Choctaw Social Habits
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The border Indians, so far as we could learn, all lived in families, recognizing the marriage relation, with its duties and obligations. Polygamy was tolerated in most, perhaps all the tribes, yet it did not exist to much extent. The Cherokees had enacted laws to prohibit it, but they had not been very rigorously enforced. The Choctaws tolerated the practice, yet under such restrictions as were well calculated to discourage and finally to suppress it. If a man should separate from, or abandon his wife, his property was liable to be seized by the light-horsemen and appropriated to the benefit of the divorced woman. I remember but one man in our district who had two wives, and they resided fifteen or twenty miles distant from each other, and each had one or two servants to serve as housekeeper. One of these wives united with the Church, after which she did not live with her man. She felt justified in her course, as she was the one last taken, and, hence, could not be his lawful wife.
Separations and desertions were of rare occurrence. So far as we could judge they were faithful to their vows, and lived happily together, in most instances, till separated by death. The husband and wife usually kept their property distinct; this was true so far as annuities and stock were concerned, but the wife, in cases of necessity, had a right to live upon the property of her husband; and this right still pertained to the abandoned or divorced wife as long as she remained in a single state.
There were no Indian towns or villages in the nation, and but little inclination manifested by the people for settling in clusters or dense communities. There were a few cabins, a dry-goods store, and a blacksmith shop in the vicinity of the Choctaw Agency, at which place there was also a post office. The little cluster of log buildings was sometimes considered worthy to be styled a village, and it was named by the natives “Skullaville.” Skulla” signifies “bit;” that is, one dime: hence the literal name of the village was Bitville, and it was so called because the natives went to it to expend their small change. There were two or three other trading posts which were about equally entitled to the appellation of towns or villages, among which Doaksville was the most important.
The people were scattered over their entire territory, and engaged in agriculture and the raising of stock. The land all belonged to the commonwealth, no one being permitted to possess, in fee-simple, any real estate whatever. The unoccupied lands were alike free to all for occupancy, improvement, and private uses, without molestation or encroachment from others, and without taxation; but possession was only retained by occupancy or residence upon the land. If a man should vacate a house or farm, any one had a right to take possession and hold it henceforth without dispute. His title was considered just as valid as if he had been the original owner, and had made the improvements. It was proper, however, for one to sell his improvements, if he could find a purchaser before vacating the premises. None of the tribe lived in tents or wigwams, but in log-cabins, after the style of the white people on the frontiers. We occasionally saw a family occupying a good frame house, finished and furnished with reference to taste and comfort.
The wild game which had once abounded in that region was nearly consumed. None could depend on the chase for a subsistence, although many deer and smaller animals were slaughtered annually. Every man conceived it necessary to have a field in which to produce corn to make tom-ful-la, a peculiar preparation of hominy, which was a universal and favorite dish with the Choctaws; also vegetables, of which pumpkins, peas, melons, and yams were staples. Their fields varied in size, from one to ten acres; and when slaves were owned, to perform the labor, good farms were made and cultivated with considerable profit. It will be remembered that the tribes in the south-west were originally within the states of Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida: hence they are southern., and, in removing west, carried the “peculiar institution” with them. As far as they are able they are slaveholders, and even very poor Indians will manage to get possession of one or two negroes to perform their heavy work. Indians are known to cherish an invincible disgust for manual labor. But when the natives had not the good fortune to own “boys” and “girls” to serve them, the men did the outdoor work, especially in clearing the ground, fencing in the fields, and in plowing and planting. The women kept their houses in order, did the cooking and washing, and aided in hoeing in the gardens. I never discovered that the burdens were heaped upon the females, as we are assured is the custom in savage life and with the wild tribes who roam over the forests, depending upon the chase for their subsistence.
The intercourse among neighbors and acquaintances was characterized by kindness, good feeling, and thoughtful consideration. Serious misunderstandings, strifes, and contentions were seldom known to occur; and in every instance, bitter strife and violence could be traced to the use of intoxicating drinks.
It is scarcely necessary to record that the practice of smoking tobacco was universal. The pipe is an Indian institution, equally prized by all the tribes. I do not remember that I ever saw one who was not passionately fond of the pipe-men, women, and children, without exception. Even little lads and lasses, from six to ten years of age, could puff away and send forth clouds of smoke, in the most beautiful and approved fashion. The pipe was not regarded is a luxury, but as one of the necessaries of life; and when tobacco could not be obtained, they would use roots and bark as substitutes, smoking still with a relish, which did not admit a doubt of their love of the custom.