A New Chahta Homeland: A History by the Decade, 1910-1920
January 1, 2022
Iti Fabvssa is currently running a series that covers the span of Oklahoma Choctaw history. By examining each decade since the Choctaw government arrived in our new homelands using Choctaw-created documents, we gain a better understanding of Choctaw ancestors’ experiences and how they made decisions that have led us into the present. This month we will be covering 1910-1920 when Choctaws dealt with the immediate aftermath of statehood and attempts to undermine Choctaw allotments.
Oklahoma statehood introduced massive changes into the lives of the Choctaw people and their government. As mentioned last month, the 1906 Five Civilized Tribes Act made critical adjustments to Choctaw Nation’s governmental structure and how it operated. The goal of the United States was to eliminate the governments of the Five Tribes, including the Choctaw Nation. However, this was not possible, as the United States still needed tribal governments to take care of remaining tribal business like the sale of their lands. Nevertheless, the Choctaw national government was reduced to a handful of government officials to handle this business, such as the Chief, National Attorney, Mining Trustee, and a council of Choctaw leaders, which was organized in different ways over the years. Throughout the 1910-1920 period, Choctaw leaders figured out ways to settle Choctaw affairs so people could receive individual cash payments known as per capita payments from the sale of joint tribal lands, while trying to find solutions through the U.S. government for the various economic and social issues that many Choctaws were experiencing.
Immediately following statehood was a period when a large portion of Choctaws began to lose their allotments for a variety of reasons. Allotment, which was supposed to “teach” Native people how to be landowners by providing them with an individual plot of land, was quickly revealed to be a legal method for getting Native people to sell or give up their lands as well as to create conditions that would facilitate land loss in various ways. It was also destructive to the community-oriented way that Choctaws traditionally lived. Sometimes Choctaws in need would sell their lands to ensure that there was food on the table; others sold land to be able to buy other necessities like appliances or a car. Land squatters were a constant problem, and for those whose allotments were located far away from where they lived, they might not know about squatters living on their land until it was too late. Choctaw allotments with land restrictions were supposed to be exempted from taxation by local governments, but county registers would illegally add them to the tax rolls and then seize the lands from Choctaws for not paying taxes on their land. Choctaw minors with land allotments were particularly vulnerable to land theft. Since minors needed a legal guardian to manage their allotments, some men made careers out of managing Choctaw minor allotments. Some of these guardians would make deals with timber or mining companies to lease or sell Choctaw minors’ land and keep a portion of that money for themselves. Men who served as guardians might also would also work for those natural resource extraction companies or be closely associated with them and use their legal guardianship to broker deals with such companies. Throughout the 21st century and today, individual Choctaws and families would continually have to deal with these issues that stemmed from allotment.
The loss of land due to allotment often contributed to a decline in the wealth of Choctaw families. Choctaws turned to their chief and wrote letters about their need for per capita payments to help with financial problems. At various times in the 1800s, the Choctaw national government issued per capita payments to Choctaw citizens, which is part of the reason extensive census records were kept. Often, the money for per capita payments came from legal settlements with the U.S. government for violating its treaties with Choctaws. After Oklahoma statehood, Choctaw lands that were reserved from allotment were sold and money from those sales went into the Choctaw account managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This money from the sale of lands was then distributed to individuals listed on the Dawes Rolls. If an individual passed away, the payment might be divided among his or her heirs if they maintained proper records. It quickly became a difficult task to keep track of people who might have changed their names and deceased individuals and their heirs. This added to the already massive workload of the local Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Muskogee that managed Choctaw people’s accounts and allotments, which contributed to delays in response times. While trying to manage the accounts of all the Native people in Oklahoma (which had the highest Native population until the mid-1900s), these government offices were being reorganized and having their budgets cut. This made the management of individual Choctaw accounts even more difficult and caused great frustration of many Choctaws who did not know about all these different processes behind the scenes.
In 1915, Choctaws gathered at Durant, calling for the distribution of money to every Choctaw in the form of per capita payments. Knowing that many Choctaw community members struggled to hold onto their lands and to make a living, Chief and the National Attorneys, in particular, worked hard to hold the U.S. government accountable for its treaty promises and to stop non-native people from acquiring Choctaw lands and funds through fraudulent means. For instance, Choctaw Nation hired lawyers to fight fraudulent citizenship cases made by white people who tried to get onto the Choctaw rolls despite not being Choctaw. Later, these lawyers sued Choctaw Nation for not paying them for their work even though they had. When Choctaw National Attorneys considered the possibility of reopening the rolls to add Mississippi Choctaws that had been left off, one major factor in why they did not end up doing so was that the National Attorney found numerous fraudulent cases that had been organized by a local company. The Choctaw National Attorney, a position originally established by General Council in 1860 but was appointed by the Chief after 1911, worked hard on this particular case. At the same time, Choctaw governmental officials focused on settling the remaining affairs of the Choctaw government. One of the most important tasks for the National Attorney and Mining Trustee was the sale of the segregated coal lands, which would provide money for the per capita payments for Choctaw citizens. Choctaw community members often did not know about this difficult work. So they would call for the abolishment of the Choctaw government since they did not think the Chief and government officials were working on anything.
Gatherings of Choctaws like the one regarding per capita payments – which were often referred to as conventions – were important because they were spaces where Choctaws collectively made decisions about the direction of the nation and what should be done. These conventions were also held at different locations throughout the Choctaw Nation boundaries. At these events, the Chief would update Choctaws on the status of matters regarding the U.S. government, and various community leaders would speak and inform them of issues in their community. Whenever there was an opening for the position of Chief, Choctaws would hold an election that was then passed along to the Secretary of Interior. Often, people thought the U.S. President appointed the Chief, but he delegated that job to the Secretary of the Interior, and he always respected the wishes of Choctaws and selected the individual that the Choctaws elected in their conventions. This is significant because it shows how Choctaws still had power and control over their affairs despite the interpretation of the law that stated the U.S. President appointed the Choctaw chief.
Choctaw Nation always retained its government through these officials and by having conventions where Choctaws met and made decisions about what should happen and who should be their leaders whenever it was time to appoint a new chief. It is important to recognize the dedication of these Choctaw government officials and of community members in their work to preserve the foundation for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma today.
About Iti Fabvssa
Iti Fabvssa seeks to increase knowledge about the past, strengthen the Choctaw people and develop a more informed and culturally grounded understanding of where the Choctaw people are headed in the future.
If you have questions or would like more information on the sources, please contact Megan Baker at [email protected]