MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians
|Regions with significant populations|
|English, Choctaw|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Seminole, Cherokee, African|
The MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians are a state-recognized Native American tribe located in southern Alabama, primarily in Washington and Mobile counties. The MOWA Choctaw Reservation is located along the banks of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers, on 300 acres (1.2 km²) near the small southwestern Alabama communities of McIntosh, Mount Vernon and Citronelle, and north of Mobile. In addition to those members on the reservation, about 3,600 tribal citizens live in 10 small settlements near the reservation community. They are led by elected Chief Wilford Taylor. They claim descent from small groups of Choctaw and other Native Americans of Mississippi and Alabama, who avoided removal to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma at the time of the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Of mixed-race, they identify as Choctaw.
Since the late 20th century, the MOWA Choctaw have attempted to gain federal recognition. They have not satisfied the documentation requirements of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to demonstrate community continuity and historic, recognized Native American identity. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, both federally recognized tribes that operate successful gambling casinos in the area, oppose recognition of the MOWA Choctaw Band.
This area of frontier Alabama had been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous cultures. The Mississippian culture is believed to have been ancestral to the historical tribes of the Muskogean-speaking Creek and Choctaw, who dominated the area in historic times.
The first European settlers in Mobile and southern Alabama in the 18th century were Roman Catholic French and later Spanish. The area was governed by nationals of these two countries before the British took it over. English and Scots traders arrived before the American Revolutionary War and were followed by settlers arriving in the early 19th century.
Some Native Americans who came to this area were refugees after the Creek War (1813-1814). Others were Choctaw who refused removal to the Indian Territory in 1830. By their treaty, they were allowed to stay as state (and US) residents if they gave up Choctaw tribal membership. In 1835 the state government built an Indian school at Mount Vernon, Alabama, with labor supplied by the Choctaw. Before the American Civil War, the Choctaw were at risk in periodic "Indian roundups" by the federal government, as well as in raids by slave traders. During these decades they sometimes intermarried with European American and African Americans; the latter were generally enslaved. By 1860 all known Choctaw residents of Southwest Alabama, many of whom were mixed race, were either deceased or had been taken as slaves into other states. It was not until 1889 that a small group of mixed-race people (assumed in the community to be of African and European descent) claimed to be Choctaw.
"In the 1890s the state legislature defined a mulatto as anyone who was five or fewer generations removed from a black ancestor. By 1927 the state legislature defined mulatto as any person 'descended from a Negro'." The latter one-drop rule, established by law in the 20th century, was an example of hypodescent classification, and an attempt to maintain white supremacy. It often went both against individual appearances and the community in which a person lived and identified. Alabama passed laws imposing Jim Crow and segregated society racially, establishing a binary system of only two races: white and "colored". This meant that records would no longer reflect any Indian identity. In Washington and Mobile counties, there were too many mixed-race people to fit into those simple categories, but all people of color were classified as "colored", or black. The region was relatively isolated until World War II.
During the Jim Crow era, which lasted deep into the 20th century, the state senator L.W. McCrae popularized the term "Cajan" for the mixed-race population along the counties' frontier. The term comes from the joining of "Cajun" (Caj) and Indian (an), as some believed that the tribe was also of French descent. The difference in spelling indicated recognition that the people were distinct from the Acadian descendants, known as Cajuns in neighboring Louisiana. People also called the people "Creoles", as they seemed similar to the mixed-race Creoles in the next state. The Louisiana Creoles were primarily of French and African ancestry. In Alabama, the Creoles had primarily English and Scots-Irish as their European ancestry, reflecting the major European settlers in Alabama, as well as African. The surnames among Cajans and Choctaw descendants are primarily English or Scots.
Mid-twentieth century magazine articles described varied speech and cuisine among the Cajans that borrowed from black, Creole, American Indian and European-American traditions. In a general-interest magazine, a 1970 article described the Cajans as the "Lost Tribe of Alabama". The terms of Cajans and Creoles were both used.
Numerous references in historical records note the presence of Choctaw Indians in this part of Alabama. Historically, there were recognized Indian schools in the counties. In the 1970s, the American Indian Policy Review Commission (AIPRC) described the 4,000 self-identified Choctaw in Mobile and Washington counties as a "non-recognized tribe." The AIPRC had been formed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to "examine the historical and legal background of federal-Indian relations and to determine if policies and programs should be revised. The commission found that the results of non-recognition were devastating for Indian communities."
