|Approximately 214,884 total
212,000 (Nation of Oklahoma 2023)
284 (Jena Band 2011)11,000 (Mississippi Band 2020)
|Regions with significant populations
(Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana)
|American English, Choctaw
|Protestant, Roman Catholic, traditional beliefs
|Related ethnic groups
|Chickasaw, Muscogee, Natichez, Alabama, Koasati, and Seminole
The Choctaw (in the Choctaw language, Chahta) are a Native American people originally based in the Southeastern Woodlands, in what is now Alabama and Mississippi. Their Choctaw language is a Western Muskogean language. Today, Choctaw people are enrolled in three federally recognized tribes: the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana.
The Choctaw were first noted by Europeans in French written records of 1675. Their mother mound is Nanih Waiya, a great earthwork platform mound located in central-east Mississippi. Early Spanish explorers of the mid-16th century in the Southeast encountered ancestral Mississippian culture villages and chiefs.
The Choctaw coalesced as a people in the 17th century and developed at least three distinct political and geographical divisions: eastern, western, and southern. These different groups sometimes created distinct, independent alliances with nearby European powers. These included the French, based on the Gulf Coast and in Louisiana; the English of the Southeast, and the Spanish of Florida and Louisiana during the colonial era.
Most Choctaw allied with the Americans during American Revolution, War of 1812, and the Red Stick War, most notably at the Battle of New Orleans. European Americans considered the Choctaw to be one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" of the Southeast. The Choctaw and the United States agreed to a total of nine treaties. By the last three, the US gained vast land cessions in the Southeast. As part of Indian Removal, despite not having waged war against the United States, the majority of Choctaw were forcibly relocated to Indian Territory from 1831 to 1833. The Choctaw government in Indian Territory had three districts, each with its own chief, who together with the town chiefs sat on their National Council.
Those Choctaw who chose to stay in the state of Mississippi were considered state and U.S. citizens; they were one of the first major non-European ethnic groups to be granted citizenship. Article 14 in the 1830 treaty with the Choctaw stated Choctaws may wish to become citizens of the United States under the 14th Article of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on all of the combined lands which were consolidated under Article I from all previous treaties between the United States and the Choctaw.
During the American Civil War, the Choctaw in both Indian Territory and Mississippi mostly sided with the Confederate States of America. Under the late 19th-century Dawes Act and Curtis Acts, the US federal government broke up tribal land holdings and dissolved tribal governments in Indian Territory in order to extinguish Indian land claims before admission of Oklahoma as a state in 1907. From that period, for several decades the US Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed chiefs of the Choctaw and other tribes in the former Indian Territory.
During World War I, Choctaw soldiers served in the US military as some of the first Native American codetalkers, using the Choctaw language. Since the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Choctaw people in three areas have reconstituted their governments and gained federal recognition. The largest are the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.
Since the 20th century, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians were federally recognized in 1945, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma in 1971, and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in 1995.
The Choctaw autonym is Chahta. Choctaw is an anglization of Chahta, whose meaning is unknown. The anthropologist John R. Swanton suggested that the Choctaw derived their name from an early leader. Henry Halbert, a historian, suggests that their name is derived from the Choctaw phrase Hacha hatak (river people).
Main article: History of the Choctaw
Main article: Culture of the Choctaw
The Choctaw people are believed to have coalesced in the 17th century, perhaps from peoples from Alabama and the Plaquemine culture. Their culture continued to evolve in the Southeast. The Choctaw practiced head flattening as a ritual adornment for its people, but the practice eventually fell out of favor. Some of their communities had extensive trade and interaction with Europeans, including people from Spain, France, and England greatly shaped it as well. After the United States was formed and its settlers began to move into the Southeast, the Choctaw were among the Five Civilized Tribes, who adopted some of their ways. They transitioned to yeoman farming methods, and accepted European Americans and African Americans into their society. In mid-summer the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians celebrate their traditional culture during the Choctaw Indian Fair with ball games, dancing, cooking and entertainment.
Main article: Iksas (Choctaw Clans)
Within the Choctaws were two distinct moieties: Imoklashas (elders) and Inhulalatas (youth). Each moiety had several clans or Iksas; it is estimated there were about 12 Iksas altogether. The people had a matrilineal kinship system, with children born into the clan or iksa of the mother and taking their social status from it. In this system, their maternal uncles had important roles. Identity was established first by moiety and iksa; so a Choctaw first identified as Imoklasha or Inhulata, and second as Choctaw. Children belonged to the Iksa of their mother. The following were some major districts:
By the early 1930s, the anthropologist John Swanton wrote of the Choctaw: "[T]here are only the faintest traces of groups with truly totemic designations, the animal and plant names which occur seeming not to have had a totemic connotation." Swanton wrote, "Adam Hodgson ... told ... that there were tribes or families among the Indians, somewhat similar to the Scottish clans; such as, the Panther family, the Bird family, Raccoon Family, the Wolf family." The following are possible totemic clan designations:
Choctaw stickball, the oldest field sport in North America, was also known as the "little brother of war" because of its roughness and substitution for war. When disputes arose between Choctaw communities, stickball provided a civil way to settle issues. The stickball games would involve as few as twenty or as many as 300 players. The goal posts could be from a few hundred feet apart to a few miles. Goal posts were sometimes located within each opposing team's village. A Jesuit priest referenced stickball in 1729, and George Catlin painted the subject. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians continue to practice the sport.
