The Story of Hohtak Lahba and his Choctaw Mother
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Their laws (for they had laws,) though exceptional in some respects to the White Race, nevertheless, were good, and quite consistent with the nations of a primitive age. But like all others of their race, their severest law was that of blood revenge. Whosoever sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed was a statute rigidly enforced among all North American Indians. It was acknowledged among all, not only to be the right, but also the imperative duty of the nearest relative on the male side of the slain, to kill the slayer wherever and whenever a favorable opportunity was presented. Under many existing circumstances the law might, perhaps, have been just and salutary; but unfortunately it went too far, as any male member of the murderer s family, though innocent and even ignorant of the crime, might become the victim of the avenger of blood, if the guilty had fled; but such seldom occurred, as the murderer rarely ever made any effort whatever to escape, but passively submitted to his fate. Still, this law, revolting as it may appear to many, exercised a good influence among the Choctaws, as it had a salutary effect in restraining them in the heat of passion, by rendering them cautious in their disputes and quarrels, lest blood should be shed; knowing the absolute certainty of murder being avenged sooner or later upon the murderer himself, or some one of his nearest male relatives; hence man, or family, would with impunity commit or permit, if they could avoid or prevent it, an act that would be sure to be avenged, no one could tell when or where. Days, weeks, and even months perhaps, might pass, yet the avenger sleepeth not nor has he forgotten; and, at an hour least expected and from a source least apprehended, the blow at last falls, and there the matter ends. Nor did the slayer find any protection from any source whatever, not even from his nearest relatives. Yet calmly and with stoical indifference awaited his certain doom; nor was the avenger, though known, interrupted in any manner whatever, either before or after he had accomplished his revenge. The avenger of blood never took the life of a female of the slayer s family, but satisfied him self in the death of the slayer himself or in the person of some, one of his nearest male relatives. If the murderer had fled, and the life of one of his male relatives had been sacrificed in lieu of his own, he then could return without fear of molestation; but the name of coward was given to him an appellation more dreaded and less endurable than a hundred deaths to all North American Indians.
A few instances have been known among the Choctaws, where a relative proposed to die for the slayer, and was accepted on the part of the relatives of the slain; but such instances were very rare. I remember of an instance related, of undoubted authority, which deserves to be held in lasting remembrance if nothing more than to forever silence and put to eternal shame the foolish croaking’s of those who deny to the Indian the possession of any of the finer feelings and emotions of the heart, and to establish the fact that the height, depth, and breadth of an Indian mother’s love can only be equaled by that of her white sister, both immeasurable, incomprehensible, unfathomable. The case which I here relate, was Toh-to Pe-hah (Red Elm Gathered Up), an aged Choctaw mother, who gave her life for that of her oldest son; and which clearly illustrates the depth and strength, the sensibility and tenderness of maternal affection in an Indian woman, whose name, had she lived in the days of classic lore, would have been handed down to all future ages in the songs of the poet minstrels, and upon the pages of the historians. But alas! She was unfortunately an Indian and virtue in an Indian is, with many of the present day, not a virtue; while vice, in their defamers, is. This poor widowed Choctaw mother, came with others of her friends to the place of execution on the day her son was to be shot for killing an aged Choctaw man living many miles distant from that of his own home. This killing was done before the establishment of the law that the slayer should be tried by law, and no longer left in the hands of the “avenger of blood.” Of her four children he was the oldest, her darling first born, on whom she mainly depended for assistance in the support of her little family, and whom she had named Hoh-tak Lah-ba (Luke Warm).
