"Chata hapia hoke!" It is a common phrase, an unofficial Choctaw tribal logo phrase. You see it on tee shirts, bumper stickers, gimmee caps, and calendars. It says, "We are proud to be Choctaw!"
The people who wear these caps and shirts are smiling. If three words could ever sum up the approach to life revealed by a collective Indian people's story, this phrase is the summation of the Choctaw story. "Chata hapia hoke!"
As the Holocaust undoubtedly informs all Jewish writing—oral or printed—of the post-World War II era, the Trail of Tears lingers deep in the memory bank of every Choctaw. We have all heard the stories. In our minds and dreams, we have walked the frozen ground carrying our dead. We have gone mad picking at the smallpox scabs. Crossing the river, we have drowned—but the story never ends there.
Rather than a tale of excruciating loss and tragedy, the story carries on to the present day and becomes one of triumph and survival, for we contemporary Choctaws are descendants of the survivors, as well as the deceased. At least one of our ancestors lived through either the Trail or the one hundred years of Mississippi exile.
Indeed, the Trail of Tears divides us as a people into those who stayed in Mississippi and those who left for Oklahoma. In the eyes of many, we are two people—the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. However, in the heroics of survival, in the celebration of our miracle of being, we are seeds of a common thistle.
The Choctaw story is a story of miracles.
To many Choctaws, these miracles are not only accepted, they are often expected, and sometimes offered as evidence that Choctaws are, to varying degrees, a chosen people. The high number of otherworldly occurrences in Walking the Choctaw Road is thus a reflection of the Choctaw belief system.
Throughout the body of Choctaw stories, whether they are traditional or contemporary, the quality of heart is of supreme importance. Truthfulness and generosity are valued far above bravery and even cunning. One other character trait shines through the collective Choctaw narrative, that of respect. Those who show respect for their elders and heed their teachings overcome powerful supernatural enemies. Conversely, those who don't, meet terrible fates through their callous lack of respect.
In considering which stories to include in Walking the Choctaw Road, a primary consideration was the question, "What is Choctaw?" I chose to include stories that, in my estimation, best reflect the history and beliefs of the Choctaws—members of the Oklahoma Choctaw Nation and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Seen as a body, the narratives will give the reader a sense of what it is to be Choctaw, and why the Choctaws have operated so successfully in mainstream American society.
In collecting Choctaw stories, I have done so as an independent endeavor, seeking out friends and relatives of friends. I have listened to stories told by total strangers in locations as diverse as the waiting room of the Choctaw Health Center in Talihina, Oklahoma, and the old tribal graveyard at the capitol grounds in Tuskahoma. I have been honored to enter the homes of older Choctaws who knew they were near death and who probably considered the interview as something of a summation of their life story.
a storyteller—I make my living by talking, I have one quality
that gives me a distinct advantage when it comes to collecting stories
from older people: I would much rather listen than talk. People who
know me are laughing when they read this. But my older friends-Tony
Byars, Estelline Tubby, Archie Mingo- have never heard me tell a story.
I always enjoy their stories too much to interrupt them with one of
One major task in achieving this cultural bridge is to create a voice on the written page. Establishing a mood for the story and creating the effect that the reader is actually the listener is critical in communicating Native American stories. The wide variety of voices present in Walking the Choctaw Road can be attributed to a single factor—many Choctaws gave me stories, many voices flow through me.
This patchwork technique, of pulling elements of Choctaw culture from many sources and stitching them into a coherent single narrative, is used in almost every story in Walking the Choctaw Road. I think of the present volume, therefore, as an interior history of my people, an emotional and spiritual history, told from a single lens, from the eye of one who travels and gathers narrative threads.
On September 27, 1830, a Treaty was signed at Dancing Rabbit Creek, Mississippi, calling for the removal of the Choctaws to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The journey was to begin in the spring of 1831, allowing the Choctaws time to arrange their affairs. In some communities white settlers, eager for the best farmland, initiated a campaign to burn homes and drive Choctaws into the woods. The winter of 1830-1831 was the most severe yet recorded and Choctaw casualties were high.
I remember Mother.