Chunkey was a game using a disk-shaped stone that was about 1–2 inches in length.: 155 Players would throw the disk down a 200-foot (61 m) corridor so that it could roll past the players at great speed. As the disk rolled down the corridor, players would throw wooden shafts at it. The object of the game was to strike the disk or prevent your opponents from hitting it.: 155
Other games included using corn, cane, and moccasins. The corn game used five to seven kernels of corn. One side was blackened and the other side white. Players won points based on each color. One point was awarded for the black side and 5–7 points for the white side. There were usually only two players.
Main article: Choctaw language
The Choctaw language is a member of the Muskogean family and was well known among the frontiersmen, such as Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, of the early 19th century. The language is closely related to Chickasaw, and some linguists consider the two as dialects of a single language. The Choctaw language is the essence of tribal culture, tradition, and identity. Many Choctaw adults learned to speak the language before speaking English. The language is a part of daily life on the Mississippi Choctaw reservation. The following table is an example of Choctaw text and its translation:
|Chahta Anumpa: Hattak yuka keyu hokυtto yakohmit itibachυfat hieli kυt, nan isht imaiυlhpiesa atokmυt itilawashke; yohmi ha hattak nana hohkia, keyukmυt kanohmi hohkia okla moma nana isht aim aiυlhpiesa, micha isht aimaiυlhtoba he aima ka kanohmi bano hosh isht ik imaiυlhpieso kashke. Amba moma kυt nana isht imachukma chi ho tuksυli hokmakashke.
English language: That all free men, when they form a special compact, are equal in rights, and that no man or set of men are entitled to exclusive, separate public emolument or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services.
Main article: Choctaw mythology
The Choctaw believed in a good spirit and an evil spirit. They may have been sun, or Hvshtahli, worshippers. The historian John Swanton wrote,
[T]he Choctaws anciently regarded the sun as a deity ... the sun was ascribed the power of life and death. He was represented as looking down upon the earth, and as long as he kept his flaming eye fixed on any one, the person was safe ... fire, as the most striking representation of the sun, was considered as possessing intelligence, and as acting in concert with the sun ... [having] constant intercourse with the sun ...
The word nanpisa (the one who sees) expressed the reverence the Choctaw had for the sun.
Anthropologist theorize that the Mississippian ancestors of the Choctaw placed the sun at the center of their cosmological system. Mid-eighteenth-century Choctaws did view the sun as a being endowed with life. Choctaw diplomats, for example, spoke only on sunny days. If the day of a conference were cloudy or rainy, Choctaws delayed the meeting until the sun returned, usually on the pretext that they needed more time to discuss particulars. They believed the sun made sure that all talks were honest. The sun as a symbol of great power and reverence is a major component of southeastern Indian cultures.— Greg O'Brien, Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750–1830
Choctaw prophets were known to have addressed the sun. John Swanton wrote, "an old Choctaw informed Wright that before the arrival of the missionaries, they had no conception of prayer. He added, "I have indeed heard it asserted by some, that anciently their hopaii, or prophets, on some occasions were accustomed to address the sun ..."
The colorful dresses worn by today's Choctaw are made by hand. They are based on designs of their ancestors, who adapted 19th-century European-American styles to their needs. Today many Choctaw wear such traditional clothing mainly for special events. Choctaw elders, especially the women, dress in their traditional garb every day. Choctaw dresses are trimmed by full diamond, half diamond or circle, and crosses that represent stickball sticks.
Early Choctaw communities worked communally and shared their harvest. They had trouble understanding why English settlers allowed their poor to suffer from hunger. In Ireland, the generosity of the Choctaw nation during their Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century is remembered to this day and recently marked by a sculpture, 'Kindred Spirits', in a park at Midleton, Cork.
Main article: List of Choctaw Treaties
Land was the most valuable asset, which the Native Americans held in collective stewardship. The United States systematically obtained Choctaw land for conventional European-American settlement through treaties, legislation, and threats of warfare. Although the Choctaw made treaties with Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Confederate States of America; the nation signed only nine treaties with the United States. Some treaties which the US made with other nations, such as the Treaty of San Lorenzo, indirectly affected the Choctaw.
Reservations can be found in Louisiana (Jena Band of Choctaw Indians), Mississippi (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians), and Oklahoma (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma). The Oklahoma reservation is defined by treaty. Other population centers can be found throughout the United States.
Further information: List of Choctaw chiefs