Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Some Recent Books on Choctaws and Chickasaws

In his most recent book, This Indian Country: American Indian Political Activists and the Place They Made (New York: Penguin, 2012), Frederick E. Hoxie offers a broad observation: in the United States, forgetting and ignoring American Indians is an old habit, one with deep historical roots. But, he notes, it was not always this way. Hoxie goes on to relate that during the decades leading up to the American Revolution, Europeans typically maintained both formal and informal alliances with Native Americans. Two Indian leaders who personified these arrangements were Joseph Brant, a Mohawk war captain, and Alexander McGillivray, a Creek merchant and soldier. Both men were significant figures upon whom the British could always depend.

But the treaty between the North American colonies and European states, signed in Paris in 1783, left out the Native Americans and their long-standing relations with the British and other colonial powers. The new American nation sought to sever all ties to Europe and to begin fresh on the North American continent. Because of these interests, the American colonists ignored all previous alliances, leaving the Indians of North America without a political friend. As Hoxie puts it, the Paris agreements "accomplished the double trick of erasing Native people from the international diplomatic arena, while placing them under the authority of a nation that took no formal notice of their existence" (23). According to the arrangement that was finally worked out, "the Americans laid the foundation of a new country that sought to ignore the Indian nations within its borders" (36). Consequently, citizens of the the new nation looked out over the vast expanse to the west and, in spite of the presence of tens of thousands of Indians, considered the land unoccupied and open for settlement. Indians soon concluded that if the United States had their way in North America, then they would be left with only two choices: death or surrender (43).

However, subsequent U.S. history bears out that unlike leaders such as Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull, many Indians neither died nor surrendered. Rather, they learned to close an earlier chapter in which they established and maintained diplomatic relations with the Spanish, British, and French, and open a new chapter in which Indians would do legal battle with the new United States of America. In other words, shortly after the American Revolution, a good number of Native Americans came to realize that in the new political climate, in addition to a charismatic chief, it was just as important to have a sharp lawyer and a persuasive lobbyist. Consequently, from the days of the early American republic until the present moment, legal and political issues have held a central position in histories of American Indian tribes. A handful of recent studies emphasize this theme in connection with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. The first three of the four books in the discussion and evaluation that follows fall into this category.


Clara Sue Kidwell, The Choctaws in Oklahoma: From Tribe to Nation, 1855-1970 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), can be seen as a specific example of Hoxie's broad point. It is no accident that Kidwell's book was the second volume in the American Indian Law and Policy Series, a title that clearly emphasizes the legal and political contours of Native American life.

Early on, Kidwell explains the specific dates of her subtitle. It was in 1855 that the Choctaw national government "appointed a delegation to initiate negotiations for a new treaty that would redefine its relationship with the U.S. government." In 1970, "the federal government acknowledged the right of tribal members to choose their own leaders by popular election" (xvii). 

As Kidwell narrates in detail, between the times "the Choctaw Nation underwent a transition from a tribal society whose cultural values were based on communal land-holding, obligations to kin, oral traditions and language, and traditional food and game, to a political, corporate national entity that in 2001 had a budget of over $300 million dollars; whose tribal leaders traveled regularly to Washington, D.C., to lobby for legislation favorable to the tribe; and whose membership included approximately 128,000 people living in all fifty of the United States" (xvii).

In short, through one hundred and fifteen years of struggle, the Choctaws went "from tribe to nation." Almost always, Kidwell's approach to the history of the Choctaws focuses on legal and political struggles vis-a-vis the United States, but also within the tribe itself. Her method is thoroughly descriptive, treating the story as an historical narrative inherently worthy of being told.

In at least two points, however, it becomes clear that, for the author, Choctaw history is always part family history. Series editor, Lindsay G. Robertson refers to Kidwell as both "a seasoned scholar" and "a citizen of the Choctaw Nation" (xi). Later, in Chapter 13, the author tells some of her personal family history, beginning with her great-grandfather, Gilbert Webster Thompson, a Choctaw Indian, and one of his daughters, Susie Ellen Thompson Kidwell, the author's grandmother (176-82). An interesting story, it brings some relief to the reader who has, by that point, digested page after page of often-detailed legal and political description. Kidwell placed her autobiographical chapter so that it would fit into the chronological scheme of her book. But one wonders if it might have been better to have put this chapter where it more likely belongs, at the beginning. How might this book have been different, even more insightful, if sometimes the author had included recollections of her childhood, and things told to her by her parents and grandparents, relating them to the overall story of the Choctaw past?


