The Mowa Band of Choctaw Indians
The Choctaw Indians of Alabama are a band of Indians that managed to remain behind in the outer regions of north Mobile and south Washington counties after their tribal lands were given up to the United States in 1830. Beginning in 1830, the most significant period of their removal from their homelands, the majority of the Choctaw tribe was forced along the Trail of Tears settling on reservation lands in Mississippi and Oklahoma.
A small group of about 45 families avoided removal by settling and hiding out in the woods surrounding the small communities of Citronelle, Mt. Vernon, and McIntosh. “There were four major families: the Reed, Weaver, Byrd, and Rivers families. The next largest are the Snow, Johnston, Taylor, Orso, Chestang, and Fields families. Other family names that appear often within the group are Evans, Davis, Cole, Frazier, Smith, Lofton, Hopkins, and Sullivan” (Matte, Greenbaum and Brown, Origins of the MOWA Band of Choctaws).
Over time, other Indians in the area that were without tribal communities of their own joined the Choctaw Indians of Alabama. Today, the Choctaw Indians of Alabama are known as the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians. This tribe took on the name of MOWA in the 1970’s when they began to seek government recognition to identify the Indians in Mobile and Washington Counties who are descended from several Indian Tribes: Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Mescalero, and Apache. Over time the tribal members have intermarried or partnered with nearly 30 different tribes nationally.
The name MOWA is an acronym which combines the first syllables of Mobile and Washington counties; the two counties where the tribal reservation straddles both counties. The name “MOWA” does have a distinctive ring to it; but the name does not have deep roots in Indian linguistics. It was taken on because it was similar to tribal names adopted by other groups who have sought federal recognition. It was also adopted to distinguish them from the Mississippi Band of Choctaws. The MOWAs was the first tribe in Alabama to become incorporated and state recognized.
Very little is known of the MOWA Choctaw Indians between the 1830’s and 1890’s because they kept very few written records. Most of their history was passed down by mouth from generation to generation. Their efforts to avoid removal, persecution, and to retain their way of life by hiding in the swamps and piney woods of Mobile and Washington counties; an area that contained enough game to provide their food supply and a good water source that was used for farming was unsuccessful after the white man more than likely used deceptive schemes and underhanded tactics to take ownership of the land that the Choctaws inhabited.
The MOWAs lived in poverty and isolation until the 1940’s, struggling to remain alive. Outside of their community there was very little work they were allowed to do. The MOWAs were uneducated so they had to perform work that could be done using their hands. The men hunted and sold game and deerskins and prided themselves on being great negotiators. During the Great Depression in the 1920’s, logging became the primary occupation for many Indians. They begin to log and cut ties for railroads but their major occupation became cutting pulpwood.
The women often sold firewood and some of their local wares such as baskets; but the primary responsibility of the women was the farming. An inter-communal system of farming was established where each family raised crops that was typical of the area such as squash, beans, and corn. These crops was raised on communal land and shared among all of the families in the tribe. Many of the women still employ the “three sisters” method of gardening with beans, squash, and maize.
The Choctaw are a traditionally matrilineal society, which means they trace their kinship through females rather than males, some still take their mother’s last name. White and black children attended local but separate public schools. The local whites did not want their children attending school with the Indians so they attended a separate mission schools which were not accredited. After completing the 8th grade, the Indian students had to be sent hundreds of miles away from home to attend boarding schools that were run by various missions and the federal government in order to receive an accredited high chool diploma.
Tribal members have attended federal and mission Indian boarding schools such as (Haskell Institute (Lawrence, KS), Bacone Indian College (Muskogee, Oklahoma), and Acadia Baptist (Eunice, Louisiana) for five generations” (J. A. Matte, They Say the Wind is Red The Alabama Choctaw-Lost In Their Own Land). Some of the first college graduates selected teaching as a career and returned in the late 1950’s to help educate more of their own people. The MOWAs have maintained a continuously functioning tribal school for over 175 years.
The school bell was used as a means of communicating major events within the community; through a code of rings, the community was made aware of births, deaths, and emergencies” (Ray). The old school bell has been placed in the cemetery of Reed Chapel Church near the Reed Chapel Indian School which is a part of the Washington County Public School System in McIntosh, AL. The first public Indian school in Mobile County was built in 1835 and named the Weaver School but was later renamed Calcedeaver. “Calcedeaver comes from the names of three consolidated schools.
When the Mobile County Public School System took over the operation of the missionary schools of Calvert, Cedar Creek and Weaver, they combined them and tool the Cal from Calvert, Ced from Cedar Creek and eaver from Weaver to form one elementary school, Calcedeaver (McKnight). ” Today, Calcedeaver Elementary School sits on the edge of the MOWA reservation in Mt. Vernon, AL and features a Choctaw language and culture program funded through Title VII Indian Education Program. Nicole Williams, a native MOWA, serves as the Native American Interpreter and oversees the program.
In an interview with Mrs. Williams, she said “the grant is meant to keep Native American cultures alive. And it is her job, as she sees it, to instill in our children the cultural aspects of their heritage coinciding with academics, so that their education is academic-based with culture intertwined in it (Williams). ” The children not only learn the basics of the Choctaw language, but they also learn traditional circle dances and compete in pow-wows, and the school has a Choctaw culture exhibit with twelve traditional Indian houses.
