COLUMBUS, Miss. – As one of the nation’s largest land managers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) maintains under stewardship many Native American ancestral sites across the country. In an effort to strengthen existing relationships with tribes who have ancestral ties to those lands, USACE Mobile has been working with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to grant access for ancestral exploration.
The pilot program, which has been taking shape for more than two years, launched just before the holiday season when members of the Choctaw Historic Preservation and Cultural Services offices joined the USACE Mobile Archaeology team for an ancestral plant gathering along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Dec. 12-16.
The Choctaw’s possess a deep connection with the Mobile District having more than 13,000 years of history as indigenous inhabitants in some of the areas surrounding the Tennessee-Tombigbee River. As you might expect, those ties continue to hold meaning to this day.
"We have ancestral campsites and villages going back as long as human occupation extends in this part of the world,” said Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Ian Thompson. “In fact, the Tombigbee River itself gets its name from the Choctaw term ItombiIkbi which means ‘coffin maker’.”
It might seem weird to name a river ‘coffin maker’, but the name actually came about from a misunderstanding with French explorers in the 1700’s. The actual Choctaw name for the river was “Hvcha Hatak”, which means ‘river people’.”
“Some people believe that the tribal name for ourselves is a contraction of “Hvcha Hatak (because) if you take out a few syllables from the later it becomes Choctaw,” Thompson said. “So just the name itself shows the deep connection we have with this place.”
As Historic Preservation and Cultural Services workers for the Choctaw, Ian and his fellow tribal members who participated in the plant gathering arrived with a mission to strengthen and preserve Choctaw traditional culture.
“Working with Mike Fedoroff and the Mobile District Corps of Engineers we’ve had a great opportunity to…come back to our homelands and collect materials that will be useful in teaching classes to strengthen our traditional culture,” Thompson said. “So we have been out gathering river cane that is going to be used for a joint class between our tribe and a Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to do traditional basketry.”
“We’ve also been collecting clay from several spots along the river that we will use for classes… to revitalize Choctaw traditional pottery. We have clay where we live in southeastern Oklahoma, but there’s just something incredibly special about getting to work with the same clay that 4,000 years of our ancestors have worked with.”
In addition to cultural revitalization, the gathering also provided the Choctaw the opportunity to collect several plants that the tribe has historically used for food. For Native Americans this is especially important because adapting to the standard American diet has given rise to a long list of health-related problems. By researching traditional foods and learning more about the diet that their ancestors maintained, the Choctaws will be better able to define dietary guidelines for generations to come.
“We have been doing a great deal of research into our traditional diet, because we face so many health problems as a result of eating the standard American diet,” explained Thompson. “Native Americans face higher incidents of diabetes, obesity, cancer, stroke, and high blood pressure than any other segment of the American population. So when we look back at our traditional foods, it’s not just looking back into time, it is also an opportunity to find a healthy way to eat where we don’t face such epidemic levels of these diseases.”
Also under the agreement, the Choctaw were allowed to take palmetto leaves and river cane to use during an upcoming reenactment.
"One of our Choctaw traditionalists, Les Williston, is going to a reenactment commemorating the Battle of New Orleans in about a month,” said Thompson. “We will be using the palmetto and river cane to construct a traditional Choctaw lodge and educate the public about our traditions.”
The Choctaw, who already assist the USACE under the National Historic Preservation Act, are excited about the possibilities under the new pilot program.
“We are thrilled to continue to build the partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Thompson. “We already review Army Corps of Engineers projects within our area of historic interest to help them make sure that those projects don’t disturb our historic sites. This is just taking the relationship to another level.”
The Mobile District has long set the standard for collaborating with local tribes and with this new pilot program raising the bar, other districts are beginning to take notice.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a Center of Expertise for Tribal Relationship Building in the Albuquerque District,” said USACE Mobile Senior Archeologist and Tribal Liaison Michael Fedoroff. “They are looking at this pilot program that we are doing with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma as an example for other districts to follow. So we are really proud of it.”
Following the week-long gathering, early returns seemed to indicate a positive and mutually beneficial experience for both sides.
“We have sacred sites, ancestral homelands, and burial sites on our existing management plans that the Choctaw have a say in, so cultivating these relationships through outreach and education really help us better understand their perspective,” said Fedoroff. “It also helps us navigate what often times can be contentious communication during a project and move towards a ‘team perspective’ instead of an ‘us versus them’ kind of thing.”
With the pilot looking like a tremendous success, Fedoroff hopes to expand the project in the future with other local tribes in the district.
“Any time you bring a group of people from different perspectives together and spend time on a common goal you’ll learn,” Fedoroff said. “The Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma has already shown some interest and we are hoping that other tribes will show an interest like the Mississippi Band of Choctaw who are more local. So we could easily see more tribes signing up for this program and further developing these relationships in the future.”