Choctaw land for conventional European-American settlement through treaties, legislation, and threats of warfare. Although the Choctaw made treaties with Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Confederate States of America; the nation signed only nine treaties with the United States. Some treaties which the US made with other nations, such as the Treaty of San Lorenzo, indirectly affected the Choctaw.
Reservations can be found in Alabama-(MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians), Louisiana-(Jena Band of Choctaw Indians; United Houma Nation; Choctaw-Apache of Ebarb; Bayou Lacombe Choctaw; Clifton Choctaw), Texas-(Mount Tabor Indian Community), Mississippi-(Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians), and Oklahoma-(Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma). Other population centers include California, Oregon, Dallas, Houston and Chicago.