A New Chahta Homeland: A History by the Decade, 1970-1980
August 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 covers the 1970-1980 period when Choctaws marked the beginning of contemporary Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma government with the development of a new constitution in 1979.
The anti-termination movement by Choctaws reignited interest in Choctaw government. It also came at a political moment when U.S. federal policy turned towards a policy of self-determination for tribal nations. Self-determination meant that tribes’ governments were empowered to act as they thought best according to their own culture, history, and desires of their people. For Choctaws, this included reclaiming the ability to hold our own elections without direct oversight of the U.S. president. Even though Choctaws had chosen their leaders informally through conventions throughout the 20th century, the laws made it seem like the U.S. President selected the chief on his own accord. Although the law passed by Congress named the President to choose the chief, he delegated that responsibility to the Secretary of the Interior who oversaw the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In practice, Choctaws selected who they thought would be the best leader and passed that information on to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1971, Congress passed a law to formally allow the Five Tribes (Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole) to directly elect their leadership again.
The 1971 election for chief proved to be filled with confrontations. Harry “Jimmy” W. Belvin ran for chief alongside leaders of the anti-termination movement that were known for their activism and critique of his actions as chief. A young David Gardner sought to run but quickly found himself disqualified on account of not being the required age minimum of 35 years old. This caused robust back and forth between Belvin and the candidates that sought to change Choctaw politics. Although combative at various moments, these fiery exchanges between Belvin and his opponents reveal the passion that the Choctaw people had for retaining our sovereignty and the desire to do what was best for them as Native people who had to hold the U.S. government for their actions. On July 30, 1971, Choctaws held their first public election since statehood and elected Jimmy Belvin as chief.
Marking an important new era in Choctaw history, Chief Belvin’s direction for the Nation also changed from that of his previous administration. The anti-termination era encouraged Choctaw people to be more involved in Choctaw politics and many of them made their views known. Although Belvin was already known to visit Choctaws by going door to door and speaking with them, he became more attuned to what the Choctaw people wanted in this new era with a stronger government. One of the first things that Belvin did was create a council that represented each of the counties that make up Choctaw Nation.
The Choctaw anti-termination movement also produced another important aspect of Choctaw history: a newsletter called Hello Choctaw. Starting in 1969, Hello Choctaw circulated information about Choctaw issues to Choctaw people all over the United States. When its creators were organizing against termination, they collected the addresses of Choctaws all over the U.S. They would send this newsletter to Choctaws on their mailing list and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Oklahoma Congressmen. The brightly colored newsletter featured photocopies of documents related to Choctaw/Native issues. It often included quotes from local newspapers and reprints of documents from Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These pieces were often accompanied by commentary from newspaper organizers and calls to action like writing letters to relevant government officials. In addition to informing people about current events, they also shared short pieces on Choctaw history, language and local community events like softball tournaments and church singings. Hello Choctaw was a key development that helped to create a sense of Choctaw community by informing people of important issues happening in Oklahoma with the federal government. It was critical to the anti-termination movement and continued to be an important mode of communication among Choctaws.
In 1975, the Choctaw Nation held another election and David Gardner defeated Jimmy Belvin. Once in office, Chief Gardner pushed for the creation of a new constitution and the creation of employment opportunities for Choctaw people who still lived in poor economic conditions. He worked with the federal government and applied for programs that supported the growth of the Choctaw Nation government; this also meant the need for office space. Chief Gardner arranged to use the former Oklahoma Presbyterian College building in Durant as the new Choctaw Nation Headquarters. This building served as the headquarters until the new Headquarters were completed in 2017. Chief Gardner also received federal funds for the restoration of the Choctaw Capitol building as well as to support the re-publication of the Choctaw dictionary, which had been out of print for years.
Before Chief Gardner could finish his four-year term as chief, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. On January 13, 1978, Chief Gardner passed away.
After Gardner’s death, Choctaw Nation held a special election for a chief to fulfill the rest of Gardner’s term. Hollis Roberts of Holly Creek was elected and stayed in office until 1997.
Roberts picked up on many of the initiatives that Chief Gardner had started but was not able to see all of them fulfilled. Beginning in 1979, Chief Roberts put forward a new constitution for the Choctaw people to vote on. That same year, Roberts announced that he would run for a full term as Chief and was re-elected.
Next month, we will cover the 1980-1990 period in which Choctaw Nation, under Chief Hollis Roberts, made important strides that laid the foundation for economic development and the 1983 Constitution that still guides us 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]