Nothing Lost: Enduring Spirit of the Choctaw

There is the waking world and the world of dreams. In my waking world, as I read about my Choctaw ancestors in the early years, I imagine the good lives of these simple Choctaw people, lives that have almost faded beyond our ken as time takes us further and further away from this era. These Choctaws have so much to teach us about how they dealt with heartbreak after heartbreak when their world so drastically shifted and they had to walk the Trail of Tears.

Without their stories we are left with only fantasy versions of their pain and anguish, so that the only option is to see ourselves as “Victim” of one tragedy after another inflicted by the white man upon the Choctaw. In the core of my being, I know that “Victim” is not who we were then, nor who we are now.

In my world of dreams, I walk with the Choctaw elders of those years. I feel their courage and their fortitude during such difficult events, but also their love of life and their fellow man. I remember one dream in which these elders came to me and they showed me how evil men broke into our spiritual home, throwing poisonous liquid into our eyes that made even the able-bodied writhe with agony. Somehow I find a towel that I throw over my head so that I am only slightly wounded. They show to me my own hands holding a precious jar of ointment, which I carefully apply to the eyes of the afflicted lying at my feet.

In my waking world, the jar takes the shape of the pen and the ointment becomes its ink. With the help of the heroes of this story, young Tushpa and his father Kanchi, I hope to weave a different reality for all Choctaws across all time.

From the historian’s point of view, the Trail of Tears is a rather complex event, taking many years and many political maneuvers to occur. Borrowing from the metaphor of myth, I choose to interpret this monumental event in the Choctaw chronology as the simple tale of the Hero’s Journey. Stripped down to its essence, the archetypal hero’s journey common to all cultures can be told as follows:

Light Bringer: A Hero’s Journey

Many moons ago lived a people blessed with a wise and compassionate shaman. He was the spiritual leader of his people. All the villagers looked to the shaman to protect both body and spirit from harm, to guide them through their time on earth and to maintain the delicate balance with their beloved natural surroundings.

Then one day the shaman reached the end of his life on earth and it was time to select a new shaman for the community. A contest among the young men of all the villages was set to begin on a particular auspicious day. Whoever could scale the highest peak and return with Thunderbolt would become the new shaman of the people. The way was arduous and fraught with hidden danger and perils. The first ones to give up told themselves that they were needed back on the farm or that tromping through the wilds did not suit their highly lucrative talents. Those who were weak in spirit were the next to give up. Some were consumed with thoughts of their well-laid table and cozy bed at home. Others dreaded the long dark nights alone.

Many sun cycles later, only one young man was left. Weary and hungry beyond any past experiences, he kept going, thinking to himself, “My people need me to do this task.” At last he gained the mountaintop and captured Thunderbolt for his village. Taking up the mantle of shaman, he began to guide his people through the shifting vagaries of life on this earth by seeing with his heart, as is the shaman’s way.

The young Hero in this myth is the boy or girl from any lifetime who chooses to walk the difficult path through many trials. The transformation within our young hero enables him or her to become a vessel of hope, of wisdom and of understanding.

ThunderBolt, or lightning, represents the wisdom that is to be discovered and shared with the world, regardless of race or ideology. Symbolically, the Thunderbolt can be many ideas. In a physical sense, it can be a source of protection. It also guarantees life-giving rain for the crops and animals. But even more essential, it is light, and the shaman, as bearer of Thunderbolt, is a light-bringer, a bearer of divine wisdom, who sees the way with his heart.

A Choctaw Hero’s Journey

Another heroic journey began a long time ago as the Choctaw people prepared to leave their beloved lands, now part of the white man’s world (re-formed at the new state of Mississippi in 1817) to travel many difficult months and miles to a vast unknown wilderness in the West. Many trials lay ahead on the “Long Walk.”

Even if these brave travelers had had maps of the area, they would only have revealed a handful of military forts, spaced widely apart along the few military roads available. Other than the forts, there were no towns or communities. The nearest settlement was Fort Smith in the Arkansas territory.

