Choctaw History at Glance
The Choctaw are native to the Southeastern United States and members of the Muskogean linguistic family, which traces its roots to a mound-building, maize-based society that flourished in the Mississippi River Valley for more than a thousand years before European contact.
Although their first encounter with Europeans ended in a bloody battle with Hernando de Soto’s fortune-hunting expedition in 1540, the Choctaw would come to embrace European traders who arrived in their homeland nearly two centuries later. By the time President George Washington initiated a program to integrate Southeastern Indians into European American culture following the Revolutionary War, many Choctaw had already intermarried, converted to Christianity and adopted other white customs. The Choctaw became known as one of America’s Five Civilized Tribes, which also included the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole.
Trail of Tears
The Choctaw signed nine treaties with the United States before the Civil War, beginning with the Treaty of Hopewell in 1786 – which set boundaries and established universal peace between the two nations. Subsequent treaties, however, reshaped those borders and forced the Choctaw to cede millions of acres of land. In 1830, the United States seized the last of the Choctaw’s ancestral territory and relocated the tribe to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. The Choctaw were the first to walk the Trail of Tears. Nearly 2,500 members perished along the way.
Despite the many lives lost, the Choctaw remained a hopeful and generous people. The first order of business upon arriving in their new homeland was to start a school and a church. They drafted a new constitution. And when the great potato famine befell the people of Ireland, the Choctaws collected money to help alleviate the country’s suffering.
The Choctaw entered a new era post Civil War, when the United States ceded 2 million acres of Indian land, abolished commonly held tribal lands and created the Oklahoma Territory. It set up the Dawes Commission to register Indian families and parcel out individual plots of land. In 1889, the Oklahoma Territory was opened to white settlement. The ensuring land run overwhelmed the Choctaw Nation. The Choctaw suffered thefts, violent crimes and murders at the hands of whites and other tribal members.
Despite their struggle to survive as a nation during much of the 20th century, the Choctaw continued to serve their country. During World War I, Choctaw servicemen worked with the U.S. Army to pioneer a code based on their native language. The Choctaw code talkers helped the American Expeditionary Force win several key battles in France during the German’s final push, which in turn helped to end the war.
From the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s, the United States pursued a policy of Indian termination, whereby the rights of sovereign tribes were eliminated and Native Americans were assimilated into mainstream America. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was scheduled for termination when Congress repealed the law in 1970, citing the policy’s documented failure in helping Native Americans.
The repeal galvanized a new generation of Choctaw. In 1971, the tribe held its first popular election of a chief since Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907. During the same decade, it established a tribal newspaper, enrolled more Choctaw and launched a movement to preserve the Choctaw language. The 1970s also marked congressional passage of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, which gave the Choctaw power to negotiate and contract directly with the federal government for services that benefited its people most.
If the 1970s set the Choctaw in a new direction, the 1980s paved the Nation’s future. During this decade, a new Constitution was ratified by a vote of the people, providing for an executive, legislative and judicial branch of the government. On the economic front, the Choctaw opened a Bingo hall in Durant that would eventually become a successful resort and lead to new casinos. The tribe also launched new business enterprises, planned new schools, initiated educational programs and scholarships, and established new health centers.
Today, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is nearly 200,000 strong and self sufficient, dedicated to improving the lives of its people. As they continue their long journey through history, the Choctaw’s future looks brighter than ever.