AskDefine | Define Choctaw

Dictionary Definition



1 a member of the Muskhogean people formerly living in Alabama
2 the Muskhogean language of the Choctaw people [syn: Chahta]

User Contributed Dictionary


Proper noun

  1. A Native American tribe
  2. The language of the Choctaw tribe


  1. Relating to the Choctaw tribe or its language.


  1. A person of Choctaw heritage

Translations to be checked

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Extensive Definition

The Choctaw are a Native American people originally from the Southeastern United States (Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana) of the Muskogean linguistic group. The word Choctaw (also known as Chahta, Chato, Tchakta, and Chocktaw) may have derived from the Castilian word "chato" meaning wineglass or flat; however, it is widely believed to be the name of a historical Choctaw figure. They were a part of the Mississippian culture which was located throughout the Mississippi River valley. The early Spanish explorers are believed to have encountered their antecedents. In the 19th century, Choctaws were known as one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" because they had integrated numerous cultural and technological practices of their European American colonial neighbors. Although smaller Choctaw groups are located in the southern region, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are the two primary Choctaw associations.
During the American Revolution most Choctaws supported the thirteen colonies so that the European-Americans may win their independence from the British Empire. After a series of treaties with the United States, Andrew Jackson made the Choctaw exiles a model of Indian removal as the first to march the Trail of Tears. In 1831 when the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was ratified, Choctaws who chose to stay in the newly formed state of Mississippi were the first major non-European ethnic group to become U.S. citizens. They are also remembered for their generosity in providing humanitarian relief during the Great Irish Famine (1845–1849), twenty years prior to the founding of the Red Cross. During the American Civil War the Choctaw in both Oklahoma and Mississippi mostly sided with the Confederate States of America. In World War I, they served in the U.S. Army as codetalkers using the Choctaw language. The Choctaw are known for their economic success and for setting an unparalleled precedent in Indian Country.


New World antiquity

Nearly 12,000 years ago, Native Americans or Paleo-indians appeared in the what today is referred to as the South. Paleoindians in the Southeast were fairly generalized hunter-gatherers who pursued a wide range of animals including the megafauna that soon became extinct following the end of the Pleistocene age. Cushman writes, "the ancient Choctaw through their tradition (said) 'they saw the mighty beasts of the forests, whose tread shook the earth."
As told by both early 19th century as well as contemporary Mississippi Choctaw storytellers, it was either Nanih Waiya or a cave nearby from which the Choctaw people emerged. The companion story describes their journey from the west.
Patricia Galloway argues from fragmentary archaeological and cartographic evidence that the Choctaw did not exist as a unified people before the 17th century, and only at that time did various southeastern peoples, who are remnants of Moundville; Plaquemine; and other Mississippian cultures, coalesce to form a self-consciously Choctaw people. Regardless of the time frame, however, the homeland of the Choctaw or of the peoples from whom the Choctaw nation arose includes Nanih Waiya. The mound and the surrounding area are sacred ground to Choctaws and are a central point of connection between the Choctaws and their homeland.

Post Columbian era

The antecedents of the Choctaw were part of the Mississippian culture in the Mississippi river valley. At the time that the Spanish made their first forays inland from the gulf shores, the political centers of the Mississippians were already in decline or gone. The region is best described as a collection of moderately-sized native chiefdoms (such as the Coosa chiefdom on the Coosa River) interspersed with completely autonomous villages and tribal groups. The Mississippian culture is what the earliest Spanish explorers encountered, beginning on April 2, 1513, with Juan Ponce De León's Florida landing and the 1526 Lucas Vázquez De Ayllón expedition in South Carolina.

Pánfilo De Narváez (1528)

In 1528, Pánfilo De Narváez travelled through what was likely the Mobile Bay area, encountering southeastern Native Americans like the Apalachee. A devastating storm, possibly a hurricane, destroyed their vessels leaving them to journey on foot on along the coastline. Only four men survived the expedition: Álvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca, Alonso Del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes De Carranza and Estevanico. Cabeza De Vaca, whose La Relación chronicles the nine year journey from Florida to California, was a fortune-seeking Spanish nobleman and served as the expedition's treasurer. Upon returning to Spain, the Narváez expedition created a sensation after Cabeza De Vaca published La Relación which paved the way for the journeys of Marcos De Niza, Hernando De Soto, and Francisco Vázquez De Coronado. When Niza returned to New Spain, they told the stories of cities with great riches, like Cíbola.