Migration to the new country had been organized by clans and in the early spring of 1834, the next clan to strike out for the new homeland was the full-blood Haiyup-Tukle (Twin Lakes) clan. Counted among the clan was a twelve-year-old Choctaw boy named Tushpa with his father Kanchi  and mother Ishtoua

The clan took one last look around the sweet homestead. One more glimpse made at the familiar angles and curves of their village. Years of building and improving their living spaces abandoned in the blink of an eye. Many possessions had to be left behind. Only the smallest, most essential of provisions would fit in their knapsacks, for they would have to walk the entire way. Critical space would be needed for the parched corn and other foodstuffs that would see them through the rainy days when hunting was difficult. No shelter, no rain gear could be carried, only a blanket or two. No wagons could be ferried across the rivers and no mules. They would be completely exposed to the mercy of the elements, which during their journey could mean freezing rain, even snow.

The clan approached the time of departure to the new lands with an aching sadness and bitter resentful hearts.  But as heavy as their burden was, the Choctaw people were also blessed with leaders of immense compassion and wise counsel.  One such leader was Tushpa’s father, Kanchi . As was the Choctaw custom, on the eve of their departure, Kanchi  addressed his clan. Here are his words, as written down in later years by his son Tushpa:  

Some time back beyond our old homes, I heard a man preach from a book that he called a Bible (Holisso Holitopa), and although that book was read by a white man, I believe there is something better in it than the way the white man acts. This book sets the heart right, as I know; and it makes a new man if he be red, white, or black. Now let us all take this word and change our hearts so that we forget this great wrong that has been done us and be better men so that we do not want to kill somebody but want to help them, and maybe we may be better men than we have in this country.  Maybe we need to do a good to somebody in that new country, and we cannot do this if we go with a butcher knife in one hand and a musket in the other hand like we used to do. We must change our way and live for love of somebody from our hearts.The Great Spirit of our Forefathers looks down in pity upon us today. We have been a hard, cruel, revengeful race of men. We have scalped our enemies, as it had been the custom of our heroes to do ever since the world began. We could not be blamed. We thought it was right; but today we want to do different. Help us to forget all these hard ways and live better lives. We are in much trouble now, but don’t want to kill or destroy, so give us hearts that we hear about in this book and let us be good, and if we live to see this new country, to which we travel, help some of us to do good to those we meet. Perhaps we will not bring shame upon the land.

Hard Choices

The Twin Lakes clan was not well off. The lure of ten dollars per person to make the long journey unassisted by the U. S. government probably induced them to strike out on their own power. The government was struggling with the logistics of moving so many people across difficult terrain and had implemented a program of monetary assistance to any Choctaw willing to move themselves to the new territory. Moreover, the U.S. Congress over the past two years had shown incredible unwillingness to provide proper supplies and equipment. In addition, the routes that the U.S. agents preferred took the Choctaws into areas of white settlements where the virulent disease of cholera lay in wait. Wisely or not, the brave band took firm hold of their own fate and began the long road on their own terms through virgin uncharted lands toward the junction of two mighty rivers, the Arkansas and the White Rivers, at a place known as Arkansas Post where they hoped to find the “Post Road” to Little Rock.

 Their first major obstacle was crossing the Mississippi River. Six weeks passed before the band was able to reach the Mississippi in early March, even traveling over well-defined trails, established over the years by the indigenous population. Only recently, as a provision of the 1810 treaty, the first major “road” was built through the Choctaw and Chickasaw lands, connecting Natchez with Nashville, called the Natchez Trace, or simply “The Trace”. This route headed eastward toward white settlements. Another popular road, called the Robinson road, opened up about 1826, providing an even more direct route to Nashville through the town of Columbus on the Tombigbee River. The road, named after its surveyor Raymond Robinson, became the major stagecoach and postal route.

However, toward the west, the main routes of travel were the rivers. In the early 1800s, travel was only possible in one direction, down river. Trade routes began usually from ports in Kentucky or in Tennessee to Natchez or further south to New Orleans. Upon arriving at their destinations, traders then dismantled their river craft, selling off the lumber with their trade goods. Carrying pouches stuffed with hard currency, they would begin their trek by foot up the Trace, walking as long as daylight lasted, hoping to avoid encounters with the ruthless bandits roaming the Trace to prey on helpless travelers.

The invention by Robert Fulton of the steam-powered vessel in 1811 revolutionized the face of travel in this region.  The first successful upriver trip on the Mississippi by steamboat finally happened in May 1815 by a steamboat named the Enterprise, steaming up river from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky. The steamboat had just delivered valuable goods to General Jackson’s troops Jan. 9, 1815 (fighting the War of 1812) after having completed its 2,200-mile voyage and was now returning.