Published in the same year, Valerie Lambert's book, Choctaw Nation: A Story of American Indian Resurgence (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), offers both a supplement and contrast to Kidwell. Two basic differences between them stand out. First, while Kidwell's survey deals with Choctaw history before 1970, the bigger part of Lambert's book takes up episodes in the story after 1970. Second, unlike Kidwell, whose treatment is mostly phenomenological, Lambert looks at the history of the Choctaws through the eyes of a social anthropologist. Not surprisingly, then, her research  involves Lambert as an observer-participant. In fact, prior to writing, she conducted seventeen months of field study in Oklahoma. Consequently, unlike Kidwell, Lambert identifies and discusses the potential of cross-cultural parallels to Choctaw history. On the other hand, like Kidwell herself, Lambert is a member of the Choctaw Nation. In her "Acknowledgements," she expresses thanks to "the Choctaws" and refers to "our tribe"(ix). She also gives thanks to her academic mentors among whom is Clara Sue Kidwell (x).

Following her Introduction and an insightful, brief overview of Choctaw history to 1970, Lambert tells four separate political stories taken from the tribe's recent past. The first narrates the post-1970 reconstitution of the tribe as a legal entity, which culminated in a 1983 constitution, "the first since 1860" (90). The three chapters that follow go on to "explore the consequences of the late-twentieth-period of Choctaw nation building" (4). But instead of speaking in generalities, or of giving a blow-by-blow description of Choctaw history since the new constitution, Lambert takes up three specific recent episodes: the 1995 election of a Choctaw chief, ethnic conflicts associated with the construction of a travel plaza at Kalichito in the 1990s, and the 2001 water-rights battle between the Choctaw Nation and the State of Oklahoma, a conflict that was and is ultimately about tribal sovereignty.

Interestingly, although her treatment focuses on Choctaw resurgence since the near demise of the nation in 1970, early on Lambert radically expands the historical scope of her investigation in order to interpret the significance of the most recent period. In tracing out Choctaw history, Lambert identifies three special times that were characterized by what she styles as "massive rupture followed by a dramatic rebirth" (4). First, during the sixteenth century there occurred a "complete disintegration of the the great Mississippian chiefdoms," after which the group likely migrated and established what is the modern Choctaw tribe. Second, in 1830 the Choctaws "became the first tribe to experience the mass removal of their entire tribe by the U.S. government." Nonetheless, almost immediately upon resettlement in what is now southeastern Oklahoma, "Choctaw leaders launched a period of intensive tribal nation building and rebirth" (5). Third, although the nation nearly died as a political entity in 1970, since then, the tribe has once again experienced a restoration. Thus, according to Lambert's interpretation, recorded Choctaw history includes three periods of deep disruption and crisis that were followed by some sort of resuscitation. Her point is that the previous three and a half decades have been not only a time of resurgence, but also as a time equaled in significance only twice over the last five centuries.

Lambert also raises broad anthropological and political questions that the recent history of the Choctaw Nation helps both to answer and to illustrate. So, for example, one question the book explores involves nation building. Specifically, does the process arise more or less organically, like a natural reef? Or is it rather that nations are built  by individuals and leading groups who make critical decisions? To ask another way, is nation building the result of accidental process or deliberate action? Lambert believes it is the latter, and so do Choctaws who think of the recent rise of their tribe as the result of the efforts of Chief Hollis Roberts. Again, Lambert's work is especially important as a supplement to Kidwell. Too, Lambert's book would be more immediately interesting to contemporary Choctaws, and to those who monitor the the political life of their nation.


A third book, Wendy St. Jean, Remaining Chickasaw in Indian Territory, 1830s-1907 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2011), "is a study of the Chickasaw Nation's struggle, in the wake of encroachments by the federal government and groups of noncitizen immigrants, to restrict tribal membership and assert its flagging sovereignty in the nineteenth century" (5). St. Jean's book is significantly shorter than and not nearly as detailed as Kidwell's. But aside from that and the incidental differences in the dates given in their subtitles, St. Jean on the Chickasaws is a counterpart to Kidwell on the Choctaws.

