The Dynamics of Race in the Choctaw nation

Race and Racial Discourse in Choctaw History and the Present Day

            The history of the Choctaw tribes is one permeated with issues of race and identification. The definition of being Choctaw, and the right to belong to the community, has been in a constant state of change since European contact in the 1500s. Eventually, what it means to be a member of the Choctaw nation, a question of identity, intermingles with one of race as Choctaws begin to be defined (and eventually self-defined) by physical stereotypes pertaining to race. The way that the Choctaw view themselves, and the way that they are viewed as a racial-other begin to run parallel as the Choctaws idea of identity is saturated with a European idea of identity. This paper will examine how the European Americans’ views of the Choctaw had a profound effect in how the Choctaw viewed ethnic and racial differences among themselves.

            Although the Choctaw were seen as Indian, they were treated as a racial other by European Americans, similarly to the way African American slaves and freedman were treated. The position the Choctaws maintained after removal was one of not belonging “to either of the two locally relevant ethnic groups, Negroes and Whites” (Peterson 74). As a cultural anthropologist, John Peterson examines how belonging to a third social group, still made the Choctaw “non-white” and kept Choctaw from attending white schools and white churches. This meant that Choctaws had the choice of going and using what would be labeled as ‘Negro facilities”, thereby accepting their non-whiteness, or attaching themselves desperately to their Indian identity. By making the choice to do the latter, the Choctaws “struggle to maintain their separate ethnic identity” was made the dominant theme in their history and politics.

            The desire of not only Choctaw, but of white Americans to define a full-blooded Indian, made way for what was known as the Dawes roll. The Dawes roll was a list of all of those who were deemed to be Choctaw by blood through the maternal line or Choctaw by marriage.  This immediately excluded those who considered themselves Choctaw because their father was Choctaw, or because they were slaves of the Choctaw. If proof of documentation was not accessible, “ordinary eyesight” was deemed “the very best testimony possible”, and the Dawes Commission announced that “A man must be a fool who cannot tell a full blood, a half blood, or even a quarter blood Indian” (Osburn 424). This way of identifying Choctaw through the physical characteristics of a person was immediately problematic and in extreme opposition to the way the Choctaw defined themselves as members of the tribe. Liz Kickham explains that before removal “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.” Therefore, when this very distinct way of defining a Choctaw was imposed by the federal government, it led to many Choctaws of mixed African and Indian blood to be labeled as “freedmen” in an entirely separate category, rather than as Choctaw. By this time, as Liz tells in her interview, “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.” This schism in the Choctaw nation was caused by the way white Europeans in America viewed identity as intertwined with race, and this came to define the racial stagnation within the Choctaw nation that continues to create issues even today.

            As the Choctaw nation became a newly racialized society to a level that was unknown to them before, new generations developed more and more institutionalized racism that juxtaposed the racism white Americans exhibited towards African Americans. There was a “nationwide obsession with racial purity”, says Katherine Osburn, and in 1983 the Choctaw nation decided to pass a law stating from then on only those enrolled in the Dawes roll as Choctaw by blood were considered to be Choctaw. This excluded those who considered themselves Choctaw through marrying into the community. The goal was clearly to further “purify” the identity of those in the Choctaw nation, excluding even phenotypically white Choctaws, along with black Choctaws. According to Liz, this is how you become a member of the Choctaw nation today; by proving that you have an ancestor listed on the Dawes rolls, and thereby proving you have Choctaw blood.

            The institutionalized racism that developed throughout the decades has led to issues regarding social stigmas, job opportunity, and wage gaps among the Choctaws. Liz Kickham was witness to an online debate among Choctaw members, in which the discourse surrounding race and job position escalated to a heavy debate.  Liz recalls that the discussion started because “people perceive the administration jobs are given to white Choctaws, and jobs cleaning ashtrays in casinos are being given to phenotypically black Choctaws.” This type of conflict recalls colonial attitudes, Liz laments, and considering that there was no concept of race before the colonizers came into contact with the Choctaw, one can only trace these types of sentiments to European traditions.


Jelts F., Wyatt– “The Relations of Negroes and Choctaw and Chikasaw Indians”

An article that shows the ways in which Choctaw were effected by the want to be included in the Dawes Rolls, and how the racial language came to be used by the Choctaws.

Osburn M. B, Katherine– “Mississippi Choctaws and Racial Politics”

An article that touches on the Choctaw’s role as a racial other, but as a “noble” Indian compared to the image of African American. It also examines the Choctaws insistence of portraying themselves as aligned with whiteness.

Osburn M. B, Katherine– “The identified Full-Bloods in Mississippi: Race and Choctaw Identity, 1898-1918” 

An article that examines the relation between Choctaw and slavery throughout history.

Peterson H., John– “Assimilation, Separation, and Out-Migration in an American Indian Group” 

An article that views the ways in which Choctaw ethnic identity changed throughout history and the factors that led to the change.

Above is a digital copy of the Dawes Rolls census.

black choctaw
Mississippi Choctaw group wearing traditional garb, c. 1908

Pictured above is a photograph of Choctaws who were mixed Indian and African blood. 


Pictured above is a screenshot of what the Dawes Rolls looked like in 1907. 


Above is a photograph of Choctaw Freedmen waiting to enter one of the tents to be enrolled in the Dawes Rolls

Above is an interesting “how to” video on how to find Indian ancestors on the Dawes Rolls. 

A documentary style interview about the Choctaw Freedman Rolls. 

Above is a short documentary about Sallie Walton, a Choctaw freedwoman. 

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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s