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Dancing to reconnect

Choctaw history

    Though the impact of a simple decision, a simple act, can create waves of results throughout the years, often times many don't know how or where it originated. The act in this case is dance. Could the simple act of dancing jumpstart a revival of a culture? In the opinions of many Choctaws, the answer is yes.

   The legacy of the Rev. Gene Wilson and his wife, Alicia, and their efforts to reconnect Oklahoma Choctaws with their roots is a story that needs to be told, and it is hard to do it justice in a simple article. 

   For many, the loss of their cultural roots is a thought that never crosses their mind, but that is exactly what happened to many of the Choctaw people following the move from Mississippi to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. The effects of this move caused a wave of GeneAlicialong-lasting undoing beyond the removal of an entire people. In their new homeland they were forced to abandon their language, art, sports and most aspects of their cultural identity, and integrate into the white culture of the time. Included in this forced forsaking was the Choctaw dance.

Right:  The Rev. Gene and Alicia Wilson show off a hand-beaded belt and drum, both of which were used by the Okla Humma Chahta Hiltha, a Choctaw child dance group they started in the early 1970s.

   "They were made to believe that acting Choctaw, being Choctaw, was shameful," said the Rev. Gene Wilson, originally of Eagletown and currently living in Indiahoma. "This belief became engrained in them and was passed down year after year, from generation to generation."

 Over a period of about 140 years, most identifiers of the culture were either lost or buried deep in Choctaws who lived the traditions within the confines of their homes. But starting in the early 1970s, Gene and his wife, Alicia, worked passionately to do their part in reversing that trend, and they started it all with the children.

 The Wilsons' story begins with him graduating seminary in 1969 after more than six years of college, internships and clinical training. He began working with the Seminole Presbyterian Churches near Seminole and Wewoka where, after receiving his first paycheck, he married his wife, Alicia. Alicia, a member of the Comanche Tribe from the Lawton area, met her future husband in Los Angeles while he was interning at the Indian Center there.

 Later in 1969, he received a "pastoral call" to be on staff at the Choctaw Parish Presbyterian Churches in Idabel and was responsible for youth ministries at 21 congregations.

 "I was happy. This was my home-turf," he said. "I was young and they needed a staff person to fulfill the youth ministry position so I took it on."

 Soon after taking the job, the idea to visit Mississippi, the "homeland" of the Choctaw, was proposed to help reconnect with the past. "Everyone knows that Mississippi is where we came from. Oklahoma wasn't our true home," he said. "But no one really spoke about it back then."

 A group of eight made the trip to Mississippi in 1970, "and that's where it all started," said Alicia. "We had no point-of-contact there, no person we knew before we went."

 During their visit they attended the annual Choctaw Indian Fair in Choctaw, Miss., and were left in awe of what they experienced. It was at the fair that they came up with the idea to bring the children of the churches there to experience the culture for themselves.

 "Something sparked in me while I was there. We'd gone back to our homeland, but I don't think we really realized that's what we were doing. But there we were, closing the gap on all the stories we'd known," explained Gene.

 "Growing up, I don't think a lot of us really knew what it meant to be Choctaw," he said. "We bought into this stereotype about the definition of an Indian. That's what people wanted. Kids at school would tell me 'you can't be a Choctaw Indian' because I didn't wear feathers. A lot of us grew up not knowing who we were," he continued. "I always wanted to know what the Choctaws were like. (On the trip to Mississippi) I was rejuvenated and then when I saw the dances - ah, we can dance! I didn't say that out loud but inside there was an identity that was starting to be affirmed," he said, explaining why he felt the need to bring other Choctaw children there.

 "Based on our experience there, when we came back, a proposal was submitted for a grant and we were funded," explained Alicia, referring to a $2,000 revitalization grant awarded by the central office of the Presbyterian Church in New York City to the Choctaw youth ministry. "That is how the dance group came to be," she stated.

 The group she is referring to is the Okla Humma Chahta Hiltha dance group, a large group of child Choctaw dancers formed by the couple upon their return from Mississippi. The name means "Choctaw dancers from Oklahoma."

 "There was an instant connection I felt with the dancers and I began to relate to it," said Gene, who spearheaded the idea to get money for the group to visit Mississippi. "It didn't take much to learn it - one step, two step, three step - and then when we got back home and showed it to the others, they had the same response. 'Here's my identity!' They didn't just say it but that is what was occurring," he continued ardently.

