The Mississippi Choctaws
Life for a Native American, when European settlers came, was not an amiable one. Before 1500, the Choctaw, or chahta, thrived in an agricultural economy. The Choctaws were a fairly peaceful farming tribe, relying mostly on corn and beans as their crops. As years passed and more Europeans came to their lands, the Choctaw people became less prosperous due to the encroachment of their lands. The land hungry Europeans finally forced the Choctaws, along with their brothers the Chickasaw and Cherokee to leave their homelands. This mass removal is known as the Trail of Tears. During this dispersal, the Choctaw were forced to travel through swamps, cane breaks, forest, and swollen rivers to their new home in Oklahoma. Many died on the terrible journey as a result of Cholera, exposure, and malnutrition. Some Choctaws, however, remained hidden in the forests of Mississippi, refusing to leave their ancestral home. These who remained and their descendants became known as the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians.
For many years, those Choctaw people lived in poverty. Even during the early and middle 1900's few if any Choctaws had running water, electricity, adequate food, or housing. Most lived in shacks in the forest. These Choctaw people had the highest infant mortality rate in America, few Choctaws had any formal schooling, and they had a life expectancy of only fifty years. Thankfully, this situation has changed.
The descendents of those brave few who stayed are now located on the reservation which occupies Neshoba, Leake, Newton, Winston, and Jackson counties in rural central Mississippi. The Pearl River Community is the largest of the seven communities and is the center of the tribe's strong economy.
Being a powerful modern tribe does not mean we have forgotten the old ways. We Choctaws will always cherish our traditions. We have many customs and beliefs that have been passed down from generation to generation. We still embrace our dances, games, and various other customs such as basket weaving and beadwork. The game of stickball, or kobocca, is still played today, but only as a source of entertainment. In ancient times, it was used as a method of solving conflicts.
The traditional clothing is typically used only for celebrations and special occasions; however, a few elders still wear traditional clothing for everyday wear. Choctaw dresses are usually trimmed with one of three motifs: full diamond, half diamond, or a series of circles that represent stickballs and sticks. The diamond is said to represent the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and it is seen on basket designs as well as clothing.
Men and women alike often wear decorative beadwork with traditional clothing. A beadwork set for women often consists of a belt, medallion, collar necklaces, earrings, ribbon lapel pins, and a handkerchief lapel pin. Designs and colors are the artist's preference. Many women also wear round combs with their Choctaw dresses. Old drawings and photographs suggest that originally these combs were made from silver or other metal. Photographs from the turn of the 20th century show Choctaw men wearing shirts and ties along with strings of multicolored beads, but this style gave way to the collar necklaces, hatbands and beaded belts worn by contemporary Choctaw men. Both men and women wear sashes, known as the most traditional accessory, featuring both beadwork and appliqué.
In 1979, Phillip Martin was elected by the people as chairman, or chief, of the the tribe. His leadership helped bring the once impoverished tribe to an economically prosperous status. Due to the vision of one man, the tribe has become a nationally recognized and respected economy with many assets. The tribe owns and operates the Pearl River Resort, which includes the Silver Star Hotel and Casino, the Golden Moon Hotel and Casino, Dancing Rabbit Golf Course, Geyser Falls Water Theme Park, and many other businesses and corporations. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians' revenues averages $360 million annually, with over $20 million going to the State of Mississippi. By 2004, the tribe had become one of the state's leading employers, providing about 15,000 Mississippians with jobs.
Former Chief Phillip Martin stated, "The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is proud of its contribution to the economy to the state of Mississippi. In working closely with local, state, and federal governments, we have obtained great success and many initiatives we have undertaken. Through self-determination, we continue to prosper and share our legacy. We invite you to explore our achievement and imagine the possibility for future growth. For more than five hundred years, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has been apart of the state of Mississippi. From 200 years of betrayal, dispersal, and poverty, today, by choice, we are a testament to the fact that together, we can achieve anything."
The Choctaws are a proud people who have overcome adversity to become a respected and economically secure tribe. We are proud of our traditions and heritage and look forward to a bright future as leaders of Native American people and the nation as well.
To learn more about the Choctaw people, visit www.choctaw.org.