A Cultural Awakening – Keeping Choctaw Traditions Alive
By LARISSA COPELAND Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
The rich and diverse culture and language of this country’s Native American people is more than something to be put on display at weekend craft shows and expos or a hobby to pass the time – it’s a livelihood, an identity. Unfortunately, for many tribes, pieces of that identity have been lost or have been faded throughout the generations, and the Choctaw Nation is no different.
However, the Choctaw Nation is taking steps every day to reconnect current generations with their ancestral roots, and the tribe has placed the revitalization of its culture on the forefront of its priorities.
“My long-term vision is that every generation in the future is more self-sufficient and successful than the generation preceding,” says Chief Gregory E. Pyle. “To achieve this, it is important we understand the culture and history of the Choctaw people. It is vital that the traditions of our great tribe be sustained.”
Leaders of the tribe wanted to give members from coast to coast the opportunity to learn about and experience this living, thriving culture for themselves…so they took to the road. “Choctaw Days” is a name that has become synonymous with experiencing the culture and heritage of the Choctaw Nation. Choctaw Days festivals are celebrations of Choctaw history, art, dancing, language, music, food, and more, put on display at various locations across the nation and are presented by the passionate teachers, artists, dancers and craftsmen who make conserving Choctaw heritage a way of life.
In the past year, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma hosted the second annual Choctaw Days festival at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., held Choctaw Day at the State Capitol of Oklahoma, in San Francisco, Calif., Denver, Colo., Bakersfield, Calif., and many more cities across the nation and have a busy schedule slated for the next year.
An upcoming Choctaw Day event will be this Monday in Durant at Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s “Native November” celebration. The event is from 2:30-4:30 p.m. on Nov. 26 in the atrium of SE’s Glen D. Johnson Student Union, and will include demonstrations of Choctaw culture – including dancing, visual artists, beadwork, flute making, Choctaw language, storytelling and stickball. The event is free of charge and open to the public.
Also, the Choctaw Casino Resort’s 8th Annual Pow Wow is on Nov. 23-24 at the Choctaw Event Center in Durant. This pow wow has grown to become one of the largest pow wows in the nation and, along with the two days of dancing and vendors to visit, it will be the setting for many enlightening cultural experiences that are open to anyone who wishes to attend and learn about the tribe’s rich heritage, including Choctaw social dance presentations by the Choctaw Employee Dance Troupe, which is a group of volunteers made up of tribal employees who perform and teach the traditional dances. Additionally, the Cultural Services Department will give stickball presentations and two stickball teams will play a stickball exhibition game across the street from the Event Center. The Historic Preservation Department will also be at the two-day pow wow, giving demonstrations and teaching historic lessons about Choctaw pottery for all who would like to experience and learn more about the ancient art.
These actions are just a tiny snapshot of the huge picture; the efforts and undertaking the tribe is making to preserve its precious, priceless identity is vast and requires the dedication and hard work of so many.
All across the Choctaw Nation, classes, large and small, formal and informal, are being held to help pass down the traditional ways of life of those who came before us and instill in the children the need to continue to pass on this knowledge for generations to come.
From pottery and native art, to stickball and beadwork, the old ways of the Choctaw are making a comeback after being so close to becoming forgotten at one time.
One sacred element to the Choctaw culture is its language. The native language is spoken in the homes of many Choctaws, and has even earned the distinction of being named the first Native American language to be offered as a minor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. It is offered as a distance learning language option in more than 40 high schools and three colleges in Oklahoma as well.
The Choctaw Nation School of Choctaw Language offers classes, which are taught by certified language instructors who are eager to preserve and perpetuate the language and culture of the tribe. At present, the school has approximately 50 certified instructors who teach the language in communities all across the Choctaw Nation and beyond. For example, at the Choctaw Community Center in Antlers, certified language teacher Dora Wickson teaches two classes every week. Her beginner classes are on Mondays from 6 to 8 p.m., and advanced Choctaw classes are on Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. These classes are open to the public. The course is 16 weeks long and is taught in four phases.
“We just started up a new class and it’s not too late to join us,” said Wickson. “We would love to have anyone that is interested in speaking the language to come out and learn Choctaw!”
The classes taught by Wickson and the numerous other certified Choctaw instructors are just one example of the numerous Choctaw language programs offered by the Choctaw Nation. To learn more, visit the School of Choctaw Language department website.