 "It met a need, a cultural need, and fulfilled a self-identity, and even more, a community-identity. We are one. And we closed a gap, in some sense," he stated.

Along with closing a cultural gap inside them, they also built a cultural bridge within their community, connecting the people by bringing them together with the dance.

 "When we formed this group it was made up of people from the Presbyterian Church but soon it began to pull in people - kids and adults alike - who didn't go to church anywhere and they became a part of us," said Alicia. "In a sense, and I don't think we realized it at the time, but that became part of our ministry. They were learning their culture, learning who they are as Choctaws. That was the real key."

 The Okla Humma Chahta Hiltha dance group made the trips to Mississippi from 1971 until the mid-1980s, with only the first trip being funded by the church. Subsequent trips over the years were funded from money they all raised themselves. The most productive, active years of the group were from 1974-1977.

 As part of the Presbyterian Church, they hoped to establish a contact in Mississippi from another in their church family; however, there were no Presbyterian Churches nearby. In Pearl River though, was a Methodist Church. "We met a group from the Methodist Church and asked if they had a facility that the group could stay in," explained Alicia on the group's accommodations there. "That's where we all stayed. We made a monetary contribution to the church, but I'm sure it didn't even cover the cost of us staying there. Everyone brought their bedrolls and we all just slept on the floor, all in the same building. We cooked and made all of our own meals there too. It was within walking distance to where everything was going on so we were just back and forth.

 "We held group meetings at the church there," she continued, "to see what everyone had learned. We made sure the kids were learning but we also just let them go and experience things for themselves."

 At home, the dance group wasn't met with warm reception at first. Over time, acceptance was earned through the elders in the church.

 "It was a real struggle in the beginning," explained Alicia. "The struggle was because we had the Christian community saying it was unacceptable to dance, saying it's a sin. Gene was even clergy then but it still took a few years before we finally became accepted," she said.

 "We always danced on church property," she continued. "We went to Big Lick Church in Smithville and Oka Achukma Church near Broken Bow primarily. At Big Lick, there was a church elder that joined us and became part of the group. She spoke to her peers in her age group, and then another elder at Oka Ackukma said he would dance as well. With that, it began to open up some avenues for us within the church.

 I'm not sure what the thinking was of the early missionaries who came with the Choctaws to Oklahoma. They said dance was not acceptable. The Choctaws had to leave their dancing, their chants, their stickball," she said, explaining how the act was lost in the first place.

 Several years went by after the start of the dance group before they made their first public performance. "We weren't even aware of the public arena," said Gene. "We were just doing it. We'd get together to practice, to just dance. We'd have 50 people or more, kids and parents, come out. In church, sometimes we had trouble getting just five people together. The dance is what did it," he said.

 In 1973, the group was invited to dance at the Owa Chito Festival at Beavers Bend in Broken Bow, but due to rain the dance was called off. "We were all excited about dancing in public but were disappointed when it didn't happen. But that next year, 1974, we did it!" Gene said enthusiastically.

 Among the dances they learned and performed were the Stealing Partners, the Friendship and the Wedding dances, and the Duck, the Quail, the Turtle, the Snake, and the Raccoon dances, and several others.

 Soon, word of their dances was spreading. Schools in southeastern Oklahoma began asking the group to come and dance for its students. The Wilsons saw this as a prime opportunity to tell the stories they'd learned from listening to storytellers in Mississippi. "We felt like we needed to do more than just dance. This was our chance to educate," said Gene.

 So they developed a structured historical presentation, and along with performing dances for the students, they taught them about who the Choctaw are and how they came to be.

"We did the presentations and integrated storytelling and dance," explained Gene. "We told the origin story of the Choctaw and had the Walk Dance chant in the background. The chant really magnified the sense of the presentation. The chant grabbed the audience," he described before breaking into the poignant chant.

The presentations also included many of the other Choctaw dances and narratives that recounted the meanings.

 The students and teachers found their visits engaging and educational, as evidenced by repeatedly inviting the group back and spreading the word about their visits. The group was frequently invited to new schools. They all wanted to know more. "The schools just started calling - schools from all over - wanting us to come," stated Alicia.