With increasing Native American activism across the country, the Choctaw insisted on their right to self-identification and recognition. In 1979, the Choctaw in this area of Alabama organized as the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians. "MOWA" is a contraction of Mobile and Washington, the two counties which this group inhabits. Its tribal office is located in McIntosh, named after William McIntosh, a prominent early 19th-century Creek chief, who was of Scots and Creek ancestry, and identified with his mother's clan as Creek.
Tribal members purchased their first 160 acres (0.65 km2) of land in south Washington County in 1983. The state has recognized their land as a reservation. They claim descent from several Indian tribes: Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Mescalero, and Apache. Their annual cultural festival, which includes Choctaw social dancing, stickball games, a Choctaw princess contest, and an inter-tribal pow wow, is held on the third weekend of June on their reservation lands.
The MOWA petitioned the federal government for federal recognition as an Indian tribe. In 1994 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) denied the MOWA petition, saying they failed to prove Indian ancestry by BIA standards, one of seven requirements for tribal recognition. The BIA requires tribes to prove "internal cohesion, external boundaries, and a distinct Indian identity," the latter traced by genealogical descent from members of historical tribes listed in the early 1900s in records such as the Dawes Rolls. According to the BIA spokesperson: "What we found was that the Indians that the MOWA claimed as their ancestors were not their ancestors."
The Choctaw note numerous historical factors have made it difficult for them to satisfy BIA requirements: differences in traditional naming practices and difficulty in following name variations through records; the US government's inconsistency in record keeping, not only in recording names but also races (for instance, listing all people with visible African ancestry as Choctaw Freedmen, regardless of whether they had direct Choctaw ancestry as well); the state's classifying all Choctaw as among the black population and recording them as black, effectively ending separate record keeping of them as Choctaw or Indian; and the reluctance of federal officials to accept oral histories of family lineage. Which belittled the Choctaw Indians
The MOWA filed a lawsuit against the BIA, requesting that the federal court overturn the BIA's decision. The suit was rejected in 2008 by federal court on a technicality. The court ruled the tribe had waited too long to file the lawsuit and had passed the six-year statute of limitations. It noted a 1999 letter from the Secretary of Interior had rejected any further consideration of the tribe's claim.
The historian Jacqueline Anderson Matte notes that the Choctaw have preserved their identity by cultural practices:
"The strongest evidence of the MOWA Choctaws' Indian ancestry is not, however, found in written documents; it is found in their lives. Their ancestors passed to them their Choctaw Indian and African identity and traditions, persevering and preserving their heritage despite a long history of persecution and discrimination. Interviews with elders reveal stories of survival by hunting, fishing, trapping, and sharing the kill; rituals related to marriage, birth, and death; customs associated with gardening, medicinal plants, logging, dipping turpentine, and restricted communication with outsiders; and ancestral relationships told generation to generation. Despite hardships, the Choctaw Indian community north of Mobile persisted as a system of social relationships solidified within ceremonial gathering areas, churches, schools, cemeteries, and kin-based villages. Reduced in numbers, and increasingly a dominated minority in their own homeland, the ancestors of the MOWA Choctaws made new alliances."
In 1976, Dr. William S. Pollitzer published an analysis of a survey of 324 volunteer members of the MOWA band. He concluded from an analysis of serological (blood) traits that the MOWA have .5% white ancestry, 90% black ancestry, and little discernible American Indian ancestry. His team described the group as traditionally considered a bi-racial community by the majority white community. It noted that its members at one time had remained isolated by marrying within the group. Their conclusions were that the gene frequencies showed that the physical isolation of the group has been dissipated by intermarriage with people of African descent outside the group over the years. But, serological tests are no longer considered valid for determining ethnic ancestry.
These findings of virtually no Native American biological ancestry does not mean that the members of MOWA Band of Choctaw are not culturally Native American. Since before removal, through intermarriage the Choctaw have absorbed new members from outside the original tribe and continued to practice Choctaw culture. As of 2006 about 5,000 of self-identified Choctaw live along the Mobile-Washington county line.
