Many of the ancient Choctaws were a dept in the art of singing their native airs, of which they had many; but all effort to induce one of them to sing alone one of his favorite songs was fruitless. They invariably replied to the solicitation in broken English, “Him no good.” Then sing me a war song. “Him heap no good,” with an ominous shake of the head. Then sing me a hunting song. “No good; he no fit for pale face. “Well, sing me a love song. “Wah”! (an ancient. exclamation of surprise now obsolete) much love song, him bad, no good for pale face.” Though this was somewhat tantalizing yet it had to be endured.
Like all their race, the Choctaws never forgot an act of kindness be it ever so trivial; and many a white man overtaken by misfortune when traveling over their country, and weak beneath the remorseless grasp of hunger, has felt that the truth of the eastern proverb has been brought home to him: Cast thy bread upon the waters, and thou shall find it after many days. More than once has it fallen to my lot to contribute to an Indian’s immediate necessities, in days of their individual want and weakness; and, in after days the incident by me long forgotten; they have returned the favor thirty fold; and for many favors have I become indebted to them, when I had nothing to return. Their great delicacy in conferring a favor was not the least admirable part of their conduct, often they would leave a large wild turkey upon the door sill, or place a venison ham just within it, and steal away without saying a word, as if they feared you might suspect them of trying to buy your friendship when not enabled to secure it alone by merit; or that, to accept a present from a poor Indian might be humiliating to the pride of the receiver and they would spare him the mortification of returning thanks. Never was a race of people more sensitive of kindness, or more grateful for any little act of benevolence exercised toward them, or practiced the great Christian principle, Charity to a greater degree of perfection, especially in regard to strangers, than did the North American Indians. The missionaries everywhere and among all tribes, met them with kindness and confidence, and conducted themselves by the rules of strict integrity in all their dealings with them; and no instance has been re corded, where their confidence in the Indians was betrayed, or their good opinion of them destroyed.
The Choctaws were great imitators, and possessed a nice tact in adopting the manners of those with whom they associated. An Indian, however, is Nature’s gentleman never familiar, coarse or vulgar. If he takes a meal with you, he quietly waits to see you make use of the unaccustomed implements on the table, and the manner in which you eat, he exactly imitates with a grave decorum and as much apparent ease, as if he had been accustomed to the same usages from childhood. He never attempts to help himself or demand more food, but patiently waits until you perceive what he requires. This inmate politeness is natural to all Indians. But the mixture of white blood while it may be said to add a little to the physical beauty of the half race, yet produces a deplorable falling off from the original integrity of the Indian character; which, however, may be attributed “wholly to the well known fact, that the young half breeds mingle with the whites ninety percent more than the full bloods; and ever retain that peculiar characteristic of the Indian i. e. confidence in all professions of friendship until proved false, then never again to be trusted; thus are they easily made the dupes of the whites, and are ignorantly, and therefore unconsciously, led step by step down to a level with their destroyers, and too late awake to the consciousness that they are the victims. Thus is the professed grandeur of our civilization portrayed to the full blood Indian. No wonder he wants none of it. If such is the result of that civilization we would have him adopt, no wonder he shrinks from it as he would from a fearful contagion.
No Indian was ever so selfish as to smoke alone in the presence of others. I have oft attended their social gatherings where, seated on the ground in little groups forming little circles, the personification of blissful contentment, I invariably saw the pipe on its line of march, and so continued until the talk was ended. If but two were seated together, and one lighted his pipe, he only drew a few whiffs and then handed it to his companion, who also drew, a whiff or two and returned it; and thus the symbol of peace, friendship and good will passed back and forth until the social chat was terminated!
The Choctaw women did not indulge in the use of tobacco in any way whatever when living east of the Mississippi, except a few in advanced years; and it was regarded as great a breach of female decorum for a Choctaw women to use the weed, as it is with the white women of the present day to chew or smoke; and even the men confined its use exclusively to the pipe. But now they seem to have deviated to some extent from that good custom; for in my travels over their country during the last few years, I have frequently fallen in company with Choctaws, and when offered a chew of tobacco it was accepted by a few full bloods, and chewed with as much gusto as we rode along together, as I dared to assume with all my long years of experience; and thus I ascertained that those of the present day do not confine the use of tobacco exclusively to the pipe as did their fathers of the long ago, proving the truthfulness of the adage, “Evil communications corrupt good manners,” and also good habits.
The innate politeness of the Indians, when in their strength and independence east of the Mississippi River, was truly remarkable. The early explorers were surprised at the perfection of this characteristic in the Choctaw Indians, and many expressed their admiration in their writings. If a Choctaw of the long ago met a white man with whom he was acquainted and on terms of social friendship, he took his proffered hand, then with a gentle pressure and forward inclination of the head, said, in a mild and sweet tone of voice: “Chishno pisah yukpah siah it tikana su,” I am glad to see you my friend, and if he has nothing of importance to communicate, or of anything to obtain information, he passed on without further remarks; no better proof of good sense can be manifested, and well worthy of imitation.
But one of the many noble traits among the Choctaws was that of unfeigned hospitality; and to that extent that it became proverbial deservingly so. When any one entered their house or hunting camp, be he a friend, mere acquaintance or entire stranger, they extended the hand of welcome and it was sincere, and after exchanging a few words of greeting, the visitor was invited to take a seat; after which, they observed the most profound silence, waiting for their visitor to report his business. When he had done this, the silent but attentive wife brought what food she might have prepared (they were seldom found without something on hand), and her husband said to his guest: “Chishno upah” “you eat.” To exhibit a true knowledge of Choctaw etiquette, it became your duty to partake a little of every thing the hospitable wife had placed before you; otherwise you would, though unwittingly, cause your host and hostess to regard your neglect of duty as a plain demonstration of contempt for their hospitality purpose intended and offered.
