The Choctaw worshipped the sun and fire as well as a host of lesser deities and beings. They celebrated the Green Corn ceremony and other festivals, mainly in the late summer and fall. The tribe was organized into two divisions. Three or four districts were each headed by a chief and a council. Also, each town had a lesser chief and a war chief. The power of these chiefs was relatively limited, and the Choctaw were among the most democratic of all southeastern Native Americans. Although there was no overall head chief, a national council did meet on occasion.
The people placed a high priority on peace and harmony. Lacrosse, played with deerskin balls and raccoon-skin-thong stick nets, was a huge spectator sport as well as a means for settling disputes. Rituals and ceremonies began days before a game. There was always gambling; sometimes the stakes included a person's net worth.
Women adulterers were severely punished; some contributed to a class of prostitutes. Both men and women observed food taboos when a child was born. Infants' heads were generally shaped at birth. Maternal uncles taught and disciplined boys. At puberty, boys were tattooed, and some wore bear claws through their noses. Homosexuality was accepted.
Perhaps 100 or more Choctaw villages (summer and winter) existed in the 17th century. Border towns, especially in the northeast, were generally fortified, whereas interior towns were more spread out. Towns, which were groups of villages and houses surrounded by farms, usually contained a public game/ceremonial area.
Men built pole-frame houses roofed with grass or cane reed thatch and walled with a number of materials, including crushed shell, hide, bark (often pine or cypress), and matting. Summer houses were oblong or oval with two smoke holes. The winter houses were circular and insulated with clay.
The Choctaw farmed bottomland fields along the lower Mississippi River. They often realized food surpluses. Women, with the assistance of men, grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco, and later potatoes and melon. Also, in the 18th century they grew leeks, garlic, cabbage, and other garden produce, the latter strictly for trade. Corn was also made into bread, as was sweet potato seed.
Large game, such as buffalo, deer, and bear (killed mainly for their fat), were particularly important when the harvest was poor. Small game included squirrel, turkey, beaver, otter, raccoon, opossum, and rabbit. Other foods included birds' eggs, fish, and wild fruits, nuts, seeds, and roots.
Fields were cleared using slash-and-burn technology. People fished using spears, nets, stunning poison, and buffalo hide traps. They carved bows, mortars, and stools of wood; made skin-covered gourd and horn pouches; and wove bags from twisted tree bark. Women wove and dyed baskets. Spun buffalo wool was also used as a fabric. Cane, another important raw material, was used for such items as knives, blowguns, darts, and baskets. Musical instruments included drums of skins stretched over hollowed logs, rattles, and rasps. Traders developed a regional trade language mixed with sign language for wide communication.
The Choctaw followed the general Southeastern dress of deerskin breechclouts, skirts, and tunics and buffalo or bear robes and turkey feather blankets for warmth. Some women made their skirts of spun buffalo wool plus a plant fiber. Both men and women wore long hair except for men in time of mourning. Both also tattooed their bodies. The Choctaw partook less of war than did many of their neighbors, although they did not shirk from defensive fighting. Adult captives were regularly burned; others were enslaved.
The Choctaw probably descended from the Mississippian Temple Mound Builders and may once have been united with the Chickasaw. Early encounters with the Spanish, starting with Hernando de Soto about 1540, were not peaceful, as de Soto generally burned Choctaw villages as he passed through the region.
The French established a presence in Choctaw territory in the late 17th century, and the two groups soon became important allies, although there was always a faction of Choctaw friendly to the British. Fighting along with the French and other indigenous groups, the Choctaw helped defeat the Natchez revolt of 1729. Bitter internal fighting around 1750 between French and British supporters was resolved generally in favor of the former.
Intertribal war continued with the Chickasaw and the Creek until the French cession in 1763 (at the conclusion of the French and Indian War). The Choctaw fought the Creek even after that, until the United States took "possession" of greater "Louisiana" in the early 19th century. Small bands of Choctaw began settling in Louisiana in the late 18th century. At the same time, alcohol, supplied mainly by British traders, was taking a great toll on the people.
Largely under the influence of their leader, Pushmataha, the Choctaw refused to join the pan-Indian Tecumseh confederacy. However, non-Natives continued pushing into the Choctaw's territory. One strategy that non-Natives used to gain Indian land was to encourage trade debt by offering unlimited credit. Under relentless pressure and threats, the Choctaw began ceding land in 1801. Although treaties usually called for an exchange of land, in practice Native Americans seldom received the western land they were promised, in part because the United States traded land that was not the government's to give or that it had no intention of allowing the Natives to have.
By the 1820s, the Choctaw had adopted so many lifeways of the whites that the latter regarded them as a "civilized tribe." Nevertheless, and although the Choctaw had never fought the United States, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act (1830), requiring the Choctaw and other Southeast tribes to leave their homelands and relocate west of the Mississippi. A small minority of unrepresentative Choctaw signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830), ceding all of their land in Mississippi, over 10 million acres. Articles in the treaty providing for Choctaw to remain in Mississippi were so full of loopholes that most of those who did so were ultimately dispossessed. At the same time, the state of Mississippi formally made Native Americans subject to state laws, thus criminalizing tribal governments.
Removal of roughly 12,000 Choctaw took place between 1831 and 1834. Terrible conditions on this forced march of several hundred miles caused about a quarter of the Choctaw to die of fatigue, heartbreak, exposure, disease, and starvation. Many more died once they reached the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Roughly 3,000 to 5,000 Choctaw escaped to the back country rather than join the removal. Many of these people were removed in the 1840s, but some remained. Although they continued living as squatters in a semitraditional manner, their condition declined. Officially illegal, they were plied with alcohol and relentlessly cheated, and they became disheartened.
The bulk of the people reestablished themselves out west and prospered in the years before the Civil War, with successful farms, missionary schools, and a constitutional government. Most Choctaw fought for the Confederacy; the war was a disaster for them and the other tribes. A relatively high percentage of Indians died in the war, and further relocations and dispossessions followed the fighting. After the war, the Choctaw paid for the removal of African Americans living on their territory, although most were eventually adopted into the tribe.
In the last two decades of the 19th century, the General Allotment Act and the Curtis Act were passed over the opposition of the tribes. These laws deprived Oklahoma Natives, including the Choctaw, of most of their land. The "permanent" Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907 (the name "Oklahoma," a Muskogean word for "Red People," was introduced by a Choctaw Indian), at which time the independent Choctaw nation became subject to U.S. control. The tribe spent decades attempting to reassert control over its institutions.
After the Reconstruction period, the Mississippi and Louisiana Choctaw lived by sharecropping, subsistence hunting, some wage labor, and selling or bartering herbs and handicrafts. Their community and traditions were kept alive in part by the retention of their language and their rural isolation, both from Euro-Americans, who branded them nonwhite, and African Americans, with whom the Choctaw refused to identify.
The government finally recognized the Mississippi Choctaw in the early 20th century, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs began providing services, such as schools and a hospital, during the 1920s and 1930s. It began purchasing land for them as well. Reservations were created in 1944, and the tribe adopted a constitution and bylaws in 1945. Educational and employment opportunities remained severely limited until the 1960s owing to Mississippi's Jim Crow policies.
Barry M. Pritzker
Debo, Angie. A History of the Indians of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970; Iverson, Peter. "We Are Still Here": American Indians in the Twentieth Century. Arlington Heights, IL: Davidson, 1998; Power, Susan C. Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004; Rawls, James. Chief Red Fox is Dead: A History of Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishing, 1996.