How do you preserve history, culture, and values for generations when there is no written language? Through story. Storytelling is an old tradition for Choctaws as it is with many cultures throughout the world. Our ancestors knew the lives they lived and the lessons they learned were important enough to pass on. They did this by telling stories regularly to their children and grandchildren, who in turn matured and passed those stories, as well as their own, to the next generation. But a time came when these stories began to be forgotten. In boarding school, children were forbidden to tell them in their native language. They became the elders, and concealed the stories of their lives. It became a shameful thing to be Choctaw, and stories of life’s lessons were deemed foolish things for the civilized.
However, in the midst of this loss, Choctaws still carried a little tradition, a little language, a little story into the next decade and the next. It flourished and grew to the third largest tribe in the United States. And our stories are still here.
As Choctaw tribal members, my mama, Lynda Kay Sawyer, and I researched and wrote a novella based on a manuscript written around the turn-of-the-century. The writer, a Choctaw named James Culberson, captured the story his father had told him of his experiences on the Trail of Tears. Their family’s removal story wafted between faith and tragedy, hope and despair. In the end, his father had chosen hope in the God his own father had trusted in. On January 28 2016, the day Tushpa died in 1884, we released Tushpa's Story (Touch My Tears: Tales from the Trail of Tears collection)
How many stories have been lost, stories of everyday lives that we could learn from? Countless. But there are those Choctaw writers who are preserving the history. And our work goes far beyond preservation. It taps into the idea of sharing our stories with the world so they may learn the lessons God has taught us in life.
For my project with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, my mama produced a video to capture the project from beginning to end. During the interview process one of our culture experts, Olin Williams, said, “We need to get our stories down so we can tell others who we are.”
This brings to mind a Scripture verse, an admonition to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us. Always be ready to tell our story of what Jesus Christ has done in our lives: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony...” (Revelation 12:11 NKJV, emphasis mine)
One issue with writing a traditional Choctaw story is that by the time it's translated into English and then onto paper, much is lost of its original flavor. But still, we tell the stories. In our native language, in English, in writing. We tell of the Trail of Tears, the prejudices, the injustices. But we also tell of the faith. Of those who walked the trail, believing God would honor their sacrifices and effort to be a loving, peaceful people so that their children’s children would love and live in peace and service to the Creator of all.
Today, some Choctaws are Christians. Some are not. But in retracing the history, and where it has brought our tribe today, it’s clear where the hearts of many leaders can be found. Our very language was preserved through the church, the only public place it could be spoken without ridicule or punishment. A place where they could tell their stories, and the new stories they were living in Christ.
Storytelling finds its way into all Choctaw events, from the powwows and ceremonies, to family gatherings and the annual Labor Day festival. But today, it’s not enough to tell the stories we are living. Write them down. Write what God is teaching you through whatever crisis you are experiencing. We need to read it. Generations two hundred years from now need to read it. Overcome through telling your story.
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