I remember once when I was a little baby lying on my back in bed. This is my first memory. Mother leaned over me and her long hair fell on my face. I grabbed it and pulled hard. My fingers were strong. She blew on my face to make me stop. I jumped and I almost cried. I must have looked really funny with my mouth wide open and my eyes big in surprise. I didn't know she could do that.
Then something in her eyes let me know she was making a joke with me. Nobody had ever done that before. She smiled and I giggled. Then we both giggled. I pulled on her hair and she blew in my face again. Over and over we played this funny game.
a shadow fell across us. My mother looked up. It was my father. I was
afraid of him. He was strong and I was afraid of him. It was years before
I would realize that his strength was there to
But I remember Mother.
I remember the day my father came in too early from hunting. He said, "We must move.
"We must move," my mother said. "We must move! What is `We must move?' You better move back to the woods and bring me something to cook! `We must move!'" She laughed.
"No," my father said. "A treaty has been signed. We must move."
I don't know what they said after that. My father took her by the arm and they went to their room. He closed the big door behind them and they spoke in whispers.
It was almost sundown when they came out again. My mother had been crying.
"Come with me," she said. We walked into the woods. Little Dog came with us, wagging his stubby tail.
"Where are we going? I am hungry," I told her. She kept walking.
Finally we came to where two old men were leaning against a tree. It was a red oak tree with wrinkled bark. While we watched, the men took their shirts off and started rubbing their backs against the tree. They rubbed and rubbed until their backs were bleeding. My mother took my hand and pulled me away.
"What are they doing?" I said. My mother kept walking.
We walked to the river and there an old man and woman were sitting in the shallow water. They dug handfuls of mud from the river. We stood in the bushes and watched. They were wiping the mud on each other's faces. They were crying and smearing each other with mud.
"Mother," I said, "why are these people doing these things? They are acting crazy"
My mother didn't say anything. She led me by the hand to another place on the river. There we saw several women with their dresses rolled up above their knees. They were crawling on the river stones. I had crawled on these stones before, once when I fell in the river. It hurt! These women were crawling on their bare knees.
"Mother, what is happening? What are these old people doing?"
"They are saying good-bye to their home," she said.
"They live in town. Their homes are in town."
"No, that is their house," she said. "Their houses are in town. These people are saying good-bye to their home." That is what my mother told me. "They are saying goodbye to their home."
I didn't know anything else about it till the next morning. It was still dark and I was sound asleep. Something woke me up and I smelled a burning smell. It smelled bad. I opened my eyes and saw that it was my hair. My hair was on fire.
I smothered myself with my pillow and wrapped a blanket on my hair till it stopped burning. Hot ashes started falling on my bed. When I looked up, the ceiling was on fire. I ran to the door and opened it. Flames and smoke shot into my room.
I dove into the flames and ran through the house. Soon I was standing in the front yard with my mother and father and big brother. Little Dog sat at my feet whimpering. We stood watching our house burn.
My big brother ran to the neighbor's house, to see if they could help us put the fire out. When he opened their door, smoke came pouring out. Their house was on fire, too. We ran inside and woke everybody up.
Before long, everybody in town was standing in the yards and watching their houses burn. The church and school were burning, too.
I heard guns firing from the church, not too far away.
"Run!" my father said. "Hurry!" He grabbed me and put me over his shoulder. We ran to the woods. Men came riding on horseback, firing rifles at the people watching their houses burn.
That is when it really started, the walking.
We hid in the bushes. When the men on horses came close, my father pushed my face in the mud. I held my breath and didn't move. When I couldn't breathe, I shook my head and my father let me up. He didn't say anything. I knew to be quiet. Little Dog curled up under my nightshirt, still as a sleeping baby.
That is how it began, the walking. It was hiding by day and okla nowa, people walking, by night.
We walked deep into the swamp where the horses wouldn't go. We waded through the swamp water to a small island. When we found a clearing in the center of the island, my father said, "We can settle here."
My father built a lean-to. He built the frame of river cane and covered it with pine and cedar branches. My big brother and I helped him lift and lean the frame against a big cypress tree. This was our new home. Other families from our town made their way to the clearing and built lean-tos. We made anew village.