Traditional Choctaw dance is now being highlighted as well, most recently with the Choctaw Employee Dance Troupe. The group, organized by Choctaw Nation Marketing Director Lana Sleeper, is made up of tribal employees, all who volunteer their time, spending many hours each month practicing and perfecting the traditional dances they perform at community functions, such as parades, festivals or anywhere the group is invited to attend around the tribal area. “We do a short presentation,” Sleeper explains, “telling the story of each dance, then explaining the steps. We then perform and we pull in people from the crowd and have them dance with us!”
The dance group came about as part of Chief Pyle and Assistant Chief Batton’s cultural awakening initiative. “Only a small group of people knew these Choctaw social dances,” Sleeper continued, “and we wanted to spread that knowledge so that all Choctaws could learn the dances.”
Sleeper started a social dance program in 2009, but on a smaller scale – at the tribe’s 13 Head Start centers, making weekly visits to the classrooms to teach the dances to the students. It was because of her experiences while teaching the youngsters that she was inspired to organize the employee dance troupe. “It was then that I saw how many others wanted to learn the dances too,” she says, and that is when the dance troupe was formed. Approximately 14 employees from various departments dance in the group, all dressed in traditional Choctaw clothing, all of which is handmade, from the Choctaw diamond shirts and dresses, to the intricate beaded collars, necklaces and earrings. “I’m hoping in time we’ll grow, with more employee volunteers joining the group and learning the dances,” says Sleeper.
Also today, thanks to the nonprofit Chahta Foundation, the social dancing experience has now been extended even to those unable to attend the performances or presentations. The foundation recently produced an instructional dance DVD utilizing the talents of the group.
“The Head Starts actually use the DVDs now too,” says Sleeper, “The teachers lead the lessons and we provide the shirts for the children.”
The Choctaw Employee Dance Troupe will be performing in front of their largest audience to date as they perform in front of several thousand guests over the two-day span of the pow wow, and it will be the first time for the social dancing to be featured at the Durant event.
Additionally, the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department works adamantly to ensure the traditions of the tribe are not lost by doing its part to pass on the many trades and ancestral skills of the Choctaw. One such craft is pottery.
The department hosts bi-weekly pottery classes in Antlers and Durant, free of charge for anyone who wants to attend and learn the skill. The two classes, held on alternating Thursdays, meet at the Antlers Public Library, located at 104 SE 2nd St., and in Durant at the Choctaw Cultural Services Building, at 4451 Choctaw Rd., from 5-8 p.m.
Students of the classes, which are led by Director of Historic Preservation Dr. Ian Thompson, are taught the traditional Choctaw methods of digging clay, cleaning clay, and preparing the appropriate materials, such as sand or mussel shell, to mix with the clay. They also learn traditional methods for making different types of Choctaw pottery, the traditional designs used on the pottery, how to fire the pottery in a wood fire, and how to cook in and eat out of the finished pottery, according to Thompson.
The class is open to and welcomes anyone, from beginner to advanced students, who are interested in learning the art of pottery. “The teachers and experienced students can teach people with any level of experience,” he says.
The department also teaches pottery at various locations around the area as requested. In addition to the pow wow presentation they are also slated to give lessons later this month at a Choctaw language class in Sherman, Texas, and anytime when requested.
In addition to the pottery classes, Historic Preservation and Cultural Services departments teach many programs throughout the year on the cultural ways of the Choctaw including moccasin-making, archery, bow-making, beading and basketry classes.
“We can also give presentations by request on the food, history and life ways of the Choctaw people,” says Thompson. More information can be found on the Choctaw Nation Cultural Services department website.
Employees of the Choctaw Nation have embraced the tribal heritage and the tribe has officially made the first Monday of each month “Heritage Monday” at all its office buildings. On that day, employees put forth a conscious effort to dress traditionally, greet guests in the native language and share the unique Choctaw culture through social dancing, history and storytelling, songs, crafts and traditional food.
No matter how large or small the endeavor, each act in this cultural awakening, this revitalization – this assurance that the history and characteristics that define who we are as a tribe and a people, are perpetuated, protected and maintained – will continue to be fuel in keeping the tribe alive and thriving for years to come and ensure a prosperous future generation of Choctaws.