Etching of the steamboat Enterprise by an unknown artist

In the fall of November 1831, the very first bands of Choctaws began to head for the new Indian Territory, most traveling by steamboat on some portion of their journey. Between the horrific winter conditions, inadequate food and rampant illness, not much went right for the first wave of Choctaws. As word filtered back to the remaining Choctaws from the returning guides and interpreters, much discussion took place on the best way to make this daunting journey. Counting on the wisdom of their clan chief and other leaders such as Tushpa’s father, the clan decided to travel on their own over a route of their own choosing. By far the most difficult and dangerous part of the journey was crossing the mighty Mississippi River.

In the well-known tale about the Choctaws, and their brothers the Chickasaws, searching for their new homeland, they finally reach the bank of a river so wide and so swift that they were amazed, never having seen its equal. Their wisest medicine man exclaimed, “Mis-cha Sip-ok-a-ni”, figuratively translated as “the father of all its kind.” The expression gave rise to the word Mississippi, chosen for the name of the new state in 1817.  Today the word has come to mean “the father of waters.”

A trip down the Mississippi was an experience never to be forgotten. Boat captains who were successful at their trade learned quickly how to spot the hidden dangers imposed by this massive river. Even with good-sized stout craft, danger could not always be avoided. One traveler wrote that ”we see her tremendous work at every moment. She seems to make and unmake islands in mere sport.” In the early spring months such as March, travelers could retire to their camp after a pleasantly benign day only to wake up to a half-inch of ice along the shoreline.

Among the Mississippi river-men, terms sprung up to describe the insidious perils inflicted upon river travelers. The term “sawyers”, made famous by Mark Twain, a former Mississippi captain, refers to entire trees upside down; their top branches stuck in the mud with their massive roots sometimes barely visible at the surface or entirely exposed up to twenty feet in the air. “Planters” describes trees embedded deeply in the mud with their canopy of branches facing upstream waiting to snare the unobservant. Small islands or “rafts” of driftwood would spring up around the planters and other debris while the rapidly changing river bottom inflicted surprise whirlpools, “boils” and “sucks.”

Into the Perilous Flood

Into the path of this raging flood of destruction walked this small band of Choctaws. In the spring of 1834 this small band of Choctaws found the Mississippi River in full flood stage with ferocious currents and deadly debris. At the river’s edge, they waited for floodwaters to recede. One day they got word that their former village had been burned, leaving them no recourse but forward across the Mississippi River. Their white neighbors, who had been waiting eagerly to take over the land, struck the fire to make sure the small band had nothing left of their homes.

Tushpa’s clan had managed to procure a couple of skiffs and canoes, along with a homemade raft to ferry all their earthly goods across the rampaging river. On the fifth trip across, the log raft collided violently with a dense swirling mass of brush and tree roots charging swiftly down the river. In the blink of an eye, Kanchi  was knocked off the raft and never seen again. It was the first death among the small clan and deeply devastating, especially since Kanchi  was the spiritual heart of the clan.

Sinking Spirits

Physical obstacles we can all understand. The more difficult obstacles to sense are the internal struggles. Walking day after endless day with a heavy sorrowful heart takes a serious toll. Folklore tells us that grief can kill. The displaced Choctaw people had experienced a great loss and were in deep grief and depression over losing their homes and communities. They did not look forward in anticipation to a new country; they felt no desire to travel into this new chapter of their life. They began to feel that there was no longer any place on earth where they belonged and were welcomed. A loss of spirit was taking place within.

Losing spirit is a very odd affliction. Most people, including myself, can’t see it when it is actually happening. It is not like a head cold when you struggle to breathe or a stomach ache when you know exactly what part of your body hurts. It is only in looking back in retrospect that you might realize what has happened. Just like no one dies directly from grief or depression, no one dies directly from spirit loss. As a person gives up spirit, or gives up heart or hope or desire or joy, or any of the other phrases we may use, then the door is opened to physical ailments and disease.

This condition would prove fatal to many of the Choctaws. History may attribute their deaths to the elements or to lack of nourishing food, but the spirit animates the body first and foremost, not vice versa. Without spirit, the slightest obstacle becomes impossible to overcome.

With Kanchi’s loss, there was no one to nourish the spiritual health of the clan. Tushpa and his friend Ishtaya did what they could to rally the fading spirits of their companions. More deaths would occur along the journey as exposure and inadequate shelter took its toll. The difficulty of breaking trail through dense forest sapped the travelers’ energy and spirit. Time and time again the clan leaders tried to rally the small group.