We hunted for squirrels and possums, but I couldn't eat much. My father wouldn't let us build a cooking fire. "We don't want anyone to know we are here," he said. We dug a hole and smoked the possum, but it was too tough to eat.
I woke up one morning and the air was frozen quiet. The silent snow had fallen overnight. It was very beautiful, with the lean-tos making gray shadows and shapes on the white snow. The green cedar branches hung low to the ground, covered with snow.
That was the morning we heard the wooden wagon wheels. The swamp was frozen solid and the horses could cross the ice. Everyone ran outside and we listened to the wagon wheels turning and crunching in the icy misha-sopokni snow. The sound echoed through the swamp and we were afraid.
We ran inside our lean-tos and hid. Blue-coated soldiers on horses drove the wagons into the center of the clearing. Nobody moved for a long time.
Moving the cedar branches, we saw the soldiers unloading stacks of blankets. We were so cold. All we had to wear was what we had gone to bed with the night our houses burned. The soldiers had blankets and they were passing them out.
There were blankets for the old people, blankets for the babies, blankets for everybody! When I tried to run and get my blanket, my mother pulled me back inside.
"We don't need their blankets," she said, stroking my hair. "We don't need their blankets." When my big brother tried to run to the wagons, she pulled him back, too. "We don't need their blankets," my mother said.
Years later, I would ask myself, "How could she know that before these blankets were passed out, they were deliberately infected with smallpox?"
The people began to die.
Those of us still living made our way through the swamp to a road on the other side. We found hundreds of people walking—okla nowa, people walking. The soldiers were riding horses and wagons and the people were walking.
"We are going to a new home," they said, "one they cannot take away from us."
We joined these people walking—my mother and father, my big brother, Little Dog and I. We walked by day and camped by the roadside by night. We built fires and huddled together with our feet close to the fire.
Every morning when we rose we sang "Shilombish Holitopa Ma." It is "Amazing Grace," and the missionaries had taught this song to us.
One morning I stood too long in one place on the icy road. The soles of my feet froze and stuck to the earth. When I lifted them to walk, the skin tore and my feet began to bleed. I tried walking on the sides of my feet, then my heels, but I was falling farther and farther behind. I limped into camp that night an hour after everyone else.
My feet were tough from running barefoot, but the new skin was tender. The next day blisters formed. A woman with a baby girl saw my feet when I warmed them by the fire. She tore strips of the baby's blanket for me to wrap around my feet. This worked for two days and I could walk better.
Then one morning the blisters popped. Heavy snow fell that day. I looked behind me and saw that I was leaving dark red footprints in the snow. My father waited for me to catch up to him. He crouched down to me.
"Son, you cannot keep your eyes on the bloody footprints you have left behind you," he said. "You must keep your eyes on where you are going."
I looked at the hills and woods in front of me after that. I could walk easier. The blisters healed and I could keep up with everyone else. We were once again okla nowa, people walking—together.
One morning the woman with the baby couldn't wake her little girl up. She wrapped her tight and covered her face with the blanket. She was crying while she walked, carrying her baby girl and crying.
The next day I saw the horses veering away from the woman carrying the baby. I said to my mother, "Why are the horses moving away from the woman with the baby?"
"That little girl has died," my mother said. "Her mother is carrying her to be buried close to her new home. Her baby girl died."
A week later, the woman fell on the road. Her baby rolled to the ground and out of the blanket. The woman tried to pick her baby up, but she couldn't stand with her baby. She was too weak. My mother ran to help the woman to her feet.
"Let me carry your baby," she said. When I moved to help her, my mother said, "You stay away! Go back with your brother. I will do this."
A few days later, my mother fell. It was early evening. We made our camp and built the fire. My mother slept with her feet facing the fire. That was the night I first felt the touch.
I was sleeping when I felt it. It was a cold touch, moving across my face. I opened my eyes and saw a shadow standing by the fire. It motioned to me and I followed it to the woods. Little Dog leapt up to go with me, but when he saw the shadow, he crawled back under the blanket, moaning in a deep dog voice. When we were away from the light of the fire, I saw it wasn't a shadow. It was my mother.
