The Evolution of the Choctaw Language and Culture
The United States is home to over 500 (federally recognized) Native American tribes, each had, or has, their own unique cultural norms, as well as their own language. It is well known that the conflict between these tribes and the U.S. government has resulted in countless tragedies in the past, and continues to bring about the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity. Originally from the Southeast states of Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama, the Choctaw nation is one such example of a native tribe suffering from the consequences of cultural assimilation and oppression. The aim of this paper is to expand on the ways in which the Choctaw identity has been diluted throughout the centuries, since contact with white colonizers occurred, and how this dilution is affecting the community today, specifically through the consequence of language change.
The Choctaw tribes have a long history of contact with white settlers, dating back to the 1500s; the result of which is the equally long history of intermarriage with Europeans and Americans who were phenotypically white. This is something that becomes strikingly apparent when you interview a present-day Choctaw woman to ask about the history of the Choctaw Nation. Liz, as it turns out, is a second-language learner of Choctaw, a moribund language that has only 10,000 speakers remaining. When you first meet Liz, you can’t help noticing her porcelain pale skin, and her racially white features that contradict the stereotypical image held of Native Americans. This long history of contact was established, Liz explains, when a major Choctaw tribe invited missionaries into their community, because “they wanted education so they could speak the language of the colonizer so that they could negotiate fairly, because they knew they were at a disadvantage”. Over the generations, the Choctaw not only learned English but were eventually fully converted to Christianity. Christianity, states Liz, plays a major role in the persistence of the Choctaw language until today. The major tribe which coexisted with the missionaries and adopted their religion has since had their Choctaw dialect become the standard for the language. This tribe, now known as the Choctaw Nation, has its headquarters in present day Oklahoma, where they were displaced to during the time of Jacksonian politics. This is one way in which Choctaw has lost much of its dialectical diversity, due to the fact that some smaller tribes of Choctaw did not interact with the colonizers to the same extent.
The connection between language and religious practice has proven to be a major contributor to the endurance of Choctaw, though it has also partially caused the disappearance of more conversational speech. Since the language relies heavily on texts of a religious nature, which tend not to be the sort of speech used in regular day to day interactions, there has been a loss of the more casual forms of use. Besides Christianity, the Choctaw identity draws its roots from traditional storytelling, a practice still very much common today. Creation stories, as well as traditional animal and hunting stories are just a few of the many tales that serve to reflect the cultural limitations and social expectations within the Choctaw community. The original purpose of these stories was to educate Choctaw children, though they have evolved into powerful tools used to teach adults the language. Liz Kickham, together with her Choctaw instructor Leroy Sealy wrote an article on this tradition, stating that: “Stories serve to tie the language to the culture, the people, and the history of the Choctaw” (Kickham). Sealy, in his efforts towards promoting native language revitalization, tells traditional tribal tales with the goal to not only teach grammar instruction, but also introduce aspects of the Choctaw way of life to those who might not know much about their own history. Teachers like Sealy believe that story-based instruction “offers a wealth of information relevant to the field of second language learning” (Kickham). This type of instruction, which is prevalent in community classes in churches and even universities across the southern part of the U.S., teaches a language that is vastly different from the ancient Choctaw spoken in the 1500-600s.
As is common of many moribund languages, Choctaw has undergone what is referred to as language obsolescence. Liz gives the loss of verb grades as an example of a lost grammar structure. Just as most present-day Choctaws have no knowledge of the pre-contact and pre-Christianity history of their tribe, the verb grades are also something that almost none of the 10,000 speakers are aware of how to use properly. “It was a very productive system at some point, and now it’s being lost”, Liz states regrettably. “We’ve got the paradigm down, it’s just that nobody uses them anymore”. As a second-language learner of Choctaw, Liz also comments on the language classes’ focus on the grammar of the language from the point of view of linguistics, and not so much as a means of conversation. This means that almost nobody is learning to actually speak Choctaw fluently, and with the intention of communicating with each other in Choctaw.
