The Choctaw Character
The Choctaws were quiet and peaceable among themselves, and no less so in their bearing and inter-course with neighboring tribes. They were ordinarily temperate in their habits, yet on “pay-day ” and other public occasions, they would, if it were possible, procure oko-ho-ma–whisky–and indulge in a “big drunk.” The United States agent and the officers of the tribe were indefatigable in their efforts to prevent the introduction and traffic of intoxicating liquors among them. The contraband article was, however, sometimes smuggled into the country, when its effects were soon visible. We rarely saw one intoxicated during our sojourn in the country; they were a law abiding people, rendering a cheerful and ready obedience to the authorities and laws of the country. They recognized their obligations to their government in all departments, and the officers of the nation were uniformly treated with the deference and respect which should ever characterize good citizens and loyal subjects. Antiquated rites and pagan ceremonies were almost wholly discarded; the ancient Indian funeral rites were still, in rare instances, observed by the least intelligent portion of the tribe; and, though less advanced in education and in the arts of civilized life than the Cherokees, yet in their steady, persevering, and resolute purpose to become an educated, intelligent, and respectable people they stood in the van of the border tribes.
The Choctaws have retained their Indian blood in its purity with rare exceptions. It is believed that they have amalgamated less with the whites than any other tribe who have lived so long upon reserved lands, in such close proximity to Anglo-Saxon neighbors. They have given but little encouragement to strangers to settle with them, or engage in traffic with their people. A foreigner is never adopted, not even when he has married a wife in the tribe. He is still an alien; and, though permitted to make a home and engage in business in the territory, yet he may not hold office nor can he vote at an election. The wife never takes his name, and the children are called after the mother, and receive all their national rights and privileges through her. They were equally averse to all alliances and intermarriage with other Indian tribes; family and national connections and intercourse were studiously avoided. A remarkable illustration of this trait of character came under our own observation. In the month of June, 1843 a grand council of the border tribes was convened at Tahlequah, the Cherokee council-ground. There were delegates assembled representing more than twenty distinct tribes; they had come from the sources of the Missouri, in the north, and from Red river, in the south. The object of the convention was to adopt a code of international law for the regulation of the tribes in their intercourse with each other. They wished to become more intimately acquainted, to cultivate social ties, to cherish their common interests, and “to brighten the chain of friendship.” The hoary-headed and venerable sires, the vigorous and athletic in the meridian of life, the active and sprightly young men, the women and children, were assembled in council to “talk,” to “smoke,” to “Shake hands,” and to call each other “friend” and ” brother.” But there were no Choctaws in that convocation; they treated the affair with supreme contempt; and when asked, ” Why did you not meet in the great camp, to sit by the council fires and hold a grand talk with your red brothers?” they promptly replied, “We no want to make travel to Cherokee council-ground, to stay whole week to make big talk and big drunk! we much love to stay at home and ‘tend to our own business.”
But this strong disinclination to mingle socially and familiarly with others must not be attributed to unkind or hostile sentiments, but rather to a firmness of purpose to manage their own affairs according to their own convictions of propriety.
Men belonging to other tribes were received by the Choctaws in the spirit of friendship, and always treated with courtesy and kindness. Such persons might travel through the nation with perfect safety, living upon the hospitalities of the natives. While they entertained and cherished toward all the spirit of forbearance and friendship, they only loved their own people. Of the border tribes it is believed that none were more honest, upright, and truthful, and there were none more correct in their deportment and bearing toward their neighbors.
Names with the Indians are not usually arbitrary and meaningless, as with us; they are intended to be characteristic, being suggested by some incident, some family trait, or some fancied peculiarity of a child.
The name, if intended to be characteristic of the family, becomes patronymic, but if of the child only it is limited to the single person to whom it is given. A single illustration will serve to show what we mean. One of our local preachers was called Achuk-mabbee, which is a compound word, and literally translated signifies “kill it good,” but more liberally rendered it is “good hunter.” This was a patronymic, and, no doubt, derived from some successful feats in slaughtering the buffalo, the bear, the deer, or valor and prowess in war.
It was a prevailing practice with most of the tribes to bestow upon visitors significant names or appellations. This custom was most prevalent with the Cherokees, who seldom failed to confer a title upon white ministers who should chance to impress them favorably or otherwise. When the Rev. E. R. Ames, the Corresponding Secretary of the Missionary Society, passed through their nation, preaching after his usual loud, earnest, and eloquent style, he was known as “Big Thunder.” That name they will never forget; if the Bishop should now, after an absence of almost twenty years, visit that tribe, his old friends will hail him still as “Big Thunder;” for with them that is his appropriate name. I knew another minister, who impressed them very differently, and they conferred upon him the sobri quet of ” Gar-fish;” it was significant and appropriate.
The custom of tattooing and painting was not practiced by any of the tribes on the borders, as they believed themselves to be sufficiently comely and interesting without any resort to art to add to their beauty and their charms.
Jewelry and beads were universally worn by the females, but feathers were not worn in the hair, nor rings in the nose, by any of them.. The mothers carried their infarct children upon their backs under their blankets, but not lashed to boards.
Physically the Choctaws were not large and well-developed men, but were inferior to the Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles. They were below the medium height, were straight and neat in person, having small and well-formed hands and feet. Their physiognomy indicated good intellect, their heads being of medium size and well-balanced; their features were smooth and the expression of the face pleasant; in this respect they were second to none whose acquaintance we made. They were rather lean in person, lithe and active, especially the males. I do not remember to have seen one full-blooded Choctaw man who was, by any means, stout and corpulent. The females were larger, in proportion, than. the males; they were less neat and not usually favored with as smooth and regular features. As they advanced in years they became stout and fleshy in person. Both males and females usually dressed after the fashion of the whites on the frontiers, except that hats and bonnets were utterly ignored. We have seen females dressed in rich silks and in good taste, except that the civilized head-dress was wanting; a rich shawl or handkerchief, or a parasol, was used to cover the head; nothing more could be tolerated. They were all equestrians, men, women, and children; each had his pony and saddle, and to ride on horseback was the first lesson ever learned. They rode in a gallop, and usually at the utmost speed of which the pony was capable. Young girls would leap from the ground into the saddle with the greatest facility, and dash off at full speed of the horse in the most reckless manner; but we never knew a man, woman, or child to be thrown from the saddle or to receive any injury in their equestrian performances. Their horses were all of the mustang or native stock, small, well-formed, and hardy creatures; they handled their ponies so much and so carefully that they gained a complete mastery over them, so that it was not difficult to govern them.