I went to her and wrapped my arms around her waist. She was cold and my arms went right through her. I stepped back and looked at her. It wasn't my mother. It was her shilombish, my mother's spirit. My mother had died and this was her shilombish.
"It's hoke," she said. "It's hoke. Only the bones."
I didn't know what she meant. She led me back to the camp and sang me to sleep.
The next morning my father woke me up with his cries. He was kneeling by my mother and pulling at his hair and crying. Women circled her and they were singing the wailing songs.
We lifted my mother and carried her as we went walking—okla nowa, people walking. My father carried her for most of the morning. Then my big brother carried her head and shoulders over his back while I carried her feet. She was heavy and I knew we could never make the walk this way.
The next night I felt the touch again. I knew what it was this time. I followed my mother's shilombish into the woods. When we were deep in the woods, she said, "You have to carry my body here."
"The panther will find you," I said.
"It's hoke," she said. "Only the bones." She made me drag her body into the woods. "Only the bones," she said. Then we returned to the camp. The fire was smoking embers. My eyes grew heavy looking at the fire. My mother sang me to sleep.
The next morning, my father shook me awake. He was so mad. "Where did you take your mother?"
He had seen my footprints and the marks made by her dragging body. I led him and my big brother to my mother's body. When we got there, the panther had done his job. We saw only the bones.
carried the bones to the river and washed them.
father, my big brother and I traded carrying my mother's bone bundle
as we went walking—okla nowa, people walking. When it
was my time to carry my mother, I wrapped my arms around her. It was
as if my mother's shilombish carried the bone bundle, too,
lifting me along with it. My feet seemed to float along the road. It
The hills flattened and we walked on roads that turned from brown to black.
smelled the river long before we came to it. We
They gathered everyone together that night on a bluff overlooking the river. They sang a song I had never heard, but the old people knew it. My father sang it, also.
down the narrow path
Just after midnight the horses circled us and drove us down the steep bluff and onto a big flat boat. There were already 50 people on the boat, Choctaws from other places. I thought the boat would tump over. It swayed back and forth, sending cold water splashing over everybody. The old women had just started their singing when the boat settled and dark men with long poles pushed us away from the shore.
We were in the deep river soon and all we could see of the shore was a thick cloud of white fog. There was no room for the dogs on the boat. We were all so crowded and huddled together. The river was fast and wider than any river I had ever seen. We floated downstream before we started crossing. I sat between my father and big brother, holding on tight to mother's bone bundle. I knew I would never cross this river again. Once we crossed this river, we would never go back. Then I realized I would never see Little Dog again.
All of the dogs on the shore must have thought the same thing. They started howling. Everybody looked to the fog. The dogs howled and cried. They knew they would never see their people again.
Then I heard barking. It was Little Dog. He had jumped in the river and was swimming after us! I heard him over all the other dogs. I knew it was Little Dog. Then I saw him, coming out of the fog cloud. He was twisting and rolling like a small tree limb in the current. He was yelping and trying to swim to the boat. I couldn't let him drown. I stood up and ran to the rail.
"Little Dog!" I shouted. "Over here, Little Dog!" A big woman pushed me away from the rail.
"We don't have food for people. No dogs on the boat!" she said. She waved her cane over the rail and hit Little Dog on the nose. He sank into the black water.
I crawled under the rail and jumped overboard. I still was holding my mother's bone bundle. I knew it would float and keep me from drowning.
I saw Little Dog trying to swim, but the current was turning him around and carrying him away from the boat. I reached out for him, but the woman hit him again, this time on the side of the head. I saw Little Dog go under. I reached for him with both hands and my, mother's bone bundle swirled away.
I watched it roll and bob in the waves. My mother's white, white bones were beautiful, dancing and twirling on the dark water. I let my arms go limp. I wanted to be in the river with my mother. I wanted to grab her hair and pull hard and feel her blow on my face. We could both giggle then. She doesn't smile at me anymore. She doesn't see how cold I am without her.
My father took the cane from the woman. "That is my son," he said to her.
