The story of Oklahoma Choctaw dance finds its roots in the homelands of the southeast. Dance traditions of our Choctaw ancestors continued relatively uninterrupted among those who remained in Mississippi and other parts of the southeast during the time of removal, the Trail of Tears, and death. Misconceptions about the meaning and ceremonial purposes of traditional dance, as well as its fundamental link to tribal identity, defined it as a threat to those trying to assimilate our ancestors into European social and religious structures as they moved into Indian Territory. By 1937, the influence of European missionaries and educators had forced Choctaw dance into dormancy across Choctaw territory in Oklahoma.
Many Choctaw communities, however, kept the dance traditions alive through elders, who witnessed and participated in dance prior to the 1930s. They passed on the knowledge of dance within their families, even though dance was not performed publicly. By the 1970s, several Choctaw community leaders in Oklahoma were striving to revitalize the dance tradition and bring it back to the forefront of Oklahoma Choctaw communities. Reverend Eugene Wilson of Idabel, Oklahoma worked with the Mississippi Band of Choctaws to revitalize and bring many traditions back to the southeastern portion of the Choctaw Nation. A dance troupe organized by Reverend Wilson publicly performed Choctaw social dances at the Owa Chito Festival at Beavers Bend State Park in 1974.
On the other side of the Choctaw Nation, Buster Ned of Mannsville, Oklahoma was working with a group of Choctaws and Chickasaws to bring dance traditions back into regular practice using the knowledge of community elders. His troupe, the Sixtown Troupe, also began performing publicly and educating audiences about traditional Choctaw dance. He founded the Choctaw-Chickasaw Heritage Committee, which worked on numerous revitalization, education and performance efforts from the 1970s forward.
Many Choctaw families and communities have found renewed tribal pride and identity through the revitalization of dance. Social dances have become part of family functions, celebrations and special events once again. Today, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has an employee dance troupe that regularly performs at tribal events and outreach functions. This troupe, along with many other community-based groups, work to educate the public about our cultural identity through the medium of traditional dance.
Choctaw men and women proudly wear special clothing and adornments known as regalia when taking part in traditional dances. We build a unique set of items over time as pieces are given to us or are hand-crafted by us or our family and friends.
Oklahoma Choctaw Men’s Dance Regalia:
- Traditional Shirt
- Black Felt Hat with Hat Band
- Black Slacks
- Beaded Medallion
- Black Shoes or Traditional Moccasins
- Colorful Silk Ribbons
- Beaded Baldric or Sash
- Beaded Belt
Optional pieces include: silver arm bands, gorgets, shell gorgets, neck scarf, beaded collar and small bells.
Oklahoma Choctaw Women’s Dance Regalia:
- Traditional Dress
- Commercial or Traditional Moccasins
- Colorful Silk Ribbons
- Beaded or Silver Hair Comb
- Beaded Collar, Medallion, Rosette Pins and Earrings Neck Scarf
Optional pieces include: beaded belts, additional beaded jewelry or embellishments and small bells.
Four-Step War Dance
Choctaws are unique in the fact that our women participate equally with men in the War Dance. This speaks to the important role women hold in the Tribe. During times of conflict when a battle seemed imminent, warriors began preparing for war eight days prior with ceremonies and dance.
In our belief system, increments of four are significant. The War Dance, with its four steps, reflects this thinking. Even though there are different variations and descriptions of the War Dance, the four steps represent the repeated and natural cycles of life, such as the changing of the four seasons and the perpetual cycles of life: birth, growth, decline and death. The four steps also make reference to four paths: an entrance, an exit, and escape to the spiritual. The dance is performed in a circular motion with women on the inside of the circle representing the protection of home and family.
Many social dances are termed “animal dances” because we seek harmony in the nature that surrounds us. Appreciating and observing the natural world allows us to express the meaningful characteristics of animals through dance. Animal dances seek to recognize and teach our social values and characteristics, such as the value of long life (Turtle Dance), being fun-loving (Racoon Dance) and the importance of versatility and adaptability (Duck Dance).
Other dances focus on social interaction and life events. The Jump Dance, which is often the first dance at a gathering, symbolizes the beginning of life as a rotating planet Earth. The Stealing Partners Dance played a crucial role in courtship for our ancestors and allows younger generations to get to know one another. The Wedding Dance commemorates the long journey of the Choctaw people and the many hardships along the path of life.
Today, the most recognizable Chahta hihla, or Choctaw dance, is social dancing. Social dancing is exactly what it sounds like – dances designed to bring together men and women of all ages in a social atmosphere. Traditionally, social dancing was a way for members of different clans to come together and get to know one another. It played a role in courtship, fellowship and celebration. Dance was also used to prepare for solemn occasions, such as war or remembrance of difficult times in the past.
Choctaw social dance is based on our ancestral traditions. Dance was always part of older religious and ceremonial practices. As many Choctaws converted to Christianity, dances changed slightly in form or connotation and took on a larger role in the social aspect of the Tribe. Even though primarily social in nature, Choctaw dance shows reverence to the Creator by moving in a counterclockwise rotation. Choctaws closely observe the natural world around us. Seeing how the Creator has designed many natural cycles that move in a clockwise motion, we express our humility and human imperfection by moving in the opposite direction.