Despite going through the hardships that come with removal and disintegration, the Choctaw Nation is quite stable and prevalent within Oklahoma. Financially, the nation owns several successful casinos, and are spending millions on the construction of a new headquarters. The identity of the Choctaws has certainly evolved a great deal in the last 500 years, but great efforts are being made by members of the community in order to spread knowledge of Choctaw tradition, culture, and the element that binds it all together: language.
Interview with Liz Kickham, associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. Liz has been studying Choctaw, and language revitalization for the past 8 years.
So, let’s just start with you kind of introducing yourself and what you’re doing here at the university.
(Speaks in Choctaw)
What I just said is “Hi my name is Liz Kickam, I am Choctaw and [Scottish?]
Ok, and some questions I have were just the current linguistic landscape/situation of Choctaw as a language in the US.
It’s an endangered language, it’s a Muskogean language it was originally spoken in Mississippi/Alabama and North Florida area, and then with Jacksonian politics and removal, a large group of Choctaw people were removed to what would become Oklahoma Indian territory. They were originally given the entire southern portion of what would become Oklahoma but later half of that was taken away (they were removed, given land, then had some of that taken away). So now, Choctaw nation in Oklahoma is in South Eastern Oklahoma.
Ok, and they are still pretty prevalent there, I saw they have some casinos.
Well Choctaw nation is, and Choctaw nation is doing well financially and there are 30,000 plus enrolled members, but estimates are that there are fewer than 10,000 speakers, and that includes speakers from Mississippi, because at removal, some elected to stay, and they went into hiding.
Do you know if, out of those speakers are they mostly 2nd language learners?
When we say speakers, we’re talking about 1st language speakers (in this case). In Mississippi the language held on (I would say “held on” is the right tense to use) longer, because they had to go into hiding, they were isolated and they were on reservations, and when you’re in reservations, isolated, and separate from the dominant economy, you can retain your culture and language longer.
Yeah okay. You did said before it was a moribund language.
So no children are learning…
There might be a few in Mississippi but not in Oklahoma
So just a very small fraction. Another question I had was: Why do you think the language has… What has affected the Choctaw language to become moribund?
Well that’s a long history actually, we have to go back to when everybody was still in Mississippi, and first of all the Choctaw were first contacted by de Soto in the… gosh what was that? 1500s, 1600s? Long time ago. So a long, long history of contact, and early inter-marriage, so there were mixed Choctaws very early and they invited missionaries to come in, not to preach, but to help everyone learn the language of the colonizers, and also to create literacy within Choctaw. They wanted education so they could speak the language of the colonizer so that they could negotiate fairly, because they knew there were at a disadvantage.
So very early on, they were trying to implement English.
I don’t think they were trying to get everyone to speak English, I think they wanted some of the people to be able to speak the language for negotiation purposes, but they weren’t trying to effect, you know a shift to English, they just recognized the political need for some people to speak English.
So it was mostly political, there was no religious…
No, but of course the missionaries (it took several generations) did their job. They eventually converted everyone or almost everyone. Originally, it Choctaw nation they were 3 groups, huh 6 groups, more like a loose confederation rather than a united nation. And um, of these 6, there were 3 that were large enough to be dominant over the others. One of these groups is the one that invited the missionaries in: They were the Okla Falaya: the long people. That’s the language the missionaries worked with. The first missionary’s name was Cyrus Byington, first thing he did was to translate into Choctaw, the Bible, and then some Hymns, and there was also [Alfred Wright?], another missionary who came. And these were Presbyterian missionaries. They were trying to convert the Choctaw who invited them in tried to use them for education purposes but eventually people converted. One of the groups in Mississippi did not, they resisted, they remained a bit more traditional and had less intermarriage. When the removal occurred in 1830s, those same communities came to what would become Oklahoma and settled in groups, and kind of recreated those 3 groups. So the most northern group was the most conservative, and the south-eastern is the one that has become the standard for the language. There are 3 main dialects, but that group became the standard because that’s the one [Cyrus Byington?] wrote the dictionary and the bible in.
So even in present day there are these groups and different dialects?