Hernando De Soto (1540)

After Cabeza De Vaca returned to Spain, he described to the Court of Hernando that the New World was the "richest country in the world." De Soto, convinced of the "riches", wanted Cabeza De Vaca to go on the expedition, but Cabeza De Vaca later declined his offer because of a payment dispute of a ship. From 1540–1543, Hernando De Soto travelled through Florida and Georgia, and then down into the Alabama and Mississippi area that would later be inhabited by the Choctaw.
De Soto had the best-equipped army at the time. His successes were well-known throughout Spain, and many people from all backgrounds joined his quest for untold riches to be plundered in the New World. However, the brutalities of the De Soto expedition were known by the antecedents of the Choctaw, so they decided to defend their country. This battle, known as the Battle of Mabila, was a turning point for the De Soto venture; the battle "broke the back" of the campaign, and they never fully recovered.

Impact of Old World diseases

Although Old World diseases had a devastating impact in the New World, the impact of European diseases upon the Choctaw is unclear. Reports of De Soto’s journeys do not describe illness among his men, although pigs traveling with them often escaped and may have been carriers of dangerous microbes. The two subsequent brief forays into the Southeast by Tristán De Luna y Arellano in 1559 and Juan Pardo in 1565–1567 do not provide any evidence for widespread epidemics. After Pardo, the historical picture ends. There would be no official European contact for a century, and during that time the group identities will transform.

Le Moyne d'Iberville (1699)

The first direct contact recorded between the Choctaw and a European was with Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1699; indirect contact had likely occurred between the Choctaw and British settlers through other tribes, including the Creek and Chickasaw. The Choctaw, along with other tribes, had formed a relationship with French Louisana. Illegal fur trading may have led to further unofficial contact. The archaeological record for this period between 1567 and 1699 is not complete or well-studied, but there are similarities in pottery coloring and burials that suggest the following scenario for the emergence of the distinctive Choctaw culture: the Choctaw region (generally located between the Natchez bluffs to the south and the Yazoo basin to the north) was slowly occupied by Burial Urn people from the Bottle Creek area in the Mobile delta, along with remnants of the Moundville chiefdom that had collapsed some years before. Facing severe depopulation, they fled westward, where they combined with the Plaquemine and a group of “prairie people” living near the area. When this occurred is not clear, but in the space of several generations, a new culture had been born (albeit with a strong Mississippian background).

United States relations

George Washington and Henry Knox proposed the cultural transformation of Native Americans. Washington believed that Native Americans were equals but that their society was inferior. He formulated a policy to encourage the "civilizing" process, and Thomas Jefferson continued it. Noted Andrew Jackson historian Robert Remini wrote "they presumed that once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity, these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans." Washington's six-point plan included impartial justice toward Indians; regulated buying of Indian lands; promotion of commerce; promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Indian society; presidential authority to give presents; and punishing those who violated Indian rights. The government appointed agents, like Benjamin Hawkins, to live among the Indians and to teach them, through example and instruction, how to live like whites. After the Revolutionary War, the Choctaws were reluctant to ally themselves with countries hostile to the U.S. John R. Swanton wrote, "the Choctaw were never at war with the Americans. A few were induced by Tecumseh to ally themselves with the hostile Creeks, but the Nation as a whole was kept out of anti-American alliances by the influence of Apushmataha, greatest of all Choctaw chiefs."
Ferguson also writes that "1783 [was the] End of American Revolution. Franchimastabe, Choctaw head chief, went to Savannah, Georgia to secure American trade." Some Choctaw scouts served with U.S. General Anthony Wayne in the Northwest Indian War.