Despair and the Dreaded Cholera

After two and half months on the journey, the band reached Little Rock on May 15, where they rested and made repairs. Cholera hit the group three days out from Little Rock and the group despaired again.

News of Cholera among the Emigrating Choctaw November 1832

The young children, Tushpa and his friend Ishtaya, remembered the words of Kanchi and called upon the others to stay alive, that they would be needed to do the good deeds that the Great Spirit would ask them to do in the new lands. Even in his death Kanchi continued to inspire his young son with his wise words. The younger ones, including Tushpa, pledged themselves to lives of usefulness as Kanchi had counseled. As young as he was, Tushpa realized that pursuit of wealth and pleasures of the world matter little; that Soul is the only thing that will follow us wherever we go.

After so long on the trail Tushpa’s mother, Ishtoua finally took ill. The weather had now turned hot and brought its own suffering for the sick and frail. Any more delays due to illness were becoming risky as the food supplies dwindled to almost nothing. With only fifty miles to Fort Smith, and yet at least a week to get there, a vote was held and the clan elected to split the group into two, letting the sick and elderly make camp somewhere along the Post road.

A Mother’s Last Words

Out of any tragedy, doors are opened; we have only to look for them. Through these doors steps the hero if he is willing to move past fear and despair and so to be transformed. Tushpa and Ishtaya learned first-hand what happens when a people lose heart and abandon faith in their own good lives. Somewhere along the difficult journey, the hero’s purpose awakened in these two young boys. They both were being called to take up the nurturing of their people. It would take years to unfold but Ishtaya would become one of the best loved evangelical preachers of his time and Tushpa would become, like his father, the heart of his community.

When the others reached Fort Smith, supplies were rushed back to the stranded group, but at least eight had died, including Ishtoua, with her son Tushpa by her side. Her parting words to her son were that he would live a great and good life for his people, and to take heart, that there were pleasant days ahead and fewer would fall sick. Tushpa pledged to visit the grave of his mother some day when he was grown, a promise he was able to fulfill during his combat time in the Civil War.

Ishtoua’s words comforted the entire clan. Emaciated and spiritually wounded as they were, they struggled forward over the last arduous miles and finally reached Skullyville on July 1st, 1834, where the first friendly faces in 400 miles awaited them, offering solace and the familiar comforts of hearth and home.

Great Green Heart of Summer

To the newcomers’ eyes, the land may have looked foreign and bleak upon their arrival in mid-1834, but the great green heart of summer had arrived.  As soon as the ground had thawed, the first wave of Choctaws had acted quickly to clear fields and sow the seeds they had carefully protected on the journey, the very best of the apple and peach pits from the old orchards as well as the choicest melons, bean and corn seeds. Game was much more plentiful than in their former hunting grounds. Unlike Mississippi, the new landscape included gentle rolling hills and numerous open spaces that revealed great expanses of brilliant blue sky.  Not a single household was without its own sweet-tasting artesian spring. Despite the arduous labor of starting a new life, there was time for social gatherings and for testing one’s prowess at stickball.

For a youngster like 12-year-old Tushpa, delight in the new land lay around every turn. He was fully embracing life, putting his painful history behind him. His new home was the newly-formed Choctaw community of Skullyville, a major destination for the Trail of Tears. There in 1833, near the steamboat landing on the Arkansas River, the United States Government established the first Choctaw Indian Agency in the West.  June 26, 1833 saw the opening of the first post office in the new Indian Territory. But the name Skullyville would be forever be known to all as one of the great gathering points for the Choctaw bands after the horrific journey across the Trail of Tears.

Smallpox and a New Name

When Tushpa was about thirty, the Civil War had begun and he thought it his duty to join a Choctaw regiment. He was enlisted as John Culberson, and was never known by Tushpa again. After contracting smallpox, he was taken to the hospital at the old defunct army fort called Fort Towson. He stayed there for the remainder of the war to help out at the hospital, where he was also able to learn to read and write. When he returned to Skullyville after the war, he was able to use these skills in the local church services, often conducted by his friend, Ishtaya (later known as Rev. Willis Folsom) who had been his close companion on the Trail of Tears.

Who would have blamed Tushpa if he had harbored a deep and abiding bitterness after losing both his parents and the security of the only home he had known. But in 1868 this full-blood Choctaw married a young white woman, Lucy McDonald, of Texas birth, whom he met at church. She was the daughter of a Scotsman who had come into the territory prior to the Civil War to open a blacksmith shop at old Skullyville. They were married by his good friend Ishtaya and moved to a homestead two miles southwest of Skullyville.