I think people don’t recognize it now; you have to look at it historically. You see politics going along these lines, even though most Choctaw people in Oklahoma don’t know this history, but if you live in this region, you’re more likely to have this political stance.
So that’s interesting, present day Choctaw people, to what extent do they still consider themselves native Choctaw, do they try to learn the language, or their history?
At this point, Choctaw people are very assimilated. You wouldn’t notice anything different about a Choctaw person and non-Choctaw person. Some of them are phenotypically still very Indian looking, very native American looking. (Although Choctaw people would use the word “Indian”, I generally in academic circles tend to use Native American). So some of them are still very phenotypically native looking, but so many Choctaws aren’t. And in fact there was a recent Facebook conversation in which a lot of Choctaw people got involved about whether there was institutionalized internalized racism within the tribe. And that’s what I’m actually working on for my next project.
Really? Can you talk a little bit more about that?
The fact that there are so many white Choctaws, and the history of slavery within Choctaw nation and intermarriage with enslaved people means that there are a lot of African American Choctaws as well. But in 1980-, so okay, let me back up. Originally, intermarriage was okay within Choctaw nation. You are Choctaw if you are culturally Choctaw, if the community accepts you as Choctaw.
So they can marry anybody from another tribe, or a white person?
If the white person married in. Well, as long as your mother is Choctaw you’re Choctaw, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity your father was. And at this point, it’s just if you can prove a maternal relative.
So it’s a matriarchal society?
Matrilineal. More traditionally matrilineal. Not any longer, but they still use that for enrollment purposes, so if you can prove a matrilineal relative that was on the Dawes Rolls. So now this is where it gets interesting. There wasn’t this concept of race, originally, you were just Choctaw if you were Choctaw, it didn’t matter what skin color you had, if you knew you were Choctaw, you were Choctaw. But, when the Federal government decided to open up Indian territory prior to it becoming the state of Oklahoma, they wanted to be able to sell land, but the land was held communally. Choctaw people held the land as one group, anybody could go anywhere, and if nobody was living on it, they could live on it they could farm it, they could do whatever they wanted to do with it, if they were Choctaw. But the federal government wanted to open up that land so that other people could buy it, so they instituted the Dawes allotment. Are you familiar with this?
No, I’m not.
Okay. In the late 1800s, at about the turn of the century (Oklahoma became a state in 1907), you have the Federal Government coming in and saying “you will now be enrolled as a tribal member” (This is to all the tribes in Oklahoma) and then your family held by a male head of household. So they were superimposing patrimonialism on a matrilineal society. The male of the household would have 160 acres. And so, now instead of holding the land communally you own it individually, which then gives you the right to sell it. And that was the rule. So then, you have to show up now, at these tents run by government agents to identify yourself as Choctaw. First of all, some people didn’t want to. Ironically, the people who were more phenotypically and more politically conservative Choctaws didn’t want to enroll, because, “I don’t want to be identified as a Choctaw”. “I don’t want the federal government labeling me something, what are they going to do, remove us now to where?” Right? And then people who were married to white people living in white communities perhaps didn’t want to be identified as Choctaw , because then you get marginalized, and you get labeled “less than” because you’re not white and you’re now telling everybody that you’re not white. But then the people who showed up to enroll, the people in the tents could say if they were Choctaw, so it was based on what do you look like, what do you dress like, how much language do you know. And so, they’re using these external markers instead of looking at whether the community believes that they’re Choctaw, because that’s the only criteria within the Choctaw community at that time. It was “do we think you’re Choctaw? Are you a part of our community?” And then of course there were the enslaved people, so Choctaws owned slaves, and when they were moved to Oklahoma, part of the treaty was that they got to take their slaves with them but that those people would be freed at a later date, and there was a lot of intermarriage. So if you showed up at a tent, and looked remotely like you had African descent, they were going to say “you‘re not Choctaw, you’re a freedmen, you need to go to that line”. Doesn’t matter whether you were a full member of the community or not, you just automatically get identified. The one-drop rule. Hypo-descent. Sometimes there would be people who had both Choctaw and African blood, and they said “no you’re freed men”. So these were still people who had, their mothers were Choctaw. They got put in the freedmen line. And then also, if someone had it out for you politically, they could go in the tent and say “no, he’s not Choctaw, he’s freed men” and then you get put in the wrong line. So you had people enrolled as “Choctaw by blood”, “Choctaw by marriage” and “Freed men”. So, in 1983 the Choctaw government decided that they were going to pass a law to say you could only be an enrolled Choctaw from this point forward if you were on the Dawes rolls as Choctaw by blood. So everybody who is Choctaw by marriage: no, everybody who is a freedman: no. So all these people who one day before had been Choctaw, now in 1983 are no longer Choctaw. And so you get a lot of people who are phenotypically white, who can enroll, but who are phenotypically black and cannot.