 "A teacher in Idabel even asked if her child could learn the dances," she said. "They wanted to learn how to make the clothing too," because she knew that the group made all their own clothes.

 "That's something important that we did on every trip we made back to Mississippi with the group - every year we went we learned something," said Alicia. "As the group grew larger we continued to raise money to make it back to Mississippi. We just took a bus and the whole group went. We assigned different things for them to learn. Some learned how to make the Choctaw diamond; some learned to make the dresses and shirts; some the bead work and belts; some learned the chants."

 The chanting was especially important for them to learn. Chanting is a vital element of Choctaw dance. It was important to know the chants as each dance is performed with a specific chant. A couple from Smithville, Jerry and Shirley Lowman, were part of the dance group and they made it their mission to learn the chants while they were in Mississippi.

 "Jerry and Shirley built a special relationship with the chanters, Tony Bell and Prentice and Annie Jackson," said Alicia. "They brought those chants back here with them."

 "The Lowmans learned 11 dances and 11 chants," said Gene.

 "The kids learned the chants, too," stated Alicia. "They would sing them while they were dancing and they began to identify which dance went with which chant without having to stop and say 'ok, now we're going to do this dance.' They'd just start a chant and the kids knew what to do."

 While in Mississippi, the chanters invited the group to dance with them the next time they visited. This excited the kids who all got straight to work on their clothing immediately when they got back home.

 "As soon as we got back to Oklahoma they started making their shirts and dresses to prepare for it. The Mississippi Choctaw were adamant that the group be in proper Choctaw dress when performing and the kids wanted to make sure they all were. And on that next trip, our kids danced with the Mississippi Choctaws," Alicia said proudly.

 They averaged about 20-25 kids who danced in the group throughout the '70s until the mid-'80s, though it wasn't always the same gathering of children. "But we did have a core group of kids who were consistent," said Alicia.

 The reverend retired from the church in 2005 but from that core group of kids he brought together decades before, the tradition of dance has carried on. So many of them still take part in festivals, fairs, pow wows, and teach the dances to the next generations of little Choctaw.

 Curtis Billy, who was part of the dance group, continued with the school presentations in Broken Bow with his dance group after a lot of the schools picked up on it themselves. "The JOM (Johnson O'Malley) program took over a lot of it in the public schools," said Alicia, referring to the federal funded program designed to meet the cultural needs of Native American children.

 Also, Carl McKinney, one of the original Choctaw children who joined the group, now has a communal Choctaw dance group in Smithville. The discipline instilled as a child about proper attire and respect for the culture can still be seen in his dance group today. "Carl's kids have to be in full Choctaw regalia or they don't dance. No blue jeans, no sneakers. They do it right or they don't do it," said Alicia.

 One of the first to join the group, according to the couple, was Eugene Taylor, who joined at 8 years old and continues to dance today in individual form. Eugene credits Gene and Alicia for where the Choctaw dance is today.

 "They're where it all started," said Eugene, referring to the dancing in Oklahoma.Eugene also praises Gene with giving him much more than just a love of tribal dance. "He's one of the few people who changed my life. He helped show me what else was out there in the world and taught me honor and respect for my elders and my culture. He did that for all the kids who danced with the group."

 Presley Byington, who joined the dance group when he was around 11 years old, dances today much the same as Eugene. He also says the experiences he had as a part of the dance group made a big impact in his life. "The trips to Mississippi are where my big interest in Choctaw history began," he said. "They gave me more of an idea and interest in my own people."

 Presley also expressed the importance of telling the story of Gene and Alicia because "a lot of Oklahoma Choctaws just assume that it (the dancing) had been here all the time. It's a great thing that they'll know where the cultural rejuvenation came from," he said.

 The result of the Rev. Wilson's efforts can still be seen today almost anywhere that Choctaws gather, their dances so seamless one who didn't know better would never think the dance was lost for so many years. It's there though, connecting the present generation to its roots.

 Because of a simple decision, a simple act, made back in the 1970s by a small town preacher to reconnect a tribe to its roots, the  Choctaw dance carries on.

This article and others came from the Choctaw Nation Biskinik. To see more history please refer to the following sites.
Sounds of Choctaw - Social Greeting
Sounds of Choctaw - Weather
Lesson of the Day