St. Jean relates that upon removal from Mississippi to Indian Territory in the 1830s, Chickasaws faced trouble on many sides. To the east lived the more numerous Choctaws, who agreed to sell land to the Chickasaws provided they would forfeit their political autonomy and merge with the Choctaws. To the west were "wild" (as opposed to "civilized") Indians--Apaches, Kiowas, Comanches, and other fierce tribes--who considered the Chickasaws intruders and who commonly came into their land, stealing what they could. To the south were Texans, who often mistook Chickasaws for dangerous, "wild" Indians, which made the Texans as dangerous as any of the western tribes.

By the 1850s, the U.S. government came to recognize a political distinction between Choctaws and Chickasaws, giving the Chickasaw Nation an independence that they had never known before in Indian Territory. But following the Civil War, Chickasaws were required to deal with former slaves and white intruders, all of whom sought from the tribal nation citizenship with its tremendous economic opportunities. St. Jean notes the most remarkable aspect of this story, and the events that ensued, as follows:

"Despite the nation's small population and internal divisions, the Chickasaw government managed to hold on to a measure of independence and inheritance longer and more effectively than its Indian neighbors. In state and federal courts and in the court of public opinion, the Chickasaws challenged noncitizens' claims and sometimes won privileges that other Indian nations surrendered without a fight. For example, the Chickasaw Nation delayed Indian Removal the longest, got the best payments for its southeastern lands, secured the right to tax and use force against white intruders, excluded intermarried whites from voting in critical national elections (1880s through the 1890s), surrendered its schools last, and was the only tribe to gain compensation for allotments that the U.S. government granted to freedpeople. The Chickasaws' leadership methods and attempts to redefine tribal membership helped them to accomplish these political and legal feats" (6-7).

Thus, in successive chapters, St. Jean takes up different parts of the history of Chickasaw political resistance and cultural maintenance. Along the way, she tells various stories like the Chickasaw's post-War decision not to adopt former slaves, the claim to the right to tax or eject U.S. citizens in tribal lands, and the attempt to maintain schools conducted by and for the Chickasaw people. By the end of the book, the reader can only admire the courageous battle the Chickasaws waged for one long decade after another, and lament the loss of what might have been.

Again, much like Clara Sue Kidwell's book, St. Jean's deeply-researched study focuses almost exclusively on the political and legal aspects of one tribe's history. In much the same way that political surveys of U.S. history leave out so much of the American story, both books present portraits that should be supplemented by works that take into account other contours of the histories of the respective tribes. 


First published in 1980, Theda Purdue, Nations Remembered: An Oral History of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles in Oklahoma, 1865-1907 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993) is the perfect follow-up to the books examined to this point. So much of what they lack, this book provides, and vice versa.

As Perdue explains, her book actually began during the Great Depression. One of the many branches of the Works Progress Administration was the Writers' Project. During the 1930s, under the auspices of the the WPA, the Writers Project "employed between eighty and one hundred individuals to send questionnaires to and conduct interviews with Oklahoma citizens who were knowledgeable about the days before statehood" (xviii). Decades later, once oral history began to democratize a discipline previously dominated by elitism, Purdue made her way through the dozens of volumes that had been produced. She then selected, cropped, and organized scores of transcribed oral reports. Thus, anyone who picks up her book can easily access representative statements in various sections that Perdue created, chapters like "War and Its Aftermath," "Entertainment," and "Religion and Education." In each of her chapters, Perdue not only gives the entries, but also provides a helpful introduction at the beginning, and notes at the end.

For those not yet acquainted with the history of the Five "Civilized" Tribes in Indian Territory, the selections found in this book are a great entry into the subject. But perhaps the opposite direction is better. For anyone already acquainted with standard surveys, to read the reports copied in Purdue is nothing short of an eye-opening delight. 

For example, though St. Jean can describe and discuss Comanche raids on the recently-arrived Chickasaws beginning in the 1830s (see St. Jean, Chapter 2), there is simply no substitute for reading for oneself the extended, harrowing report of an eyewitness found in Purdue (21-23). Thus Perdue is the perfect supplement to the surveys found in Kidwell, St. Jean, and in the first two chapters of Lambert.