In 2007, Wilford Taylor, the Chief of the MOWA Choctaw Indians, agreed to participate in a DNA autosomal test that would map his genes, as part of the Genographic Project administered by the National Geographic Society. This type test looks at the full make-up of a person's genes, rather than only Y-DNA or mTDNA from the paternal or maternal direct lines. The study team found that Taylor's ancestry was mostly of the N1B Haplogroup, which is concentrated in Western Ethiopia. The N1b Hapolotype in a Y-line test does not invalidate a male claim to Native American heritage, as it attests to a single direct line of male ancestors. Each person has many lines of ancestry in both the maternal and paternal lines; for instance, there are eight lines of great-grandparents, sixteen lines of great-great-grandparents, and so on.
The two primary Haplogroups of deep ancestry for Native American males prior to European contact are C and Q3. Female haplogroups that indicate deep Native heritage include A, B, C, D and X. These were the haplogroups of the peoples who settled in the Americas as Paleo-Indians in waves beginning about 15,000 years ago.
Like Taylor, many Native Americans are of mixed-race ancestry but identify with the Indian culture in which they grew up. For instance, the haplogroup R1b has been found among numerous men of the Cherokee Nation, as the DNA was passed on by European white male ancestors of mixed-race descendants. The Cherokee allowed non-Native men to marry into the tribe; as they had a matrilineal system, the children traditionally belonged to the mother's clan and took their status in the tribe from her people. In this system, the mother's brother was always more important to the children's rearing, especially of boys, than the biological father, who was of a different clan. Beginning with European traders in the eighteenth century, there were marriages between European men and Cherokee women.
- Jacqueline Anderson Matte, "Extinction by Reclassification: The MOWA Choctaws of South Alabama and Their Struggle for Federal Recognition", The Alabama Review, Vol.59, July 2006, accessed 20 Mar 2009
- W. Ralph Eubanks, The House at the End of the Road: A Story of Race, Identity and Memory, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, p. 14
- Eubanks (2009), The House at the End of the Road, p. 16
- Eubanks (2009), The House at the End of the Road, p. 12
- Laura Frances Murphy, "The Cajans at Home", Alabama Historical Quarterly 2, Winter 1940, pp.416-427
- Richard Severo, "The Lost Tribe of Alabama", Scanlan's 1 (Mar 1970), pp. 81-88.
- Bunty Anquoe, "MOWA band denied federal recognition", Indian Country Today (Lakota Times), 12-29-1994, accessed 20 Mar 2009
- “Judge dismisses tribe’s bid for federal recognition", News From Indian Country. Thursday, 17 July 2008, accessed 20 Mar 2009
- William S. Pollitzer 1, Kadambari K. Namboodiri 2, William H. Coleman 3, Wayne H. Finley 4, Webster C. Leyshon 5, Gary C. Jennings 6, William H. Brown 7, "The Cajuns of Southern Alabama: Morphology and serology", American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Volume 47, Issue 1 , Pages 1 - 6, 1977, accessed 20 Mar 2009
- Tiffany Craig, "Mapping Mankind, Part 2", WKRG CBS Affiliate, Mobile, AL
- Roberta Estes, "Proving Your Native American Heritage", Searching for the Lost Colony DNA Blog: The Lost Colonies of Roanoke DNA Project, accessed 20 Mar 2009
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- Calvin L. Beale, “An Overview of the Phenomenon of Mixed Racial Isolates in the United States,” American Anthropologist 74 (June 1972): 704–10.
- Renée Ann Cramer, Cash, Color, and Colonialism: The Politics of Tribal Acknowledgment, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma, 2005
- Angie Debo, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic (1934; repr., Norman, Okla., 1972)
- Virginia Easley DeMarce, “‘Verry Slitly Mixt’: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South—A Genealogical Study,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 80 (March 1992)
- B. Eugene Griessman, “The American Isolates,” American Anthropologist n.s. 74 (June 1972): 693–94
- B. Eugene Griessman and Curtis T. Henson Jr., “The History and Social Topography of an Ethnic Island in Alabama” (paper, annual meeting of the Southern Sociological Society, Atlanta, Georgia, 1974)
- Jacqueline Anderson Matte, They Say the Wind is Red: The Alabama Choctaw Lost in Their Own Land, Montgomery, Alabama: NewSouth Books, 2002
- Jesse O. McKee and Jon A. Schlenker, The Choctaws: Cultural Evolution of a Native American Tribe (Jackson, Mississippi: 1980)
- Laura Frances Murphy, “Mobile County Cajans,” Alabama Historical Quarterly 1 (Spring 1930), 76–86
- MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, official website