It was, I suppose, in second or third grade that I was first required to commit to memory and to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, and the names of the Five Civilized Tribes. Only later did it occur to me that not every young scholar in the United States was so well versed in exactly which five tribes were deemed “civilized” as were my classmates and I at Andrew Johnson Elementary in suburban Oklahoma City. I assumed that fresh young people all across America pledged and prayed and chanted “Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole” just as proudly and as loudly as did I.
I am very light-skinned—over the past couple of decades I have spent a good deal of time and money having skin cancer and pre-cancerous lesions removed, mostly from my face. My hair color has transitioned from orange (when I was born, I’m told), to white-blond (as a kid reciting things in elementary school), to reddish-brown (high school and Marine Corps), to raccoon-like multi-colored, to gray. (I do not mind that my hair is gray. A former Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation [last I heard, he was in the penitentiary] told me once that I shouldn’t mind what my hair turned, just as long as it didn’t turn loose.) My eyes are blue. The only observable physical characteristics I have that might be attributable to Indian blood are my cheek-bones and the fact that I have very little in the way of an ass.
Folks who get all quivery and enthusiastic about Indian stuff sometimes get choked up when they first see my white hair, blue eyes and cancer-riddled pale face. I am used to it and have come to expect it. Usually, it is from equally fair-skinned, blue-eyed folks. And, yes, occasionally it is from Indians.
To see a photograph of my mother as a young girl you would not likely question her Indian-ness. The same applies with increasing certainty to my grandmother, to her father, to his father (the latter I understand to have sported braids and, when astride a horse and under the influence of strong drink which was not unusual, would frighten women and children—and while that story may not be entirely accurate, I hope that it is), and, I trust, on back to a Choctaw woman named Otemansha, peace be upon her.
My late grandmother Ruth Adella Foster is listed Number 15,137 as of March 26, 1904, on the Dawes Commission Rolls as an “Original Enrollee” of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. As are her father and her two older brothers—her mother is enrolled as an “I.W.” or “Intermarried White.” My grandmother had a younger brother who was born after the Rolls had closed and so, to his eternal dismay, was not considered an Original Enrollee. E.A. Foster, Jr., was his name—we knew him as “Uncle Manny”—and he researched exhaustively the Foster family lineage, to wit:
My four-greats grandmother was referred to generally in documents I possess as, “the Choctaw woman, wife of William Foster” in Mississippi. In a couple of documents of court proceedings, she is called “O-Te-Man-Sha,” which I presume was a phonetic attempt to spell her Choctaw language name.
Otemansha was of the “Sixtown” Tribe or Clan of Choctaw Indians. Oklahoma Historian Angie Debo says that “Sixtown Indians, Okla Hannali, spoke a distinctive dialect, tattooed blue marks around their mouths, and were shorter and heavier in build than the other Choctaws.” (Debo, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, 1934, p.20) (I have to smile at Professor Debo’s description—while I’ve not yet tattooed blue marks around my mouth, I do find myself tending toward being heavier the older I get.)
When Andrew Jackson determined that the Southeastern Tribes should be removed from their homelands to what is now Oklahoma, so as to better facilitate the white folks who wanted more land, it was the Choctaw Tribe that was chosen to be the first to go on what they called The Long Sad Walk. Those upstart Cherokees with their Trail of Tears came later. I understand that the Choctaws were chosen to be the first removed because they were deemed least likely to protest—they had already begun to assimilate and there were farmers and store-keepers and teachers among them.
There were, to be sure, different levels of assimilation. I remember one of my uncles telling about how our Choctaw ancestor, Otemansha, had held an important position in the Sixtown Clan back in Mississippi—that she had been a “Bone Picker.” At the time I didn’t know what a Bone Picker was and I don’t recall that my uncle told me. Had he done so, I feel certain that as a young boy I would have remembered so gruesome were the duties of that high office in Choctaw culture. If Otemansha were a “Bone Picker,” she was, indeed, an honored person and would have performed important duties in the funerary practices of her community at the time. She would likely have had distinctive tattoos that identified her position and her thumb and index fingernails would have been long and thick. For when a Choctaw Indian died, he or she was wrapped securely in robes and placed upon a wooden scaffold near the house and left to rot for a number of months. When the appropriate time had passed the “Bone Picker” came and removed what flesh remained on the deceased’s bones by using his or her fingernails. The bones were then placed in boxes and stored in a “Bone House” until such time as there were enough bones from the community to bury in a mound. To be sure, I have no real evidence that I am descended from “Bone Pickers”—only a story told by a long deceased uncle. But I hope the story was true. I like thinking of this woman without whom I would/could never have been born—I like thinking about her place in her community.