When the mother arrived at the place of execution, she found many had already assembled; but with emotions, felt and known only by and to a mother, she pressed through the throng to where her doomed boy stood, close to the executioner with the deadly rifle in hand, upon which Hohtak Lah-ba looked with steady eye and unshaken nerves. All were silent. Not a whisper disturbed the profound hush that rested like a gloomy pall upon that assembly. The mother glanced a look of love at the erect form of her son, who stood as a statue before her eyes; then turned them a moment upon the executioner with an appealing look for compassion; then beseechingly upon the relatives of the man slain, and at once broke the silence with an irresistible appeal to them to take her life instead of Hohtak Lahba’s. He is young, and I am old,” she cried. His wife and child, his two little sisters and brother, will suffer if he is taken from them. They cannot live without him, they can without me. I am old and can do but neither little for them, nor that little long. Your relative he killed was an old man. Why take a young life for an old life? Take mine in the place of Hohtak Lahba’s. Let the avenger of the death of your kinsman be satisfied with my death. Blood for blood satisfies our violated law. It seeks no more, it demands no more. What more should you require? Speak kinsman of the dead! Will you accept my life as sufficient propitiation, a just compensation for the life of your slain? I await your answer.” A murmur of approval was heard in the crowd, and soon one of the nearest in kindred to the slain arose and accepted the offer in a firm and distinct tone of voice. A smile of joy lit up the countenance of Toh-to Pe-hah as she responded, “Tis well.” A few moments were given her to bid an adieu to her loved ones, and give her last admonitions to her wayward boy; after which she calmly presented herself before the executioner, and, nerved with a mother s love that bids defiance to fear, bade him do his duty. Then the sharp crack of the rifle broke the profound stillness of the moment, and the spirit of that loving Choctaw mother winged its flight to Him who has said: “Where little is given, little is required.” Such was the custom of this peculiar people in the years of the long ago. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” was ever found written in all Indians code of laws, and to the execution of which they adhered with the strictest punctuality. The spirit of the murdered Indian could never take its flight from earth, or find rest anywhere in the eternal unknown, until blood had atoned for blood, a belief as firmly fixed upon the Indian heart as that upon the Christian s, that the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, atoned for the sins of the world.
It is natural to suppose that Hohtak Lahba would have refused the offer of his devoted mother. But custom denied him the privilege of any action, whatever in the matter. If the offer was made and accepted by the relatives of the slain, he no longer stood condemned before the violated law, or in the eyes of the avenger, and he or she, who had voluntarily assumed the position, could only make the atonement. The mother, in this case, had offered her life, a voluntary sacrifice for that of her son’s; it had been accepted as a sufficiency by the avenger, and, even as the law of the Medes and Persians that “changeth not,” so Tohto Pehah could not reverse her accepted proposal, even if she had relented, nor the son refuse, she must die, and Hoh tak Lahba must live; and the Amen was the response of the law. The unfortunate Hoh tak Lahba, though the avenger of the blood of his slain victim had been appeased at a fearful cost to him, was afterwards often taunted by the relatives and friends of the old man he had slain, with the accusation of cowardice, which to all Indians is more to be dreaded than death.
For several years he bore up under their taunts until he eventually began to believe that all regarded him as a coward, and life to him had became a burden too great to be longer borne. But what could he do? To take his own life would not do, since that act would stamp the seal of woe upon his eternal destiny. How then was he to secure for himself an honorable death and wipe off the stain of cowardice that had been attached to his name, and depart to the eternal and happy home that awaited all brave warriors? His cogitative mind at last suggested a plan; it was, only by killing another man. This he adopted and put into immediate execution; and to make his death the more certain, he sought, found, and slew a son of the very man for whose death his doting mother had so heroically atoned; and though his victim lived many miles distant, he well knew the deed would speedily bring the avenger to his side. But that he might effectually wipe forever from his name the stain of cowardice, to his own honor and that of his kindred, he at once re solved to take his own life, since now it would be blood for blood, and self-sacrifice would no longer fix upon him the penalty of eternal woe. Quietly but resolutely he dug his own grave before putting his dreadful resolution into effect; and when completed, calmly stretched himself therein to as certain if it was complete in every particular. As soon as he had slain his victim he hastened home with his utmost speed, and at once told his relatives and friends what he had done, and then said: “You know that I have long been accused of cowardice, but now I will prove to you that I can also meet death like a brave warrior.” Well” they knew his fearful determination and the impossibility of dissuading him there from, as they sat in gloomy silence awaiting the approaching fearful scene that was” soon to be enacted. Slowly he went through with his preliminary death ceremonies with that stoicism so peculiar to his race; the careful examination of his rifle, to see if it would still be as true to its trust as it so long had proved in his many conflicts with the wild beasts of his native forests; the singing of his death song, (the Indians adieu to earth) and the farewell shaking of the hands of his relatives and friends present, consisting of his wife, two sisters and brother, who sat in a mournful group a little to one side, with eyes vacant and fixed as if upon some distant object, but presenting a picture of silent woe that baffles description; while the old men of the neighborhood sat in little groups around, smoking their pipes in doleful silence. No wailing, not even a half smothered sigh, broke the silence of the solemn scene. Nothing- was heard but the voice of Hoh tah Lahba, as he now and then chanted his death song. When he had bidden all his last adieu, he seized his bottle of whiskey, that “bright insignia” of the white man’s “Personal Liberty,” drank a long draught then hurled the bottle with its contents to the ground with all his strength, as if invoking a curse upon its maker and vendor, then snatched his rifle from its leaning position against a tree, rushed to his waiting grave, and the sharp crack of the rifle that immediately followed told but too plainly that Hoh-tah Lahba was dead. Then burst forth a long restrained wail of grief from his bereaved wife, sisters, and other female friends alone, (as an Indian man never expresses his grief by any external emotions) heretofore smothered in respect to Hoh tah Lahba’s request, “that all emotions of grief be restrained in his presence,” that echoed far back from the surrounding forests.
