The Choctaws of West Tennessee are the only native-speaking American Indian community in Tennessee. In fact, they have retained their language to a greater extent than virtually any other Native American group. The importance of being Choctaw is best expressed when they say, Chata hapia hoke, “We are Choctaw,” a statement which underscores the widely held native view that the loss of language is the loss of identity. While other native languages of Tennessee have been lost, the Choctaw language and culture remain a vibrant part of the state heritage.
In 1830 the Choctaws relinquished the last of their ancestral lands by signing the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The majority of Choctaws, some 19,200, moved to Indian Territory, but about 8,000 remained. The smaller group became sharecroppers and tenant farmers on local cotton farms. A few held title to their own lands, but the majority were farm laborers during the growing season and lived off the land during the winter.
By 1960 some 3,200 Choctaws resided on or near the reservation near Philadelphia, Mississippi. With economic opportunities steadily declining in the Mississippi hill country, the Choctaws maintained a tenacious grip on their former territory.
In 1952 two families from Neshoba County, Mississippi, responded to the labor recruitment efforts of a farmer in Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and moved to the Golddust community. The area was appropriately named, for the Choctaws saw the rich Mississippi alluvial floodplain as the land of opportunity. The population steadily increased from the few families of the 1950s to some 200 individuals by 1960. After 1960 the bottomland sharecropper way of life gave way to more mechanized agriculture. Some Choctaws moved to more financially rewarding factory jobs in Ripley, the county seat, while others returned to the reservation. By the early 1990s, some twenty-six families, representing approximately 150 individuals, remained in the Golddust area.
A Choctaw community in Memphis also developed, and it too numbers about 150 members. The Memphis Choctaws, like their Lauderdale County neighbors, have maintained close contact with Mississippi relatives. Many Memphis Choctaws migrated to Tennessee in response to the 1953 Federal Termination Act, which advocated assimilation and rapid termination of aid and protection for Native Americans.
Today West Tennessee Choctaws maintain a common identity based on shared language, similar customs, and collective cultural heritage. Choctaw migration occurred through kinship networks with strong links to the parent communities in Mississippi. The Choctaws have accepted some cultural values from their non-Native American neighbors, but their traditional ways of life are reinforced by travel to the Mississippi reservation to receive health services from traditional doctors and herbalists. Weddings, funerals, and festivals such as the annual Choctaw Fair help to retain and reaffirm traditional values.
The first generation of Lauderdale County Choctaws worried about the loss of native culture, but crafts such as cane basket and mat weaving and bead weaving, as well as the traditional dances, songs, and stick ball games are taught to younger generations. In their early days at Golddust, the Choctaws built the First Indian Baptist Church, where services are often conducted in the Choctaw language. The church has since moved to Ripley, where it serves as a focal point for the community.
The annual Choctaw festival at Chucalissa Indian Village in Memphis, begun in 1964, helps foster group solidarity. The Chucalissa Choctaw Heritage Festival informs the public about Choctaw culture and serves as a homecoming for West Tennessee Choctaws. Beginning in 1987 Lauderdale County Choctaws initiated a similar festival at Fort Pillow and later moved it to Henning.
In 1991 a United States Department of Education grant, Project Smoke Signal, began to correct the steady erosion of self-esteem experienced by Choctaw children attending public school. Through after-school programs which emphasized traditional beliefs, crafts, and culture, along with a strenuous study program, the drop-out rate among Choctaw youths has decreased significantly.
The West Tennessee Choctaws continued to benefit from their association with the federally recognized tribal government in Mississippi. In 1992, through the efforts of Choctaw community leaders in Lauderdale County and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the federal government purchased 172 acres near Henning for government housing. Seventeen families now live in this Choctaw community. The Lauderdale County community of Choctaws is also the only local Tennessee population governed by a body of elected leaders. The American Indian Affairs of Tennessee, organized in 1986, ensures the continuation of traditions and the Choctaw way of life. The ability to adapt to a changing world assures the Choctaws a place in Tennessee’s future.