Hopewell (1786)

Starting in October 1785, Taboca led over 125 Choctaws to the Keowee, near Seneca Old Town, now known as Hopewell, South Carolina. After two months of travel they met with U.S. representatives Benjamin Hawkins, Andrew Pickens, and Joseph Martin.
In high Choctaw ceremonial symbolism, they named, adopted, smoked, and performed dances, revealing the complex and serious nature of Choctaw diplomacy. One such dance was the eagle tail dance. They explained that the Bald Eagle, who has direct contact with the upper world of the sun, is a symbol of peace. Choctaw women painted in white would adopt and name commissioners as kin.Smoking sealed agreements between peoples and sanctified peace between the two nations. After the rituals, the Choctaws asked for John Woods to live with them to improve communication with the U.S. and in exchange allow Taboca to visit the United States Congress.
The treaty required the return of escaped slaves, turning over of any Choctaws who had been convicted of crimes by the U.S., establishment of borderlines between the U.S. and Choctaw Nation, and the return of any property which had been captured during the Revolutionary War.

War of 1812

Early in 1811, Tecumseh came to garner support for his British-backed attempt to recover lands from the United States settlers. As chief for the Six Towns district, Pushmataha strongly resisted such a plan, arguing that the Choctaw and their neighbors the Chickasaw had always lived in peace with white Americans, had learned valuable skills and technologies, and had received honest treatment and fair trade. The joint Choctaw-Chickasaw council then voted against alliance with Tecumseh. On Tecumseh's departure, Pushmataha accused him of tyranny over his own Shawnee tribe and other tribes. Pushmataha warned Tecumeseh that he would fight against those who fought the United States.
With the outbreak of war, Pushmataha led the Choctaws in alliance with the U.S., arguing in favor of opposing the Creek alliance with Britain after the massacre at Fort Mims. He arrived at St. Stephens, Alabama in mid-1813 with an offer of alliance and recruitment. He was escorted to Mobile to speak with General Flournoy, then commanding the district. Flournoy initially declined Pushmataha's offer, offending the chief. However, Flournoy's staff quickly convinced him to reverse his decision, and a courier with a message accepting the offer of alliance caught up with Pushmataha at St. Stephens.
Returning to Choctaw territory, Pushmataha raised a company of 125 Choctaw warriors with a rousing speech and was commissioned (as either a Lieutenant Colonel or a Brigadier General) in the United States Army at St. Stephens. After observing that the officers and their wives would promenade along the Alabama River, Pushmataha summoned his own wife to St. Stephens and also took part in this custom, helping to elevate women's status in his tribe.
Pushmataha joined the U.S. Army under General Claiborne in mid-November, and 125 Choctaw warriors took part in an attack on Creek forces at Kantachi, or Econochaca, Alabama, on 23 December 1813. On October 18, the Treaty of Doak's Stand was signed.
Alexis de Tocqueville, noted French political thinker and historian, witnessed the Choctaw removals while in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831,
Approximately 5,000–6,000 Choctaws remained in Mississippi in 1831 after the initial removal efforts. For the next ten years they were objects of increasing legal conflict, racism, harassment, and intimidation. The Choctaws describe their situation in 1849, "we have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died." The removals continued well into the early 20th century. In 1903, three hundred Mississippi Choctaws were persuaded to move to the Nation in Oklahoma.

American Civil War (1861)

Peter Pitchlynn, who was in Washington City in 1861 when the war started, immediately returned home, hoping to escape the expected strife. He had been there to address national affairs of the Choctaws.
In Oklahoma, Jackson McCurtain, who would later become a district chief, was elected as representative from Sugar Loaf County to the National Council in October 1859. On June 22, 1861, he enlisted in the First Regiment of Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles. He was commissioned Captain of Company G under the command of Colonel Douglas H. Cooper of the Confederate Army. In 1862 he became a Lieutenant Colonel of the First Choctaw Battalion.
The Confederacy wanted to recruit Indians in 1862, so they opened up a recruiting camp in Mobile, Alabama "at the foot of Stone Street." The Mobile Advertiser and Register would advertise for a chance at military service.
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