Tribe turned Removal trauma into new successes

“If you look at our history, you have those times where we’re doing well and those times of challenges” - Gov. Bill Anoatubby

Even in the most favorable of circumstances, the forceful act of being removed can be traumatizing, stressful, severely emotional and even deadly. Family homes, cultures, traditions and a lifetime of memories are often upended. Even the resting places of loved ones are lost if distances are too great.

For the Chickasaw, and four other Southeastern Indian tribes, Removal was forced upon each of their cultures.

“I can’t imagine what my ancestors had to go through when the idea of Removal came to them through the federal agents,” Chickasaw Nation Director of Research and Cultural Interpretation LaDonna Brown said. “I can’t imagine being ripped from my home. From the land that we believed that God had given to us.”

Practically unimaginable in modern society, this scenario played out in the mid-19th century when the people of the Chickasaw Nation were required by the federal government to leave their Homeland. With no citizenship rights within the U.S., they were forced to travel and make a new home more than 600 miles to the west. To the Chickasaws, this event is known as Removal. It has left a lasting impression on the collective psyche of the Chickasaw people.

“We lost a lot of the things we knew,” Ms. Brown said. “Things like medicine plants that were so plentiful. We didn’t know what it was going to be like in Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma). It definitely did not look like the Homeland.”

The Chickasaw, along with the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole - collectively referred to by the federal government as the Five Civilized Tribes - were forced to remove by authority of U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The Chickasaw Nation swiftly negotiated favorable conditions for the departure from their lands. This included the sale of their lands to the federal government. These funds were used to aid Chickasaws during Removal and to help set up homesteads once they reached their destination in the West.

“The Chickasaws negotiated their Removal,” Chickasaw Nation Executive Officer of Cultural Tourism Lona Barrick said. “At the time, they understood this was necessary. They had to do that in order to survive and maintain Chickasaw culture.”

Chickasaws were the last of the five tribes to leave their Homeland. Chickasaw leaders had learned from the other tribes’ trials and tribulations they had encountered enroute. Most Chickasaws were able to leave with their personal belongings, livestock, horses and other property.

Chickasaws suffered adversity and death along route to their new home. Removal was difficult for all five tribes. Removal was the least severe for the Chickasaws due to the foresight of their leaders.

The Chickasaw Nation used the proceeds of the Homeland sale to make provisions available for their people along the Removal route. Like the other tribes, the Chickasaws had to travel by foot or wagon for months in the unforgiving elements. Chickasaw leaders negotiated their departure during the most favorable of seasons.

According to the U.S. National Park Service’s Natchez Trace webpage, if Chickasaws chose to remain in their Homeland, they were required to abandon their heritage and traditions and assimilate into the new culture. However, many of the Chickasaw people who remained were often ostracized by the non-Indian settlers.

“To maintain who they were as a Chickasaw people - a nation - they had to negotiate with the state, or the United States, in order to move. Or they could literally be killed, or just lost. We are not a people who wishes to be lost,” Ms. Barrick said.

Most Chickasaws removed from 1837-1851. However, tribal and federal records indicate Chickasaw families continued to arrive from the Homeland until the 1890s.

Upon arrival to their new home, Chickasaw leaders knew where the tribe would be settling. They had purchased land from the Choctaw Nation through the Treaty with the U.S. Choctaw and Chickasaw of 1837 (also known as the Treaty of Doaksville).

Honoring the treaty agreement, the federal government constructed two forts, Fort Washita and Fort Arbuckle. The forts provided security and maintained peace for the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations up until the American Civil War.

As a historic place for both tribes, the Chickasaw Nation acquired Fort Washita in 2017 from the Oklahoma Historical Society. Recently, Fort Washita was placed in trust with the U.S. government. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Chickasaws still desired separate territory and wanted to restore governmental authority for the Chickasaw people and separate affairs from the Choctaws. In 1855, the Chickasaws separated from the Choctaws, and a year later created their own constitution.

Despite the challenges, the Chickasaw people have persevered, and the Chickasaw Nation is economically strong, culturally vibrant and dedicated to the preservation of family, community and heritage.

“We are a people who wish to survive,” Ms. Barrick said. “We wish to progress, to advance and to live very much in the moment. But we also understand the importance of our legacy and what it should be. We protect those that are coming after us. We believe so strongly in the Chickasaw Nation. That is the spirit that has stayed with us.”

Governor Bill Anoatubby said during his 2022 State of the Nation address, “With sovereignty as our foundation, and careful planning and forethought as our guide, we are confident in our ability to adapt to any task and overcome most any challenge.”