Numbers tell a story

By Bradley Gernand

Choctaws have long believed in the importance of counting their population. Between 1832 and 1907 they conducted a census many times, designed to measure the population and productivity of the Choctaw Nation. A distinct phrase exists in the Choctaw language to denote this: “hattak holhtina,” which means “a census of the inhabitants."

The Choctaw Nation’s Doaksville Constitution of 1860 tasked the county sheriffs, who were important constitutional officers, with conducting each census. The sheriffs’ better-known roles were as tax collectors and guardians of public security; but conducting the census was also important, and the sheriffs’ influence and prominence indicated the importance Choctaw leaders placed in achieving an accurate population count.

Censuses were conducted every few years. The population was listed by name, with information reporting age, sex, race and occupancy. Because farming was so important to the Choctaws, they collected economic statistics regarding the acreage of each crop, the yield per acre, and information regarding livestock, in many cases even describing the cattle brands used by individual farmers. 

An important law passed by the General Council of the Choctaw Nation in 1884 clarified and specified how censuses were conducted. It decreed that census records be “preserved as a perpetual record for the benefit of future generations.” This instruction, which was considered a template for all future censuses, directed enumerators to record the identities of each person in every household. They were also directed to record acres of land cultivated, number of horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, hogs owned, and the number of bales of cotton, bushels of corn, wheat and oats raised by each family, and “any other useful information.”

The 1884 law called for three census commissioners to be appointed by the Principal Chief from each of the three administrative and judicial regions comprising the Choctaw Nation. The commissioners were authorized to rely on the county sheriffs and their deputies to collect and report the data. Each census was a county-by-county affair, with the results compiled and tabulated nationally.

Records of each census were archived by the Choctaw government. Following Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907, however, many governmental records became dispersed, and some no longer exist. Still, those which survive provide a very detailed view.

Between the censuses of 1860 and 1867, for example, the Choctaw population remained approximately 13,000. The 1867 count failed to include the population of San Bois County (northeast of present-day McAlester), but otherwise determined the national population to be 13,161 Choctaws; 1,732 Choctaw freedmen; and 249 freedmen from other nations or neighboring states. 

Census data in the 1870s showed a Choctaw Nation recovering steadily from the ravages of the Civil War. The Choctaw Nation’s Census of 1872 reported a population of 16,000. These tribal citizens cultivated 27,082 acres. Choctaw farmers reported producing 1,000 bushels of potatoes and 250 bales of cotton, and tending to 5,940 head of cattle, 50,000 head of swine, and 6,000 sheep. 

In 1890 the first U.S. Government census of the Choctaw Nation took place. It tabulated 10,017 Choctaws, 4,406 black people, including Choctaw citizens and claimants to citizenship, and 28,345 white people, including citizens and claimants. The Choctaws, according to these figures, constituted only about one-quarter of the population of their Nation—fewer than any other Indian tribe except the Chickasaws, who made up only nine percent of the inhabitants of the Chickasaw Nation. The cause of the large increase in whites was the arrival, against the Choctaws’ wishes, of railroads—but that’s another story.

The present-day Choctaw Nation utilizes U.S. Census data as well as its own tribal roll and membership data to carry out programs and provide services. The federal government, however, only relies upon U.S. census data.  During the most recent federal census in 2010, only 24,000 members of the tribe indicated their tribal membership in a manner recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau. The true number of Choctaw tribal members was approximately 200,000. 

The Choctaw Nation, in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau, is working to increase the federally recognized number significantly and make the 2020 U.S. Census the most successful “hattak holhtina” ever. “This is a very important goal for us in 2020,” said Chief Gary Batton. “The idea of the hattak holhtina was important to our people long ago and still is.”

Tribal members will be requested to indicate their affiliation with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma by writing in the phrase, “Choctaw Nation,” in the space provided on the census form. More information on these efforts, which begin in earnest in the spring, is available at www.choctawnation.com/2020Census.