- Ian Thompson
Choctaw Heritage on the Prairie
Updated: Feb 5
We've got a Choctaw friend who loves the ocean. Water is simply a part of who she is. She says that her ancestors must have come from the Choctaw-speaking communities on Mobile Bay, who built their lifeways around the water.
I think some of my family line must have come from oktak, the prairie. To a lot of people, prairie is flyover county, but here's how the prairie looks through the eyes of someone who loves it. It's always seemed like each hill and stream on the landscape has it's own spirit. There are few places where you can see the individual characters of these better than on a prairie landscape. You can perceive both the spectacular and the subtle changes of the land through the mantle of colorful prairie plants dancing in the breeze. I love how the prairie landscape changes from one week to the next as different members of its vast plant community come into bloom. I love how when you get out into the prairie and see its individual plants, animals, and insects up close, it becomes a place of infinite stories. I love how you can see what's coming in the prairie sky, enjoying the endless parade of sunrises and clouds with their interplay of light and color, followed up by the Milky Way at night. I love experiencing the unimpeded power of the spring storms and the way the prairie smells in the fall rain. I can identify with just about everything in the character of a buffalo. Since I was a teenager, the intact prairies of old have felt like freedom beckoning across the centuries. Imagine walking from Missouri to Colorado, Texas to Canada with no obstruction.
Most people don't think of the Choctaw homeland (the present-day southern 2/3 of Mississippi and western 1/3 of Alabama) as prairie country. You certainly don't see much prairie driving across the region on I-20. The reality is, though, that before the Trail of Tears, more than a million and a half acres of the Choctaw homeland (around 1/20th of the total) was comprised by the Blackbelt and Jackson prairies. These prairies existed as a result of shallow layers of chalk in the soil that prevented trees from taking root. Descriptions from the 1800s compare them to a horizon-to-horizon sea with waves of wildflowers rising and falling on the wind. The Choctaw ancestors intentionally expanded these natural prairies through fire management. Another fire-supported ecosystem, the longleaf pine belt, comprising the southern 1/3 of the Choctaw homeland, was more or less tallgrass prairie with pine trees growing in it.
One of the earliest Choctaw oral traditions talks about the formation of the Blackbelt prairie in relation to the giant animals that lived during the last Ice Age. For centuries, some ancestral Choctaw communities thrived in and around the Blackbelt prairie of western Alabama. At the Battle of Mabilla, Choctaw ancestors and allies fought the De Soto expedition, crippling it at great cost to their own lives. In the battle's aftermath, the Spanish chroniclers wrote that the Choctaw ancestors so loved their freedom that they would literally fight to the last person before allowing the Spanish to conquer them and set up a encomienda system. The Battle of Mabilla was a defining point in history that helped to prevent the Indigenous communities of the American Southeast from being conquered by the Spanish. It took place at a Choctaw-speaking settlement on the Black Belt Prairie.
As Choctaw settlements re-organized in Mississippi in response to European diseases and European-sponsored slaving raids, new Tribal towns were set up. Rarely were they very far from prairie areas. These prairie areas provided hunting, thatch for roofing, grazing for horses, and a variety of useful plants. The skirt known as vlhkuna, was a Choctaw woman's most basic garment in the early 1700s. It was traditionally made of fibers from the dogbane plant and bison wool - two resources from the prairie.
The deep connection between Choctaw culture and the prairie is recorded in the vocabulary of the Choctaw language. It has names for prairie birds like hatapofokchi - the kestral, and kofi - the bobwhite. Choctaw names for prairie plants abound. One of my favorites is tohkil, the name for the sensitive brier. The sensitive brier has thin, compound leaves that close up when you touch them. The Choctaw name for this prairie plant refers to squinting - meaning that the fine, closing leaves of the plant were conceived of as its eye lashes. Fossil clam shells erode from the calcareous soils of the prairies in the Choctaw homeland. Their Choctaw name, opahaksun, seems to come from the phrase opa ola ikhanklo - doesn't hear the cry of the screech owl. Given the cultural connection of the owl with death, it's interesting to think about what lies behind this Choctaw name.
Through the Trail of Tears, many Choctaw people were forced to relocate into present-day southeastern Oklahoma. Most people don't think of southeastern Oklahoma as prairie country either, but it is, or was. Naturalist Thomas Nutthal crossed the eastern part of what would become Choctaw Nation in 1819, recording small prairies and buffalo trails throughout. Choctaw Nation's capitol, Tushkahoma, was later established in one of these little prairies. Expansive belts of prairie existed along the Red River in the southern part of Choctaw Nation and also along the western part extending from present-day Durant up past McAlester. Upon arrival from Mississippi, some Choctaw families moved into these big prairie areas and set up large farms and ranches. These helped the Choctaw economy to rebuild in a new home. Chishoktak (Post Oak Prairie) was a Choctaw church established near Bennington in the mid-1800s. The old church building was still in use when it was burned down not many years ago by vandals.
Today, you don't see many prairies in southeastern Oklahoma, but here are some images from the early 1800s that show them. Both of the images below come from the northeastern part of Choctaw Nation, where the prairies were the smallest and sparsest.
Farming, overgrazing, fire suppression, and tree encroachment have destroyed nearly all of the tallgrass prairies in Choctaw Nation. The same thing has happened throughout the tallgrass prairie's entire range. Today it is one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Just 5-10 % of the original tallgrass prairie survives, mostly in the Flint Hills of Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma. What was once a vast American landscape is now one of the most threatened habitats on earth. The destruction of the tallgrass prairie is tied to the decline of the monarch butterfly, bobwhite quail, and many animals and pollinators that rely on it. This loss effects humanity on many levels, particularly the traditional cultures of Native American tribes that lived on and around prairie. How can you practice the parts of Choctaw culture that are tied to the prairie if prairies are no longer around to interact with in daily life? Over time, people start to forget that prairie ever was a part of Choctaw country or Choctaw culture. In our rapidly changing world, that's a little scary in its implications.
The value of the few surviving remnants of tallgrass prairie in Choctaw Nation is beyond calculation in terms of the connection to Choctaw (and Caddo) history and culture, in terms of giving people a chance to interact with a landscape that is indigenous to this part of the world, in terms of all of the species and vital ecosystem functions the tallgrass prairie represents, and in terms of what it takes to restore a prairie once it is gone.
We're fortunate to have remnant tallgrass prairie on Nan Awaya Farm. Working to protect it has taught us a lot about grazing and fire ecology. Working to refurbish and expand it has taken us seed collecting in neat little prairie remnants hanging on in roadsides across Choctaw Nation. For most of this week, we were home bound due to an ice storm. One day saw us on one of the farm's remnant prairie areas that we had treated with a controlled burn 6 months ago. Skating around on the ice, with the sleet raining down us, hand-broadcasting seeds onto the frozen ground, was a true joy and a great contrast to the unbeatable heat of the day we had burned it. The prairie has become as much a part of us as it is a part of Choctaw culture. Oktak yvt okchaya na bilia yoba. May the prairie live forever.