Whether the Choctaws assembled for social conversation or debate in council, there never was but one who spoke at a time, and under no circumstances was he interrupted. This noble characteristic belongs to all the North American Indians, as far as I have been able to ascertain. In the public councils of the Choctaws, as well as in social gatherings and religious meetings, the utmost decorum always prevailed, and he who was talking in the social circle or addressing the council or lecturing in the religious meeting, always had as silent and attentive hearers as ever delighted and blessed a speaker. A noble characteristic. And when a question had been discussed, before putting it to a vote, a few minutes were always given for silent meditation, during which the most profound silence was observed; at the expiration of the allotted time, the vote of the assembly was taken; and which, I have been informed, is still kept up to this day. For many years after they had arrived from their ancient homes to the present place of abode, no candidate for an office of any kind ever went around among the people soliciting votes; the candidates merely gave notice by public announcement, and that was all; and had a candidate asked a man for his support, it would have been the death knell to his election.
On the day of the election, the name of all the candidates were written in regular order upon a long strip of paper, with the office to which each aspired written opposite to his name; and when the polls were opened, this paper, with the names of the candidates and the offices to which each aspired written upon it, was handed to the voter when he presented himself at the polls to vote, who commenced at the top of the list and called out the name of the candidate he wished to support for the different offices; if the voter could not read, then one of the officers in charge of the election, who could read, took the paper and slowly read the names and the office each aspirant desired; and the voter called out the name of each candidate for whom he wished to vote as he read; and no candidate ever manifested any hard feelings toward those who voted against him. Here was exhibited true liberty and free suffrage.
De Soto found the southern Indians to be an agricultural people, provident, patriotic, hospitable and generous, three hundred and fifty years ago; and when he tested their patriotism at Momabinah, and Chickasahha he learned to his satisfaction that their heroic bravery in defense of their country, their homes and heaven bequeathed right, was unsurpassed in the history of the world.
The missionaries found them in 1815 an unlettered people, yet far from meriting the title savage in the common acceptation of the word. They found them to be a noble hearted and interesting people free of a majority of the debasing vices practiced by the whites, and acquainted with many of the domestic and agricultural, and possessing many utensils and implements belonging to each; on a small scale tis true, yet amply sufficient for their wants.
They recognized and acknowledged a Supreme Being, The Great Spirit, the creator and ruler of all things. This Great Spirit was held in great reverence by all Indians. Never did a North American Indian profane the name of his Creator or deny his power.
The Choctaw warrior, as I knew him in his native Mississippi forest, was as fine a specimen of manly perfection as I have ever beheld. He seemed to be as perfect as the human form could be. Tall, beautiful in symmetry of form and face, graceful, active, straight, fleet, with lofty and independent bearing, he seemed worthy in saying, as he of Juan Fernandez fame: “I am monarch of all I survey.” His black, piercing eye seemed to penetrate and read the very thoughts of the heart, while his firm step proclaimed a feeling sense of his manly independence. Nor did their women fall behind in all that pertains to female beauty. I have seen among the Choctaws and Chickasaws, when living east of the Mississippi, as beautiful young women as could be found among any nation of people civilized or uncivilized. Many of them seemed, and truly were, nymphs of the woods. They were of such unnatural beauty that they literally appeared to light up everything around them. Their shoulders were broad and square and their carriage true to Nature which has never been excelled by the hand of art, their long, black tresses hung in flowing waves, extending nearly to the ground; but the beauty of the countenances of many of those Choctaw and Chickasaw girls was so extra ordinary that if such faces were seen today in one of the parlors of the fashionable world, they would be considered as a type of beauty hitherto unknown. It was the wild untrammeled beauty of the forest, at the same time melancholy and splendid. The bashful calm in their large, magnificent eyes, shaded by unusually long, black eyelashes, cannot be described; nor yet the glance, nor the splendid light of the smile which at times lit up the countenance like a flash, exposing the leveliest white and even teeth. Vainly one was tempted to believe a whole nocturnal world lay in those eyes, the dark fringe of which cast a shadow upon the cheek; while they seemed to glance downward into a depth, dreamy, calm and melancholy, without a tinge or shadow of gloom. ‘Twas a beauty indeed upon which they who looked, long gazed that they might call it up in after days, as some wild melody that haunts them still, when far away, Then the Choctaw’s boast was and justly too “Chahtah siah !” and with as much merited pride as he of old “Romanus sum.”
But alas! What a change has seventy-five years wrought upon this once free and happy people! How different the present generation from that happy, independent spirit that characterized their people when living in their ancient domains now the State of Mississippi! That manly bearing has given place to weakness and dejection; that eye, once so bright, bold and piercing, is now faint and desponding. The Choctaws once looked you straight in the eye with fearless yet polite, manly independence; his descendants now scarcely raise their heads to greet you. They seem no longer to view life through the rainbow lenses of sanguine hope, but as those in despair. Ah, the world may die, but there are some sorrows immortal. I have frequently met, here and there, a few Choctaws in Texas bordering on Red River. They seemed as strangers wandering in a strange land among whose people no voice of sympathy could be heard; no word of commiseration to be found; no smile of encouragement to be seen. With each different little band I tried to introduce a conversation only to be disappointed; and though I addressed them in there, own native language; I could only obtained a reply in a few scarcely audible monosyllables. They remembered the past and were silent, yet how eloquent that silence.