He hooked me under the collar and dragged me from the river. When he lifted me from the water, I felt the cold air bite into my skin. I imagined I was a naked baby lying in the snow—a naked baby whose mother had already frozen to death. I was crawling over her, moving my tiny cold fingers across her face. I was trying to shape her white face into a smile. She opened her eyes and I was almost with her.
"Breathe!" my father shouted. I was so cold I was forgetting to breathe. He wrapped a blanket around me.
Then I remembered Little Dog. At first I was afraid for him, afraid that he had drowned. But I know, still today I know it, that he did not. I know that by the time our boat reached the shore, a good family had fished him out of the water. They saw him from the riverbanks and fished him out. They didn't have a dog. By sunrise the next morning, Little Dog was running and sniffing in the woods around his new home. I know this, too. Little Dog missed me, but he was happy.
I laughed out loud to think of Little Dog.
"Little Dog is hoke," I said. I opened my eyes and I was looking at the buttons of my father's shirt. He was holding me.
"Yes," he said, "Little Dog is hoke. My son is hoke, too." My father was crying, smiling and crying.
When the boat landed on the other shore, everyone crowded onto the narrow plank. Someone pushed me from behind and I fell into the river. It was shallow and I could stand up. The water was just below my chest.
As I waded to the shore, I saw a little blue turtle, luksi okchako. It was floating on a small raft about 20 yards upstream. The turtle blinked at me and dove into the river. When it jumped, it pushed the raft to me. I waited till the raft floated up and bumped me on the chest. It was my mother's bone bundle, come home to me.
I grabbed ahold of a dead willow tree and pulled myself out of the river. The water soaked my clothes, but I had my mother's bone bundle again and the cold didn't sting so bad. I used the bone bundle as my pillow that night.
The next morning I found my big brother and my father and we went walking—okla nowa, people walking. We walked for days and days. I was very weak. I could not keep food down me since that night in the river.
Then we crossed another river and everyone fell down on their hands and knees. They grabbed handfuls of red dirt—the dirt here was red—and flung it to the sky.
"This is our home," they said. "We are home. This is our home."
Two days later we found the land that would be our home. It was a valley surrounded by rolling hills. A coldwater creek flowed across the valley.
The first thing we did was to build a wooden platform on a small hill, a place to lay mother's bone bundle before we buried it. I could not help them build it. I was too weak. But I did carry my mother's bone bundle to the platform when it was finished. They let me carry it.
One morning I woke up and I felt stronger than I had ever felt in my life. My father and big brother were carrying another bundle to the platform. It was wrapped in a blanket. I ran to help, but they did not look at me. They just walked on, looking at the ground. My brother was crying.
"I can help," I said, but they just walked on. When they reached the platform, they laid the bundle on it and started unrolling the blanket.
Then I felt the touch again. This time it was a warm touch, a warm-as-flowing-honey touch. I looked up and saw my mother. It was my mother, not her shilombish. It was my mother.
"You have come home," she said.
I looked at my father. He was kneeling by the platform, unrolling the blanket.
"You have come home to me," my mother said.
I looked back at the platform. My body rolled out of the blanket and came to a stop next to my mother's bone bundle. I was shilombish.
"No," I said. I wanted to go to my body, to wake my body up. Then my father looked to the spot where I was standing.
"Son," he said, "you cannot keep your eyes on the bloody footprints you have left behind you. You must keep your eyes on where you are going. You are going home."
My mother smiled at me and said, "You are home with me now.
Big brother in the story grew to be a man and they called him John Carnes. He had a son named John Goode, who had a daughter named Minnie Ochetama Goode. She was my grandmother. She had a son named Archie Tingle, junior, who was born in Indian Territory before the family moved to Pasadena, Texas. He was my father.
There is a mound called Ninah Waiyah, just north of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Choctaws call it the Mother Mound. A simple wooden staircase leads to the summit of that mound. At the foot of the steps is a carved wooden sign that marks this as the origin site of the Choctaw people.
Beneath that sign grow blackberry vines. I know because I planted them years ago. I used to go back several times a year and with water from a nearby creek water those vines. But they do not need my watering any more. Their roots, you see, go very deep.