Photo Essay

  • Wilanda Blakely, a member of the Choctaw Nation, in the living room of her home in the small, rural town of Idabel. Idabel is one of many poor communities that dot the Choctaw Nation, a vast area in southeastern Oklahoma that includes nearly 11 counties and 11,000 square miles. Blakely worries that her 13-year-old son, Thomas, will struggle to find his way out of their small town, go to college and make a better life for himself.
  • The lunchtime crowd at Angie’s Circus City Diner in Hugo, where the Choctaw Nation’s outreach services are headquartered. Hugo, also known as “Circus City, USA” is better known as the winter home for many traveling circuses. A cemetery in town serves as the final resting place for a number of circus performers and ringleaders.
  • Customers at a Wal-Mart store in Hugo. Generations ago, Choctaw youth were sent off to boarding schools under a federal government program known as Indian termination and assimilation. Students were barred from speaking their native languages and traditions. Today, many Choctaw identify more with the southern white culture than that of the Choctaw.
  • A young Choctaw woman gathers a group of children in Broken Bow, a town in McCurtain County, one of the poorest counties in the Choctaw Nation. The teen pregnancy rate in Choctaw territory is nearly double the national average.
  • Choctaw Casino in Grant. The Choctaw Nation uses the spoils of a lucrative gaming operation to fund dozens of programs for needy tribal members. The Nation operates 13 casinos within its service area.
  • Stickball players gather after a recent practice in Antlers. Stickball, a traditional Choctaw sport, is a predecessor of modern lacrosse. Outreach workers recently launched a new stickball league to reconnect young Choctaw to their heritage.
  • Stickball players use two sticks, traditionally made of wood and deer hide, to throw a small ball at opposing poles with the goal of striking the pole. The sticks represent the male and female, with one stick longer than the other.
  • A couple parked outside of Angie’s Circus City Diner in Hugo, a small town that serves as one of a few hub towns in the Choctaw Nation. The poverty rate in the Nation ranges between 20% and 50%, much higher than the national average.
  • A group of visitors gather during a Civil War reenactment in the town of Fort Towson. The last of the Confederate land forces surrendered at Fort Towson on June 23, 1865. After the Choctaw were forcibly relocated from their original homelands in modern day Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to Oklahoma via the “Trail of Tears,” the tribe sided with and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The Choctaw were a slave-holding tribe and following the South’s defeat in the war, was forced to free its slaves.
  • A group of Choctaw performs a traditional dance in Tuskahoma. The tribe has made efforts to teach their native language and cultural traditions to a younger generation.
  • Family life is at the center of Choctaw culture. On a recent evening a family gathered at the Goodwater Church in Hugo for a night of worship, singing, games and a large meal. Outside of the church is a cemetery where generations of Choctaw families are buried.
  • Members of the Davidson family at the Goodwater church, were dozens gathered for weekly worship service and game night.
  • Younger members of the Davidson family gather outside of the Goodwater church in Hugo. They are among a generation of Choctaw more likely to be of mixed-race and heritage.
  • Long before the Trail of Tears and later, force assimilation, many Choctaw had adopted Christianity and embraced white culture. Here, a sign proclaiming the name of Jesus glows along a rural road in Idabel.
  • A young woman and her dog outside of the Goodwater Church in Hugo.
  • Melissa Bohanan wrangles a pair of small relatives at her home in Battiest, a poor, mostly-Choctaw town. As many Choctaw parents struggle with poverty and substance abuse, caretaking responsibilities have fallen to grandparents. More than a dozen children and grandchildren live with Bohanan.
  • The remnants of a hard life in a home in Hugo. After the Choctaw settled in the newly formed “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma, the federal government allotted every Indian family on the census roll a parcel of land. Many families still own those allotments as well as traditional burial grounds and original buildings.
  • Much of the Choctaw Nation is rural and isolated. Forlorn stretches of highway and dusty back roads cut deep into the wide expanse of the tribe’s service area. On a recent afternoon in Antlers, a large bird fed off an animal that lay dead along the side of the road.
  • Thomas Blakely standing behind his family’s weather-beaten, clapboard house holding Wicked, a 3-year-old Pug-Shitzu. There’s little to do in his small town. Thomas’s family have done all they can to keep him focused and out of trouble.

