Sophia She-Na-Ka Folsom was born in the Choctaw land of Mississippi in 1773. One-fourth Choctaw, she was an active member of the tribe and watched as the Choctaws signed multiple treaties between 1801 and 1830 with the United States government, giving away over 21 million acres and eventually agreeing to migrate North and East into what would become Indian Territory. Of the 19,000 Choctaws living in Mississippi, 13,000 made the move West over the next two years (choctaw.org).
Sophia was a part of the beginning of the Trail of Tears and is my sixth great-grandmother.
We originally moved back to Oklahoma when I was almost five. Grandma—Dad’s mom—was in her final days with colon cancer, and Dad wanted to get as much time with her as possible.
We lived in a duplex with an empty side lot for a year while our permanent home was being built a few miles away. I walked the land next to the duplex and the lot of our future home looking for arrowheads buried in the dirt. The first inch or two would be easy to dig in with my fingers, but I would soon hit a layer of red clay and would have to stop. All of Oklahoma is covered in it, making it cost a lot of money to dig in-ground pools or, more importantly for Tornado Alley residents (which all Oklahomans are), basements.
But still, I would scour the ground for anything once touched by foreign hands.
We came from Indians, I was told. Choctaws, to be exact.
Like the people who lived in teepees and wore feathers for hats?
I didn’t know much about them other than the peace pipe in Peter Pan and the Washington Redskins and how Grandad—Mom’s dad—the Indian one—refused to call them that.
He had a wall in his house with a painting of Indians riding horseback lined with framed arrowheads and tomahawks found by his grandfather, my great-grandfather, in his fields down south of Davis. Mom said Great-Grandad would just walk those fields and find them lying in the dirt, small arrows pointing in random directions.
He found enough to fill a wall, so I figured I’d be able to find at least one in the dirt by my house.
I never did, they must have been buried by time and red clay.
Rhoda Pashhuma Folsom Pitchlynn (1814-1911), my fifth-great grandmother on my mother’s father’s side and the daughter of Sophia She-Na-Ka Folsom, lived to be ninety-seven and was one-eighth Choctaw. At the age of eighty-six, at the government’s forced census, Pitchlynn was officially enrolled as a Choctaw tribal member.
“The defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common…. There is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors…. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.”
-On the Importance of Privatizing and Allotting Choctaw Land, Sen. Henry Dawes, 1885 (The Choctaws in Oklahoma, 137)
I didn’t become an official member of the Choctaw tribe until my senior year of high school. I figured I wasn’t Native American enough to be official. Seemingly everyone in Oklahoma was Native American somehow: someone somewhere once married someone with a little bit of Native American blood.
I knew it was Grandad’s family—Mom’s Dad—who had the blood. And by the end of high school, Grandad was on one of the fancy boards for the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian. This stuff meant a lot to him, but I was only really focused on the scholarships I could receive for college…
…which, in hindsight, I feel terrible about. Just as early settlers in Oklahoma heard stories of oil strikes, I heard stories of friends of friends discovering Native blood and getting full-ride scholarships to college. Suddenly—despite the blond hair and blue eyes—they were receiving money both from schools and from their tribe to attend college.
I am a very small percentage Choctaw, and the only reason I was able to become a member of the tribe was because each member of each previous generation had been one. If there had been a broken link, if mom or my grandad or his dad hadn’t enrolled, I wouldn’t have qualified for membership. But still, I qualified and was sent a roll card in the mail.
United States Department of the Interior; Bureau of Indian Affairs; Talihina Agency; Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood
Rhoda’s granddaughter, my great-great-great grandmother, Margaret Russell, was born in Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory in 1853. She was one-sixteenth Choctaw and married a man without any Choctaw blood in 1876.
As a part of the Dawes Act, which split up communal land into allotments and gave way to white settlers in Oklahoma, Russell was given eighty acres out by Davis, Oklahoma. Those eighty acres would become my great-grandfather Truman’s land—the same land he would walk on and find arrowheads.
“The Choctaws viewed allotment as a threat…. For one thing, it contradicted the deeply held cultural value of communal land-holding. Although Choctaws had strongly developed notions of personal property and individual use of the communal lands, these were rights of occupancy and use rather than the right to buy or sell.”
-The Choctaws in Oklahoma, 139.
Margaret Russel’s original deed to the eighty acres given to her, the eighty acres my great-grandad would walk, was hanging in my living room the entire time I applied for college. I never took the time to actually read it.
I pursued my Choctaw heritage out of an individual pursuit of resources. I didn’t know it, but I was the perfect outcome of Dawe’s vision, an allotment of individual desire.
I do not relate with my Choctaw side.