And that’s how it is today?
That’s how it is today. So you have some people who look, who you can tell have some African heritage but are able to enroll, but that’s because they weren’t on the freedman roll. This has happened since, intermarriage has happened since 1983. So basically it comes down to the fact that if you’re a white Choctaw that’s perfectly fine, if you’re a black Choctaw, not so much. And then there’s this other thing going on right now that this is what the Facebook discussion was about. People perceive the administration jobs are given to white Choctaws, and jobs cleaning ashtrays in casinos are being given to phenotypical black Choctaws, so there’s some of this going on as well (in the Choctaw nation). But when people start saying you’re not a real Choctaw because you’re a white Choctaw, or they give all the jobs to the white Choctaws, I’m sitting back here thinking you know, these are colonial attitudes, there was no concept of race prior to the Federal Government coming and superimposing it.
What about slavery? Was that not until..?
Well, people owned slaves, but it wasn’t about the race, it was about who you could own as a slave in the country, because prior to contact (European contact, colonialism), Choctaw people owned slaves, they were just slaves from other tribes. At that point slavery wasn’t the same as slavery was in the US in general, some would be taken as a slave as a captive, but not treated despicably: treated as an extended member of the family and then eventually they might be adopted as a member of the family. So when people owned slaves from Africa, same type of thing going on. The ones who owned the most slaves and were particularly not nice to the slaves were white men who married native women and brought in white values.
So, about the Choctaw nation, what does it entail to be enrolled? Do you have to then, live in Oklahoma, in the community?
No. First of all, Oklahoma doesn’t have reservations.
Ok, but, where are the headquarters?
Durant. Sorry, if you’re from there you have to call it “Durant”. You go to the “MacDonald’s” in “Durant” Oklahoma. And that’s in Choctaw nation in the Southeast quadrant of the state of Oklahoma. But that’s also “Oklahoma”, it’s not a separate place like the Hopi reservation, it’s overlaid, it’s Choctaw nation and Oklahoma at the same time. And so, yeah it’s just different. Pretty much everywhere in Oklahoma is part of the Native American nation, but it’s also part of Oklahoma.
So when you’re part of the Choctaw nation, does that mean there’s some kind of test or also that you know the language?
No, the only criteria to be a member of Choctaw nation, is not even a blood quantum, there is no blood quantum requirement, you just have to prove an ancestor on the Dawes rolls, you have to prove descent from someone who is enrolled on the Dawes rolls.
Not from the maternal side, any side?
At this point, any side, ideally a matrilineal ancestor. But then, you know, that means that all those people whose ancestors were scared to sign up, who got put in the wrong line, they don’t get to be Choctaw, and that’s a complicated thing right now.
Is that sort of also causing the Choctaw to be dispersed, is it creating splits?
People move all the time, you don’t have to be in Choctaw nation territory to be a member, in fact they have a newspaper that they send out. They’ll send it out anywhere. You could be living in China, and still get the newspaper. And there are some benefits you get from being an enrolled member. Such as if your kid makes A’s in school, they can get some financial benefits. There’s a stars program, they can get like a 50 dollar certificate or something.
Do we see little pockets of Choctaw communities in different…countries?