Affidavit of Marriage, Dawes Application Packet #2324

John never forgot the words of his father, Kanchi and continually looked for the good that he could add to others’ lives. Their home became known for kindness and generosity to those who were less fortunate. Charity was freely offered to all who needed it despite their color or creed. John Culberson and his wife Lucy were blessed with several children.

In due time, when the labors of life allowed, John Culberson wrote down the story of that fateful journey across the wilderness over the Trail of Tears.

The Light of Tushpa’s Legacy

His oldest son James became a writer among other occupations and later wove his father’s journey into a wonderful story about a young boy, who remembered the “light” of his father’s legacy and throughout his life, manifested this light for the benefit of all.

On his deathbed, John Culberson had asked his son James to write his story so that all could benefit from it and to give his future children a chance for an education. He died peacefully on Jan 28, 1884 at his beloved home in LeFlore, Oklahoma and is buried at the historic Skullyville Cemetery in a humble grave without a marker.

May we ever remember that
a true man comes from no certain station in life, and
that the Great Spirit reaches out to his Indian children
and saves them by their faith, as well as
ones who hold the Bible in their book chests
all their lives.
~~John Culberson (as written by his son James)

Three of James’s children were indeed educated and became light-bearers in a modern sense, in their role as teachers. His daughter Mary Catherine married Thomas Bringle, and settled in Covington, Tennessee, where she was an ardent supporter of the local public library.

A New Legacy

Mary Catherine’s daughter and great-granddaughter of John Culberson, Beverly Bringle, became an artist. She also became custodian of her great-grandfather’s journal, which would soon inspire a new Native American writer Marilou Awiakta and a new book called “Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery”.

The book, about a young Choctaw girl walking her own heroic journey, was illustrated by Beverly Bringle, using the recurring imagery of fire. The symbol of fire, much like the thunderbolt, represents the wisdom and the spirit of the Choctaw people. Legend has it that the sacred fire was always kept burning in the Choctaw Council House. The sacred flame continues to remind us to “live deep in our spirit” as the early Choctaw heroes had to do, a message that would have profoundly resonated with her great-grandfather, John Culberson [Tushpa].

Making a Choice

We must never forget that we are the ones that give meaning to the events of our lives, not vice versa. We choose, consciously or unconsciously, to imbue specific events with negative thoughts or positive thoughts.

It takes a heroic effort to overcome a powerful event like the Trail of Tears, but it is possible to find empowerment, as Tushpa did, rather than anguish. Most especially, we must choose a meaning that does not diminish ourselves. Our challenge today is to choose the path of love and compassion over the path of bitterness and anger. Leave the Victim persona behind. It does not serve us or our children and the bright future that awaits us.

***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
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Sources:

Featured photograph : The Great Gallery pictograph, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

James Culberson, “Choctaws Were Hastened in Starting the ‘Trail of Tears”, The American Indian Magazine,  Lee F. Harkins, editor, Oct/Nov/Dec 1928 and Jan 1929, Tulsa, Okla. [part of the holdings at the Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City]; condensed and reprinted as “Tushpa Crosses the Mississippi,” Native American Testimony, Peter Nabokov, editor, Penguin Books, 1999, page 191. Also in the Native American Collection, Sequoyah National Research Center, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Location: Writers Files (Folder CUL.JAM-1)

Download the 15-page PDF of James Culberson’s original story:

Cholera among the Emigrating Choctaw, Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD) Tuesday, Dec 18, 1832

Affidavit of Marriage, Dawes Application Packet #2324 (Choctaw), Lucy Evans

Awiakta, Marilou, Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery, Fulcrum Publishing, 2007 (out-of-print).

Davis, William C., A Way Through The Wilderness, Harper Collins, 1995.

A re-telling of James Culberson’s story about his father’s journey on the Trail of Tears: Sarah Elizabeth Sawyer, Tushpa’s Story, (RockHaven Publishing, 2014).

One thought on “Nothing Lost: Enduring Spirit of the Choctaw

  1. I’m reading this for the 1st time! Tushpa was my gg grandfather! His son, Elijah Culberson was my great grandfather. Elijah’s daughter, Georgia was my grandmother. Her son, James Dunn was my father. I need, want & desire any info anyone or family member has. I would love to connect with family members!

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