What Christian heart could witness such a scene without emotions of sorrow, since it exhibits the human mind shrouded in the greatest error, while at the same time it exhibits the elements of a noble nature? Contemplate the love of that unlettered mother! Listen again to her arguments before that stern court of inflexible justice, pleading her own destitution of all further usefulness to her people, as a just reason for the preservation of her son’s manhood and usefulness! View the son too, though sacrificing the life of his loving mother by his wayward life, yet manifesting as great a sense of shame and fear of public censure, as his civilized white brother, (yet far more honorable) who sacrificed two lives also under his so-called exalted views of honor in fighting a duel! Now turn aside from a long, lingering gaze upon the desolate hearts of that wife, now widowed, and those weeping sisters; hear again that fearful, un-dissembled shriek as the crack of the rifle announced that its messenger of death had accomplished its work; listen to those lamentations loud, as they rush to the fatal spot and throw themselves upon the quivering body, and then will you, can you, longer deny to the Indian mother, wife, sister, daughter, any of those divine and holy sensibilities so justly awarded to the white females?
Truly may it be said of the North American Indian woman as a general thing, that they rank higher in those feminine virtues that so peculiarly belong to women than any unlettered race known in history or otherwise. And for that highest of all female virtues, chastity, the full-blood North American Indian woman can fearlessly challenge her white sisters of the entire United States, without the fear of the possibility of defeat. During my sojourn among the Choctaw and Chickasaw people in the years 1884 to 1890, I made frequent inquiries relative to this subject, both of native citizens and white citizens married among them, and whites living among them as renters of their farms, and they have spoken in the highest terms of praise of the chastity of the Choctaw and Chickasaw women, and to which I add my own, based upon a knowledge of over seventy years personal acquaintance with these two branches of the Indian race, and also that of the missionaries who labored among them when living east of the Mississippi River. In conversation with a Chickasaw (half blood) in February, 1886, an ex-auditor of the Chickasaw Nation and a man of undoubted veracity, who lived near the line of division between his own people and the war-like Comanche’s, and with whom he had formed an extensive acquaintance by trading among them, he thus replied to my inquiries concerning the chastity of the Comanche women: “It is an absolute impossibility to rob a Comanche woman of her virtue, only by superior physical force. No professions of love, no promises of marriage, no temptation of bribery, can avail anything in inducing her to step from the path of rectitude, virtue and honor.” I was informed, by a gentleman who lived in the southern part of Arizona, that he was well acquainted with a tribe of Indians whose women it was impossible to influence from the path of virtue. Many of the early writers speak in the highest commendation of the native Indian women. All praise to the North American Indian women! Uneducated, uncivilized, with no advantages of moral culture, yet true to the natural instincts of morality, “adorning” no cities, towns and villages with houses erected for the prostitution of their bodies and the eternal damnation of their souls.
The Choctaw women were of medium height, beautiful in form, strong and agile in body; strictly honest, truthful, light-hearted and gay, and devoted in their affection to family and friends, while common custom protected them against all offense, even as it does at the present day; how commendable to the Choctaw men.