Bishinik Nov. 1987

Sharing Choctaw History

Many thanks to Choctaw historian Charlie Jones for sharing the information in the following article.

The ceremony of being given a war name was a very formal one. The warrior who must have performed some conspicuously heroic feat in battle was summoned before the chiefs and leading warriors. The old conjurers, after pronouncing some unintelligible sentences, accompanied by bodily and facial contortions of weird and supposedly unearthly significance, would roll out of a bag made for that purpose, a polished stone or agate.

The color or shape of the agate, together with the attending circumstances of his feat, were supposed to suggest the appropriate name by which the warrior was thereafter to be known. This, in other words, was the ceremony by which the warrior, as we express it, was decorated, but in addition to receiving this distinguished service cross he was given a name in lieu of the ribbon which the white people give their soldiers, to indicate to all observers that he had been so decorated.

Pushmataha declined this honor until an expedition in which the Choctaws engaged against the Osages in the Red River country. There were three divisions, and Pushmataha was placed in supreme command. The results of this campaign were signal and lasting. So thoroughly were the Osages beaten and so frightful were their losses that they never again crossed the great river to invade or poach upon the Choctaw hunting grounds in the coveted cane brakes and teeming forests of the Yazoo Delta. They brought back some 700 scalps, including the white plumed headdress of the Osage chief, which Pushmataha had taken with his own scalping knife. The joy of the Choctaws was boundless and complete and the fame of the great warrior now filled the earth.

Apparently, the Choctaw warrior felt that he had proven his valor, for he notified the old men that he was ready to receive his war name. As related a moment ago, the conjurers had tossed numerous stones from their medal bag in the attempts to decorate this modest warrior and their supply of agates was now exhausted. The Chief among them thereupon said, "I will now confer upon the greatest name ever given a warrior; I will call you "Apushimataha," meaning "No more in the bag!"

It is very generally stated by those who have written about him that nobody ever knew who his parents were, and Pushmataha would never publicly reveal or, admit his parentage when speaking to white men. "Pushmataha," he declared, "had no ancestors. The sun was his father; the moon was his mother. A mighty storm swept the earth; midst the roar of thunder, the lightning split a mighty oak and Pushmataha stepped forth a full fledged warrior."

Pushmataha was close observer of the ways of the white man. He noted the white man's treatment of women and attempted by his example to encourage the Indians to copy it. While at St. Stevens, serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army, he noticed that the other officers every afternoon would stroll with their wives along the heights overlooking the Tombigbee, the lady leaning upon her husband's arm. He immediately dispatched a courier to his home to fetch his wife, and thereafter every afternoon arrayed in his regimentals, the big chief could be seen walking with due pomp and ceremony along the accustomed haunts, his lady clinging to his proffered arm.

During his stay there an enlisted man of Gen. Claiborne's forces insulted Pushmataha's wife. Pushmataha forthwith sought out the offender and without further ado dealt him a stunning blow with his sword. Gen. Claiborne sent for him and demanded an explanation. "He insulted my wife," explained the chief, "but being only a common soldier I struck him with the flat of my sword. Had you insulted her, General, I would have used the sharp edge." The General explained, "An officer should never strike a common soldier. The proper course in such circumstances is to bring him before competent military authority to be disciplined." "The proper course," replied Pushmataha, "and the only safe one is not to insult my wife."

When the war of 1812 was impending and the British authorities were doing all in their power to stir up antagonism between the Indians and the Americans, the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, was sent on a tour by British agents to organize all Indians west of the Alleghenies with the purpose to expel the white American beyond the mountains. One of the first tribes he visited was the Choctaw. After his mission had been explained to Pushmataha, the old chief advised Tecumseh that he was only one of three chiefs of the Choctaw Nation; that the Choctaws could only take part in any war upon the decision of the general council of the tribe; and that before this was done they would probably desire to consult their kindred tribe and ally, the Chickasaws.

The Shawnee chief was thoroughly familiar with past relations between all Indian tribes and the whites, and he began by recounting all the wrongs perpetrated on the Indians by the palefaces since the landing of Columbus. He related how the white man had beguiled the Indians along the Atlantic coast to part with their lands for a few trifling beads and a little fire water, leaving them beggars, vagabonds, peons, and strangers in their own land, to be scorned and despised by their paleface neighbors. He laid down the principle that the Great Spirit had given the Western Hemisphere to all red people in common and that no particular tribe had anything more than the right of possession to any lands, and therefore asserted any relinquishment of title by one tribe to be null and void, because many of the owners had not joined in the transfer. The wrongs discussed he declared had been made possible by the ingenuity of the whites in attacking only one tribe at a time, but if all Indians would join and combine their forces in one attack at one time, the white man could be driven back over the mountains whence he came; that the golden opportunity was now at hand to join hands with the British and scourge from their revered hunting grounds eternally the hated paleface. He closed his eloquent address with a stirring appeal to the patriotism of the Choctaws and Chickasaws, asking if they would await complete submission or would they now join hands and fight beside the Shawnees and other tribes rather than submit?

Pushmataha responded to Tecumseh's oration with a reminder of the good points of a friendly relationship with the whites. "If Tecumseh's words be true, and we doubt them not, then the Shawnees' experience with the whites has not been the same as that of the Choctaws. These white Americans buy our skins, our corn, our cotton, our surplus game, our baskets, and other wares, and they give us fair exchange their cloth, their guns, their tools, implements, and other things which the Choctaws need but do not make. It is true we have befriended them, but who will deny that these acts of friendship have been abundantly reciprocated? They have given us cotton gins, which simplify the spinning and sale of our cotton; they have encouraged and helped us in the production of our crops; they have taken many of our wives into their homes to teach them useful things, and pay them for their work while learning. You all remember well the dreadful epidemic visited upon us last winter. During its darkest hours these neighbors whom we are now urged to attack responded generously to our needs. They doctored our sick; they clothed our suffering; they fed our hungry; and where is the Choctaw or Chickasaw delegation who has ever gone to St. Stevens with a worthy cause and been sent away empty handed? So in marked contrast with the experience of the Shawnees, it will be seen that the whites and Indians in this section are living on friendly and mutually beneficial terms."

The Choctaws and Chickasaws were persuaded to refuse participation in Tecumseh's conspiracy against the Americans and the action of these two powerful tribes prevented many other Indians from siding with the British. The Choctaws and Chickasaws finally joined hands with the Americans and fought from the early battles of the war to the Battle of New Orleans, and Pushmataha arose to the rank of brigadier general in the American Army.

Pushmataha died in Washington, D.C. December 24,1824 at the age of 60. Nearly 100 years later. a memorial ceremony was held to commemorate the life, character and services of Pushmataha, the only Indian Chief buried in The Congressional Cemetery in Washington.

From "Memorial Exercises at the Grave of Pushmataha."

 


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