Home Scholarly articles Multi-university project focusing on the language and history of the Choctaw Nation

Multi-university project focusing on the language and history of the Choctaw Nation


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa .– Working with a “rare and rich” digital archive of 19th-century Choctaw-language court documents, history academics and graduate students at Penn State are teaming up with linguists at the University of Florida in the part of a multi-faceted initiative called Choctaw Language and History Workshop.

The project, which promotes a new model for graduate students studying Native American history, will feature several deliverables, including several scientific articles and a Choctaw language dictionary developed in consultation with the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Band.

Collected in the summer of 2020 by Christina Snyder of Penn State, Civil War-era professor McCabe Greer, and George Aaron Broadwell, Elling Eide professor of anthropology and chair of linguistics at the University of Florida, the project team is made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians and linguists specializing in the study of Indigenous nations in the southern United States.

Julie Reed, associate professor of history and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and two doctoral students, Edward Green and Jamie Henton, both of whom focus on the history of Choctaw, join Snyder on the Penn State research team. A doctoral student from the University of North Carolina and a junior researcher from Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, complete the project team.

“With the pandemic in full swing, Aaron [Broadwell] and I wanted to create an interdisciplinary project that would benefit our graduate mentees, be achievable on Zoom, and use a shared archive, ”Snyder said, adding that participants meet weekly via Zoom. “We translate and analyze a collection of rarely used manuscripts containing thousands of Choctaw-language court documents from the 1800s.”

Originally from present-day Mississippi, the Choctaws are today one of the largest Native American nations in the United States. Forced from their homeland in the mid-1830s due to Andrew Jackson’s Indian deportation policy, the majority of Choctaws moved to Oklahoma, although some managed to stay in Mississippi. The largest group is called the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Those who remained in Mississippi call themselves the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Band.

“The Choctaw Nation and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians each have a rich history and remain strong nations today,” said Snyder. “And while almost all Choctaw speak English today, there are thousands and thousands who have some degree of mastery in their mother tongue. In fact, some still have Choctaw as their first language, and they are making a huge effort to revitalize the language and teach it in schools.

Despite the thousands of Choctaw speakers, however, the majority of 19th-century Choctaw documents were written by tribal elites and missionaries and do not include the more informal, everyday words and phrases used by most.

“By looking at the transcripts of county court cases and local disputes, we can read what people actually said, how they actually spoke,” Snyder said. “Linguists comment on what they think is interesting, and historians comment on what we think is interesting, and we try to channel that into a number of different publications.”

One of these publications is a modern Choctaw dictionary, which is the main focus of Broadwell and his fellow linguists. But how can 19th century documents inform a 21st century dictionary?

“Most modern dictionaries rely on a large collection of natural language materials to understand how words are used in context,” said Broadwell, who has worked extensively with the Choctaws, several of whom are collaborating on the project. “In addition to checking with current speakers, lexicographers want to look at many instances of words used over time and in different texts to make sure the dictionary captures all of the subtleties correctly. For this reason, our modern Choctaw dictionary benefits from examining how Choctaw words were used in the past. “

Pushing the limits of Native American research

“The Choctaw Language and History Workshop is one of the many ways our Native American history faculty pushes the boundaries of innovative, interdisciplinary research on topics that have never been adequately studied in the past. “said Michael Kulikowski, Professor Edwin Erle Sparks. of History and Classics and head of the Pennsylvania State Department of History. “I am especially happy with the way the project brings together professors from several different institutions, all with great strengths in the sub-discipline, and even more so with the way graduate students are involved as founding members of the business. “