Watkins rolling in new direction

Bradly Gernand

Joe Watkins

Moss doesn’t grow on rolling stones, according to the old saying.  Author and scientist Joe Watkins—a ceaseless bundle of mental and physical energy—is a rolling stone. In December Watkins published the newest history of the Choctaw people. Unlike most others, it is a history of the Choctaw people everywhere, no matter where they live, including the Mississippi Choctaws and the Jena Band who live in Louisiana. The book, “The Story of the Choctaw Indians,” is published by Greenwood Press. Look for it in the Choctaw Store.

Watkins begins our story in the 1500s, before first contact with European explorers. He describes the past and how it feeds into the present. Most histories are of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and not of our relatives who remain behind in the Southeast. Watkins takes care to describe their lives after the main body of Choctaws set out for their new home in the west.

Of particular interest is a timeline of major events compiled by Watkins chronicling the social and political history of the Choctaw people. It provides a consolidated, chronological listing of events in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana. This is something few, if any, histories have provided—and never one so all-encompassing.

Watkins, a grand-nephew of Choctaw World War I Code Talker Joseph Oklahombi, is in many ways the perfect man for the mission. A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Watkins was born at what was then called the “Talihina Indian Hospital” and spent many a happy childhood day playing along Cypress Creek outside Wright City. The discovery of a 6,000-year-old projectile point on a nearby hilltop changed the trajectory of his life by awakening an interest in history. 

The projectile point wasn’t Choctaw, his grandmother explained. It was much older. This discovery piqued the curiosity of the 10-year-old Watkins, who had already been interested in paleontology. After learning about a related field—anthropology—he realized that was his life’s calling and became immersed in the branch of it known as archaeology. Apples do not fall far from the tree in his family: his mother, like his grandmother, appreciated and enjoyed history, and even wanted to teach it. As Watkins notes wryly, archaeology is surely the next best thing.

The first course Watkins enrolled in at the University of Oklahoma was archaeology. He’s been working in the field ever since, and specialized in indigenous archaeology—“archaeology by, with, and for American Indians,” Watkins explains. His work has caused him to live in a variety of places throughout the Southwest. It was while teaching at the University of New Mexico that he encountered a young man named Ian Thompson. Ian is now the Choctaw Nation’s tribal historic preservation officer and senior director for Wheelock Academy and the Tvshka Homma Capitol Museum.Pic

Watkins is “a great mentor in every sense of the word,” Thompson says. “For him, teaching is not just providing knowledge; it’s not just encouraging students to give back to their communities: it’s helping them to envision what they wish to accomplish and empowering them to put together a plan to get there.” That formula has worked well for the Choctaw Nation, where Thompson conducts a visionary history program which earns positive reviews.

In addition to Thompson, Watkins mentored Lindsey Bilyeu, the Choctaw Nation’s senior historic preservation compliance review officer. Watkins gives Thompson and his proactive history program for the Choctaw Nation a hearty thumbs-up. 

Anthropology is not for the faint of heart. As part of his studies, Watkins constructed a circular pit house and lived in it for several months, to better know how original Native American inhabitants of such houses actually used and lived in them. His pit house was 12 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep.  Its roof kept the living space dry. Building a fire kept it surprisingly comfortable during the winter, he notes.

The capstone of Watkins’ career was his time spent directing OU’s Native American Studies Program. Prior to his arrival, only one master’s degree in Native American studies had been completed under the program’s auspices. He injected life into the program, and 22 master’s degrees were conferred during his six-year tenure. The program now offers a doctorate in American Indian studies and is one of only a few universities to offer it.

Watkins’ final stop on the career trail led him to Washington, D.C., where he retired as supervisory cultural anthropologist of the National Park Service. As time progressed, he accumulated job duties and titles.  “I held three jobs but earned only one paycheck,” he explains. He retired in 2018, partly in response to what he describes as a notable lack of interest in history or heritage at the federal level.

Watkins, who is the incoming president of the American Society of Archaeology, continues to be busy, serving as an archaeological consultant and occasional historian. His new book on the Choctaw people was originally intended to be written for high school or college students. Although it matured after further discussions with the publisher into a book for adults too, it remains an easily approachable, concise, and readable history of a notable people. “I enjoyed writing it, even though Ian [Thompson] will read it,” Watkins says, referring jovially to his former student.

“I’m a firm believer in 1-, 3-, and 5-year plans,” Watkins says. “Life should be tackled incrementally.” He’s now off on his latest plan—and it’s sure to be productive.

Biskinik June 2019