Hope on the horizon for Choctaw Nation
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.
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