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Texas, Louisiana Choctaws learn about history, culture

By Bradley Gernand

Ireland's Consul General was a surprise visitor-and special guest-during a community meeting hosted April 5 in Austin, Texas, by Chief Gary Batton and Assistant Chief Jack Austin Jr. The meeting, convened to allow Choctaw residents of the Austin area to engage with tribal leadership and learn more about our history and customs. It also allowed the Choctaw Nation to reaffirm its special relationship with Ireland.

Adrian Farrell, Ireland's Consul General to the American Southwest, and Vice Consul Paul Green greeted Chief Batton and Assistant Chief Austin warmly. They recalled with pleasure the visit by Ireland's prime minister, or Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to the Choctaw Nation's headquarters in 2018. It was, Farrell said, a moment of significance for both peoples.

In Ireland, as in the Choctaw Nation, efforts are underway to preserve and expand the use of the indigenous, or original, language. The Irish, who like the Choctaws generally use English as their working language, have made great strides in recent years to teach their native language, a Gaelic tongue which came close to being displaced by English during Britain's administration.

Approximately 160 Choctaws from the Central Texas area attended the community meeting. At least two attendees drove from McAlester and Antlers, taking the opportunity to visit a local friend. For a number of them the meeting was their first interaction with the Choctaw Nation, and also the first opportunity to learn about Choctaw culture, language and history.

Justin Myres of San Antonio, Texas, took half a day off work to drive his family to Austin. "I wanted the kids to learn about their heritage," he explained. "This is their first time to ever be around it." Parts of the meeting were devoted to Choctaw language instruction, dancing, and a presentation by Chief Batton on the current activities of the Choctaw Nation. The evening provided Myres and his family a crash course in faith, family and culture… and also the means for learning more about these important aspects of the Chahta way.

Another attendee, Ellen LeBlanc, has been taking Choctaw language classes for four years. "It's a challenging course but Miss Lillie is such a great teacher," she said, referring to Lillie Roberts, who led the group in an interactive lesson on the Choctaw language. "The more you practice, the easier it is," LeBlanc said.

During the Austin meeting Chief Batton and Assistant Chief Austin spent some time getting to know Wayne Lane, who appreciated being able to reconnect with his heritage. Lane left Durant after graduating from high school there to serve in the armed forces in Vietnam. He is looking forward to returning to Durant for his 50th high school reunion, and to reconnecting with his heritage.

A community meeting hosted by the Chief and Assistant Chief two days later in Bossier City, Louisiana, attracted a large number of Choctaws living in the area. Over 90 braved torrential downpours and flooding streets to be present. One attendee, 80-year-old Tom Colvin of Washington Parish, Louisiana, drove several hours from his home to share with the group a variety of baskets he weaved using traditional Choctaw methods.

Colvin began learning the ways of the river people, or Chahta, at an early age. An old Choctaw woman, Matilda Johnson, who lived nearby, showed him the key to making baskets: river cane. Specifically, the right river cane. "River cane isn't all the same," he says. "Some works well and some does not. The first step is to pick what you want to work with."

Colvin points out that where you live dictates what you use. In his area the Choctaws used a mix of palmetto and river cane. "Each is different but I like them both," Colvin said. Choctaw Nation Cultural Services employee Ross Green has watched Colvin work, and is impressed by the speed at which he selects and prepares the cane for weaving. "Over six, under three, over six, under three," Green's eyes followed the technique used by Colvin in one of his double-woven baskets. "Tom's baskets are always expertly made."

Age is no deterrent-Colvin joined the larger group in traditional Choctaw dancing, and enjoyed the experience. "I'm so pleased I was able to be here," he said, gesturing at the Bossier City-area Choctaws interacting with the Choctaw artists, dancers, and leadership. He is already looking forward to the next such community meeting held in the area.

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