Actually, yes. Well, not in other countries so much, but in Texas, California and Alaska, and there are some affiliated communities that didn’t come from Oklahoma Choctaw, but from Mississippi Choctaw, in Louisiana, as well. Mississippi band of Choctaw, the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma, and then these other small communities.
Is there one in Arizona?
You should make one.
I think there are a couple of other Choctaw people on campus.
Yeah, but no, there isn’t a community.
Ok, let me ask you about the efforts that are being done to preserve the language, specifically your efforts or others in general.
In the state of Oklahoma?
Well, Choctaw nation has a lot of programs going on. I know that Mississippi band is doing some work as well, but they have less of a feeling of urgency, because their shift didn’t really start occurring until the 1990s when they opened the casinos and then everyone needed to speak English to work with the customers. And so you saw a shift happen at that point. The shift has been going on since the early 1800s for most Choctaw people, and Choctaw nation 18 years ago actually started addressing those issues, at first with community classes, and now they have 30 community classes in Oklahoma and they have one in California and one in Texas as well.
What do the community classes teach?
Mostly the grammar of the language. Mostly they’re teaching you to be a linguist rather than to speak. It’s very grammatically focused and less conversionally focused.
They do teach some culture as well, you might get some basket weaving, you might get some singing, stick ball. You have to remember that what is considered traditional Choctaw culture now is very much based in Christianity, so you get a little hymn singing, and some Bible reading. Mostly in those classes what you get is people arguing over the way their grandmother said it, and which way is the correct way of saying it. They also have high school language classes taught in over 50 high schools in southeastern Oklahoma that counts as your world language requirement, and what else are they doing, they have online classes, and they have word of the day emails, and they have a website with lots of lessons you can do, but they’re taken directly from some of the workbooks. And again, all of these platforms are using a grammar and literacy based approach rather than and emergent, communication based approach.
So I would imagine some of the casual language, dialectical language has died out?
One of the things that’s being lost, because there’s something called language obsolescence: more complex, grammatical forms or more high register speech gets lost pretty quickly.
It becomes simplified, right.
One of the things that’s been lost is the verb grade. Most people who consider themselves speakers at this point don’t know how the verb grades, and verb grades are basically, it’s a complex aspectual system. It’s an infixation system, when you infix into the verb a morpheme or a couple of morphemes in some cases, that will influence the aspect of the verb. It’ll make it a continuant, a durative, or an iterative. So if I say “I cut”, but then I infix just the right morpheme I will now say “I chop”. And then if I infix two of the morphemes, it’ll now mean to chop repeatedly, or maybe “I chop every day”. Like if I go out and chop wood every morning. This system infixes a tone and higher pitch as well, as nasalization, possibly an h, and possibly germination of a consonant, so lengthening of a consonant, and sometimes re-duplication of a syllable with geminate. So it’s pretty complex, it doesn’t just work with verbs, it also works with adjectives and adverbs, because you can use them to make a comparative or superlative, or indicate a degree of intensity. So, it was a very productive system at some point, and now it’s being lost.
Yeah we actually learned about a couple of languages that had the same thing happen.
I’m actually working on a children’s book that uses the verb grades.
Really? So there is enough record for somebody to relearn them?
Oh absolutely, we’ve got the paradigm down. It’s just that nobody uses them anymore. And the speaker that I work with, he is one of the last people who really knows it inside and out, that can use it productively.
Very interesting. I think that’s a good amount of what I wanted to know. Yeah, thank you so much.
The Choctaw Nation Webpage
Articles and Documents
Liz Kickham and Leroy Sealy on the storytelling tradition of the Choctaws:
The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act that served to promote self-governing among the Native American tribes across the U.S.
An interesting article on the beer culture of the Choctaws, and how it has spread outside of the tribe. Retrieved from the Choctaw Nation website above.
Sewell, Steven L. “Choctaw Beer: Tonic Or Devil’s Brew?” Journal of Cultural Geography, vol. 23, no. 2, 2006, pp. 105-115, doi:10.1080/08873630609478225.