Choctaw Removal and Migration


The History of Choctaw Removal and Migration

            In Winston County, Mississippi, there stands an ancient earthwork mound that was constructed sometime in the period 1-300 CE. Since the 17th century, this mound has been held as the location of sacred origin for the birth of one tribe, the Choctaw, who call it Nanih Waiya. For the Choctaw people, this mound is their mother, the birthplace of their tribe, and the base for most ancient traditions and tales. However, since 1830 the mound also became a symbol for the most heartfelt losses experienced by the Choctaw people when they were forced to leave their land.  During the Indian Removal era, the government of the United States took Nanih Waiya, along with millions of acres of Choctaw land, forcing the Choctaw tribe to relocate their 20,000 members to present-day Oklahoma. As the first Native American Nation to be removed to the trans-Mississippi West, the Choctaw established a pattern for Indian Removal that was convenient for the federal government, in order to breed more wealth for itself. The purpose of this essay is to examine the discourse surrounding the removal on both sides, keeping in mind that this discourse has been primarily anglicized throughout history.

            Due to the ever-changing federal policies of the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of Choctaw land ownership is a dynamic of constant removal and allotment of land.  In my interview with Liz Kickham, a Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, this pattern of giving and taking land in accordance to when it was most advantageous became an all too common motif within the history of the Choctaw nation. Liz explains that after removal to the west, the Choctaw “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”. A half a century later, this land was re-distributed among the Choctaw tribes using the newly instituted Dawes Commission, a land allotment policy that gave the federal government the ability to buy and sell the land, now that it would be held individually by tribal members rather than communally as it was traditionally (Kickham).

            The relocation of the Choctaw Nation from a land they were deeply connected to, to a bordered plot in a strange and new state was surrounded by mainly white discourse. Only white settlers stood to benefit from Indian removal, and they are described in Arthur Rosier’s book The Removal of the Choctaw Indians as “[clapping] each other on the back and thank[ing] God that in his infinite wisdom and justice he had finally recognized their (white settlers) plight and decreed, through president Jackson in Washington, that all eastern Indians were to be uprooted from their homes” (Rosier 3). Even when sympathy is given to the Choctaws and their harsh journey westward, it is a story described as incomplete “without some account of their friends, the missionaries, who accompanied them to the West” (Foreman 36). The Choctaws are not the main focal point of the history, instead the white missionaries who joined them during their removal are. Missionaries were assigned Indian charges that they in some form or other led over to the West, and extended their aid in rebuilding churches and schools in the new land. According to Foreman in his book The Five Civilized Tribes, these missionaries were given stipends from the federal government in order to help the Choctaw people establish themselves in what was to be their new home. In this way, the Choctaw nations’ uprooting and re-establishment were both projects controlled by the outside force of the racial and cultural ‘other’, and their “intelligently written accounts of the events and conditions that came under their observation” permeates all discourse surrounding Choctaw life in the 19th century Indian Removal Era.

The forced relocation of the Choctaw nation was given the ironic term of being a “voluntary removal” in an attempt to remove blame and cruelty away from the process. There were many negotiations between the Choctaw leaders and the federal government before they came to the inevitable terms, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Under the treaty, the Choctaw were given three years to relocate in stages to the new Indian Territory starting in 1831. During the negotiations, boundaries were set (although of course later broken) and more concretely, the Choctaw chiefs “realized that they must acquiesce to American demands or bear the responsibility either for extermination of the tribe or removal under unfortunate circumstances” (Rosier 128). The Choctaw nation was considered by the federal government to be one of the five civilized Native American tribes, that is, they were closely assimilated to Anglo-American practices in trade, language, social structures, and culture. The Choctaw were seen as having no history of aggression against white Americans, and furthermore had a history of siding with the United States government in wars against other tribal nations. This docility is reflected in their “depressed spirit” (Rosier) at the knowledge of impending removal, rather than any recorded sign of anger or resentment towards their removers.

            It was not until 2008 that Nanih Waiya was returned to one of the now officially recognized Choctaw bands in Mississippi. Throughout the years, the Choctaw seem to be less aware of their geographical origins, and Liz states that the history is almost never taught. For this reason, it is unknown to many Choctaw in Oklahoma that the Choctaw people originated from Mississippi, and that that was once their only ancestral land. To the band of Choctaw that returned to Mississippi after their land was redistributed, this history is known mainly through the writing of those outside of the Choctaw identity. This loss of historical knowledge as a direct consequence of a forced migration nearly two centuries ago is perhaps the most painful repercussion of the Indian Removal Era for a people once so integrated in their traditions.


Nanih Waiya present day

Above is a short video showing the Choctaw people celebrating Nanih Waiya with dance and music. There is also a short introduction to the significance of the mound.


signing the treaty
Signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830 by S. Douglass Crockwell
Macon, Mississippi Post Office
Image courtesy of Keith Parish. Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.
treaty of dancing rabbit creek
A picture taken by my friend of the short info plaque regarding the Treaty that led to the removal of the Choctaw people.
forced removal of choctaws
Depiction of Choctaw removal
removal of choctaw map
Map disaplying the direction of removal for different tribes, including the Choctaw.

Above is a short video about the commemoration of the journey the Choctaw took during the Trail of Tears, and how in the present day Choctaw and friends of the Choctaw retrace some of those very same steps in order to remember the tragedy.


Letter on Choctaw removal

An article published in a magazine in 1830, including a printed letter written by a Choctaw Chief, who shares his thoughts and lamentations on the removal of the Choctaw.

The Five Civilized Tribes– Written by Grant Foreman

A book comprised of the histories of the five native American tribes that were noted to be “civilized” by the anglo Americans in the United States. These were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Creek tribes.

Above is a documentary about the 5 civilized tribes and how they lived.

The Removal of the Choctaw Indians– Written by Arthur H. De Rosier

A book detailing the history the Choctaw nation, the period of removal, and the effects it has had in the present day Choctaw nation.

Economic Aspects of removal– Written by Joseph T. manzo

An article going in-depth into the economic aspect of the removal of the Choctaw, what it cost and more importantly, what it yielded for the federal government.

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.

Moribund, yeah.

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.

No culture?

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.


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