Choctaw songs are sung, greetings in the language are recited over the PA system and elaborate Choctaw regalia are constructed for the dance teams. The tribe has improved its quality of education with Calcedeaver’s language and culture program connecting them to their heritage and keeping the language alive for future generations. Some of the old traditions are still alive and well in everyday life. Many of the women in the community still craft traditional handmade dresses and shirts.
Choctaw heritage centers on keeping the many rich traditions of Choctaw culture alive. The most important of these traditions to the MOWAs is the continued use of their native tongue. The Choctaw language has been preserved over the centuries, and today is a central part of their heritage. Modern Choctaw women continue to make clothing, baskets, and cook food that has been part of their Choctaw heritage for centuries. The MOWAs still wear traditional dresses and shirts for ceremonial occasions, creating another tie between themselves and their ancestors.
For centuries, Choctaw baskets have been made out of swamp cane and today many MOWA women still practice these techniques and teach them to the younger generations. Hominy and banaha, a mixture of peas and cornmeal, are two of the many traditional Choctaw foods still cooked and eaten by the present day MOWAs from recipes that have traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter. Another tie to Choctaw heritage is the traditional dances performed to chants that are usually part of various social events in the MOWA communities. MOWAs continue to play the traditional game of stick ball.
The game of stick ball, an often deadly sport was used to settle disputes between tribes. The MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians holds true to many of the traditional Choctaw values. One of the core Choctaw Indian values is their generosity. Respect and care of the elderly and deceased have also been a primary Choctaw Indian value for centuries. Elderly members are cared for by their children and viewed as wise, esteemed members of the tribe. The extensive funeral rituals in the Choctaw culture also point to the tribe’s respect for the deceased.
Weeks of mourning and the recitations of all the good deeds committed by the deceased in the traditional funeral cry are just two of the ways that they show their reverence for their dead. Almost all of the Choctaw Indian values can be attributed to the pride they have for their Choctaw identity and the loyalty they show to one another. Through difficult times, racism the discrimination, the wrath of the deep south’s Jim Crowism upon the Indians, and other setbacks, the MOWAs have aggressively defended their cultural heritage and is described by Mr.
Bud Shepard, one of the authors of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (B. I. A. ), who visited the tribe for a pre-study of the group, stated that he has never seen “a more closely knit group of Indians, a people who have stayed together and preserved their history and culture while enduring great hardship” (Testimony of Bud Shepard). One of the most important things about culture is kinship and that’s the most important thing to the MOWA. They have a long history of a few families that have lived together, worked together, know each other.
June 1979, the MOWA received recognition as an Indian tribe by the state of Alabama but federal recognition to this day remains beyond their reach because of the stringent guidelines set out by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To celebrate achieving this milestone, the MOWAs revived another traditional custom, the pow-wow. Each year, they host an inter-tribal pow-wow occurs on the second weekend of October on the Tribal reservation lands. This event includes an annual cultural festival which includes chanting, traditional social dancing, stickball games, and a Choctaw princess contest.
The pow-wow is a time of celebration, a time for dancing, eating, seeing old friends and making new ones, and learning Indian traditions. Former Chief Framon Weaver describes the event as “a homecoming for the MOWA Indians that have moved and settled in other parts of the world and it provides a chance to invite the general public to come out and share our culture and traditions” (G. Ray). The last five hundred years of exploitation and discrimination, up to and including their ongoing struggle for federal recognition, have left a deep impact on the MOWA.
The tribe remains determined, confident, and ultimately proud of their identity. MOWA pride is evident in the passionate testimony given by the late Leon Taylor, a revered elder o the tribe, to Congress in 1985, “today, I am Choctaw. My mother was Choctaw. My grandfather was Choctaw. Tomorrow, I will still be Choctaw” (Burgess). The MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians firmly believe federal recognition is not the cornerstone of Indian identity but rather it is the culture, language, tribal lands, physicality, historical governmental relationships, Indian schools and related social factors that determines who they are.
Today, there are approximately 6000 members of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians with over 3,500 living on the reservation or 10 of the small communities surrounding it. The MOWA Choctaws have reclaimed over 300 acres of reservation land which includes the old sacred “Indian” stomping ground and is the site of a rapidly growing center. The late nationally known Indian author and leader Vine Deloria Jr. described the MOWA Choctaws as “without question a continuous and identifiable Indian community deserving of federal recognition. The MOWA people have continued to endure and progress even in the face of adversity and rejection.
We have a federal Indian housing program, tribal court, tribal police force, Indian health clinic, athletic center, tribal government complex, two production factories, athletic fields, cultural museum, outstanding local schools, reservation lands, a flourishing language program and a rich cultural legacy of our people well intact” (Finch). The MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians has fought a long and hard battle to regain their identity. Their leaders have been credited with strong leadership and dedication and commitment has made the fight a worthwhile effort. The MOWAs are proud of their heritage as Native Americans.