The Choctaw Nation in Southeast Oklahoma comprises 10.5 counties and 11,000 Square Miles of land. It is the third largest tribe in the United States and operates 13 casinos. They were forced from their ancestral land in Mississippi under the Indian Removal Act.  The U.S. wanted to expand territory available to European Americans.  They negotiated for land in Southeast Oklahoma and most continue to reside there today.
  • Recent economic growth in the Choctaw Nation, fueled by a boom in tribal gaming operations, have in some towns created a hybrid-culture of old and new. Here, a woman on a horse stops by a Sonic fast food restaurant in Hugo.
  • Caged deer stare from behind a fence in Antlers, one of many farming and ranching towns in the Choctaw Nation.
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Hope on the horizon for Choctaw Nation

Updated

The Choctaw Nation is a sprawling area in southeastern Oklahoma that includes nearly 11 counties and more than 11,000 square miles of vast farm and timber lands, stretching north from the Red River and the Texas border.

FULL STORY: ‘Promise Zones’ offer new hope to struggling Choctaw youth

The Choctaw, the third-largest American Indian tribe in the country, were forced from their original homeland in modern-day Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to Oklahoma in 1831. The tribe’s forced relocation to “Indian Territory” came to be known as the Trail of Tears, in which an estimated 2,500 people died.

More than a century and a half later, heartache remains.

Many of the small communities and towns within the Nation are isolated, rural and poor. Good jobs are sparse, and unemployment rates are high.

The poverty rate in the Choctaw Nation is about 23%, 7% higher than the national average. In some communities the poverty rate swells even higher to around 50%. Many children here live in homes without running water, and the poverty rate for children in many of the poorer counties rises above 35%. The teen pregnancy rate is almost twice the national average, and the STD rate is nearly quadruple.

Earlier this year, President Obama named the Choctaw Nation one of five Promise Zones, a program aimed at poor communities— including San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and southeastern Kentucky—intended to increase access to federal grants and strengthen relationships with federal partners.

News of the program was met with optimism, as tribal leaders would like to leverage Promise Zone designation to help bolster much of the work it had already been doing to help needy Choctaw families.

Each week outreach workers travel to the furthest reaches of the Choctaw Nation to mentor at-risk youth. They meet with new and expectant young mothers to help prepare them for the challenges of parenthood. Families gather with friends and relatives in cramped houses and church kitchens to share traditional foods and stories. Choctaw language classes are being beamed to dozens of public high schools in the region. And there’s even a recently launched stickball league (a traditional Choctaw sport that’s a predecessor of lacrosse) that organizers hope will reconnect Choctaw youth to their heritage.

The tribe is at a critical moment, leaders say. As older generations of Choctaw die, they are taking with them much of the culture and many of the tribe’s traditions with them. Fewer and fewer “full-blood” Choctaws remain, as the younger generations intermarry with other races. Many families have long-since traded Choctaw culture for the more accessible culture of rural southern/Midwestern whites. The trade hasn’t been completely voluntary. For decades in the 1940s through the 1960s, the American government adopted a policy of Indian termination and assimilation, in which it stripped Native tribes of their sovereignty and forced young Indians into boarding schools where they were barred from speaking their native languages or practicing their traditions. Many of those who were sent to boarding schools were routinely abused. The result: whole generations of Choctaw were taught to be ashamed of their Native roots.

So many years later, much of the healing remains unresolved, as a new generation of Choctaw struggle in the muck and mire of poverty and hopelessness.

Photographer Peter van Agtmael photographed the Choctaw Nation while on assignment for MSNBC

 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography.