Choctaws views on God and Murder

Among every North American Indian tribe from their earliest known history down to the present, there was and is a universal belief in the existence of a God, and Supreme Being, universally known among all Indians as the Great Spirit; and with whose attributes were associated all the various manifestations of natural phenomena; and in point of due respect and true devotion to this Great Spirit their acknowledged God they as a whole today excel, and ever have excelled, the whites in their due respect and true devotion to their acknowledged God. Never was an Indian known to deny the existence of his God the Great Spirit and attribute the creation of all things, himself included, to chance. Never was a North American Indian known to deny the wisdom and power of the Great Spirit as manifested iii the creation of an intellectual and immortal being, yet found and acknowledged it in the monkey.

Never was an Indian known to deny his immortality bestowed upon him by the Great Spirit. ” Immortality, that most sublime thought in all the annals of fallen humanity, has ever found a resting place immovably fixed in every Indian’s heart, not one excepted; and under its benign influence, their uncultivated minds have expanded and shadows of death been disarmed of terror; and though, through all the ages past has been heard the inquiry “Is there a latent spark in the human breast that will kindle and glow after death?” and though earth’s learned of all time have pondered over it, and pronounced it the world s enigma, and affirmed and still affirm, death to be the end of all, eternal oblivion, an endless sleep, yet the unlettered children of nature, the despised, down-trodden Indians, have long had the problem solved to their own satisfaction and peace of mind, never experiencing a doubt.

To the Choctaws, as well as to all Indians, the voice of the distant muttering thunder that echoed from hill to hill through their wide extended forests; the roaring wind and lightning flash that heralded the approaching storm, were but the voice of that Great Spirit, and they made them the themes that filled their souls with song and praise. They ever heard the voice of that unseen Great Spirit throughout all nature in the rustling leaf and the sighing breeze; in the roaring cataract and the murmuring brook; and they expressed their souls adoration; understood and comprehended by them alone, in their songs and dances. To them all nature ever spoke in language most potential, and their immortality and future existence in another world they never doubted, though their ideas of future rewards and punishments beyond the tomb were feeble and confused.

It was their ancient custom to leave the murderer in the hands of the murdered man’s relatives and friends; and, as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was recorded upon their statute book, he was, sooner or later, most sure to fall by an unknown “and unseen hand. Sometimes, however, the slayer appeased the avenger by paying a stipulated amount; but this was of rare occurrence. Soon after the missionaries were established among them, a company, of armed and mounted police, called “Light Horse Men,” were organized for each district, in whom was vested the power of arresting and trying all violators of the law. They were continually riding over the country settling all difficulties that arose among parties or individuals, and arresting all violators of the law. The custom of leaving the murderer to be disposed of as the relatives of the deceased saw proper, was then set aside, and the right of trial by the Light Horse who acted in a three fold capacity sheriff, judge and jury, was awarded to all offenders. The Light Horse were composed of a brave and vigilant set of fellows, and nothing escaped their eagle eyes; and they soon became a terror to white whiskey peddlers who invaded the Choctaw territories at that time. When caught, the whiskey was poured upon the ground and the vender informed that his room was preferable to his company.

When a murder was committed, the Light Horse at once took the matter into consideration, and after hearing all the testimony pro and con, pronounced the verdict in accordance thereto. If the person accused was found to be guilty, there and then, the time and place of his execution was designated, and the doomed man was informed that his presence would accordingly be expected. He never failed to make his appearance at the appointed place and hour, and all things being ready, a small red spot was painted directly over his heart as a target for the executioner; and, being placed in position, calmly received the fatal bullet, soon the grave closed over him and thus the matter ended. Sometimes the condemned would request a short respite, a few days extension of time, assigning as a reason for the desired delay, that a grand ball-play, dance or hunt, was soon to take place, in which he desired to participate, and as it did not take place until after the appointed day of his execution, he requested the favor of postponing his little affair until afterward. The request was seldom refused. The doomed man then designated the day and hour on which he would return and attend to the matter under consideration. He went to the ball-play, the dance, or the hunt, engaged in and enjoyed his anticipated fun, then returned true to his, promised word and paid the penalty of the violated law, by calmly receiving the fatal shot. The rifle was invariably used as the instrument of execution, for the soul of the Choctaw who had been executed by hanging was regarded as accursed never being permitted to join his people in the happy hunting grounds, but his spirit must forever haunt the place where he was hung. Hence their horror of death by hanging, and the gallows has ever been unknown among them. If the condemned-should fail to appear, which was never known to be, at the time and place of his execution, or should manifest any emotion of fear during his execution, it was regarded as a disgrace to himself, his relatives, and his nation as a Choctaw warrior, which 110 length of time could ever efface; hence their honor, resting upon their firmness in the hour of death, was watched with jealous care. Never was a full-blood Choctaw known to evade the death penalty, passed upon him by the violated law, by flight. If he violated the law he calmly abided the consequences, hence all places of imprisonment were unknown. For minor offenses, whipping was the punishment; fifty lashes for the first offense, one hundred for the second, and death by the rifle for the third offense in case of theft, and so it is today.

He who had been condemned to receive this punishment never attempted to evade it; but promptly presented himself, or her, at the designated place of punishment. This punishment was inflicted several times at the mission of Hebron, to which I was an eyewitness. Before the hour appointed, the neighborhood assembled around the church which stood about forty rods distant from the mission-house, where they indulged in social conversation and smoking; never, however, mentioning, or even hinting the subject which had brought them together. The culprit was as gay and cheerful as any of them, walking with an air of perfect indifference, chatting and smoking with the various groups sitting around on blankets spread upon the ground. Precisely at the moment designated, the Light Horse, who constituted a sort of ambulatory jury, to arrest, try and punish all violators of the law, would appear. The crowd then went into the church, closed the door and commenced singing a religious hymn, taught them by the missionaries, which they continued until the tragedy outside was over. At the same time the culprit shouted “Sa mintih!” I have come! Then ejaculated u Sa kullo!” (I am strong!) He then elevated his arms and turned his back to the executioner and said: “Fum-mih! (whip). When he had received fifteen or twenty blows, he calmly turned the other side to the Fum-mi (one who whips); and then again, his back, uttering not a word nor manifesting the least sign of pain. As soon as the whipping was over, the church door was opened and the whole assembly came out and shook hands with the “Fum-ah” (whipped), thus reinstating him to his former position in society, and the subject was then and there dropped, never to be mentioned again, and it never was.

The Choctaws had great pride of race. The warrior’s proudest boast was Choctaw Siah! (I am a Choctaw!) And he still clings to it with commendable tenacity even as he does to his native language. It has been said that no people have been truly conquered who refuse to speak the language of the conqueror; therefore the North American Indians, that subdued, yet unsubduable people, have never ceased to speak their native tongue.

The law on whipping for minor offenses, especially that for theft, was, fifty lashes on the bare back for the first offense; one hundred for the second, and death by the rifle for the third. This law is still in force in the Choctaw Nation. Truly, if the whites would adopt this method of dealing with their own thieves, would there not be less stealing among” them?

As an illustration of this peculiar characteristic of the Indians so different from that of any race of whom I have heard i. e., never fleeing from, or in any way attempting to evade the penalties of the violated law, I here introduce the sad scene in the execution of Chester Dixon, a Choctaw youth convicted of murder at a term of the Circuit Court of the Choctaw Nation in December, 1883.

Chester Dixon was a young, full-blood Choctaw, about 17 years of age. He was subject to fits, during which he seem d to be unconscious of his acts. Aside from this malady, he was considered rather a brig ht boy. He lived with his mother and stepfather, five or six miles from Atoka. Their nearest neighbors were a Choctaw known as Washington and Martha, his wife. One evening Washington, on his return home from Atoka, was shocked in finding the body of his wife lying on the floor of his cabin fearfully mangled, the head severed from the body, with several frightful gashes, evidently inflicted with an ax, which lay by the side of the corpse. The alarm was given, and it was soon ascertained that Chester Dixon was seen coming from the house, in which the deed had been committed, covered with blood. He was arrested, tried by the Choctaw law, condemned, and sentenced to be shot on an appointed day, at noon. He was neither, confined nor guarded, but went where he pleased, having pledged his word of honor, however, that he would be at the place of execution punctual to the hour appointed. Here I would deviate a little from the subject, to show how prone the whites are to misrepresent the Indians in nearly everything they write about them; and it does seem that they cannot write a half dozen words about this people with out shamefully misrepresenting them. It seems incredible; nevertheless it is true, as the thousands of publications that flood the country prove. I saw an article in a Texas news paper in regard to this very case of Chester Dixon, in which the writer says: “The laws of the Choctaws provide for NO APPEAL, or poor Chester’s case might have been reconsidered for after his conviction he was attacked with one of his accustomed fits, which was conclusive and satisfactory evidence that he was subject of temporary aberration, during which he was irresponsible for his actions. His attorney had neglected to make this plea in behalf of his client during the trial, and once the sentence of death having been pronounced it was unalterable.” Now, the above is utterly false, and the writer should learn to keep in respectful distance of the truth, at least, before he attempts to write about the Choctaws.

The truth is, the laws of the Choctaws provide for three appeals first from the County Court to the District Court; thence to the Supreme Court; thence to the United States Supreme Court. But to return to Chester Dixon. A few days before the execution, Dixon came with his stepfather to Atoka for the purpose of ordering his coffin. He had his measure taken for the grave, and then calmly informed his stepfather where he wished to be buried.

The day of execution came; and a few, mostly whites assembled at the place of execution to witness the sad scene. The doomed boy did not make his appearance to within twenty or thirty minutes of the appointed time and many of the whites, judging from their own standpoint, began to doubt the integrity of the Choctaw, and expressed those doubts one to another. But true to his plighted word, the truthful youth soon rode up; and, dismounting from his horse, quietly walked up to a little group of Choctaws, who were sitting around a fire, without taking any notice what ever of the surroundings, and calmly took his seat upon the ground, with his head bowed between his knees as if lost in meditation. An aged Choctaw man soon approached him, and, speaking to him in his own language, encouraged him to bravely meet his fate as a young Choctaw brave; and to die willingly, since nothing but his life could atone for the one he had taken; and also to feel that his people had been just in condemning him. He spoke not a word nor raised his head during his old friend’s conversation; but at its conclusion he looked up and around for a moment, then grasped the old man’s hand, as if to say, I’ll be firm, and he was to the last. Then his Choctaw friends, both men and women came up and bade him their last earthly adieu; with all of whom he shook hands, but spoke not a word. After which, the sheriff brought the unfortunate boy a change of clothing, in which he clothed himself for the grave, without the least discernible sign of agitation; he then took his seat on a blanket spread for him, and his mother combed his hair with calm composure her last act of maternal love; and though, with a heart bleeding at every pore, no outward manifestation was made, yet her face told the storm of grief that raged within; while, true to her nature, she clung to her boy to the last moment, to console him with a mother s presence and a mother’s love.

The sheriff then told Chester that the hour of execution had come. He arose at once and quietly walked to the spot pointed out to him by the sheriff, and stopped facing his coffin the personification of calm composure and firm resignation. His stepfather and cousin then walked up, the former taking him by the right-hand and the latter by the left. The same venerable old man who had first approached him, again came forward and made a little black spot upon his breast, just over the heart, and once more whispered a few words of parting- encouragement, then walked away. The sheriff then bound a handkerchief over his eyes, asked him to kneel, and beckoned to a man who had until then kept himself concealed. This man was a cousin of Chester Dixon, and had been chosen by Chester to do the shooting. He now advanced, and taking his position five or six paces from the poor boy, leveled his Winchester rifle and fired. The ball went to the mark. At the report of the rifle Dixon fell forward, and died without a struggle. The mother now came forward took charge of the lifeless body of her boy, and with the assistance of friends, laid it away in the grave. Neither confusion nor even the semblance of excitement disturbed the solemn proceedings. And when contrasted to the civilized mode of punishment that of hanging the Choctaw method is certainly more humane and effective, to say the least of it.

I will state another instance that took place among the Choctaws when living in their ancient domains.

A Choctaw unfortunately killed another in a fit of passion. He was duly tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot on a certain day; but requested a stay of the execution, upon the plea that his wife and little children would be left in a destitute condition unless he was allowed to return home and finish making his brop. His request was granted with no other assurance than his pledged word that he would return and receive his death sentence. The day of execution was fixed at a time when the crop would be matured, and the doomed man returned to his home and family. The fatal day came and found the necessary labor on the crop finished and also the noble Choctaw at the appointed hour and place, where he calmly received the fatal bullet, which at once closed his earthly career.

Thus sacred was held the noble virtue, Truth, among the ancient Choctaws when they lived east of the Mississippi river; and thus sacred is it still held among the full-bloods west of the same river; and I have never known or heard of a full-blood Choctaw or Chickasaw, during my personal acquaintance with that truly grand and noble people for seventy-five years, who violated his pledged word of honor by failing to appear at the time and place designated, to suffer the penalties of the violated law, be it death by the rifle or fifty or a hundred lashes at the whipping post. And truly it may be said: No race of people ever adhered with greater tenacity to truth, or the greater hatred for the falsehood, than did and do the Choctaws. They truly abhorred and still abhor a liar. Years before the advent of the missionaries among them, one of their chiefs was strangely addicted to lying; and so great did their disgust finally become that they, in council assembled, banished him from their Nation under pain of death if he ever returned. This exiled chief then settled with his family in the now parish of Orleans, Louisiana, on a small tract of land which projects into lake Pontchartrain, and erected his lonely cabin near a bayou which is connected with the lake. And to this day, that small tract of land, it is said, is called Ho-lub-i Miko (Lying Chief), having taken its name from the exiled Choctaw chief.

See Further:

Dixon, Washington,

Cushman, Horatio Bardwell. History Of The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, Texas: Headlight Printing House. 1899

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