Choctaw Elder Beverly Corbett (1922 – 2011)
This week a parcel was delivered that was addressed to my late mother—Beverly (Downer) Querry Corbett. My mother died September 24, 2011 of natural causes in Oklahoma City, a few days before her 89th birthday.
Born October 4, 1922, in Norman, Oklahoma, to Ruth A. Downer, an Original Enrollee of the Choctaw Nation, and to Pierce A. Downer, my mother spent much of her early childhood on my grandmother’s allotted land near Newcastle, Oklahoma. Our family always called it “Choctaw Place.”
The parcel was accompanied by a letter from Chief Gary Batton. In it, Chief Batton honored my mother for her years of wisdom and her service with a beautiful “Wisdom Blanket.” I speak for her three children when I say that our mother was always proud of her Choctaw heritage and would have been deeply moved by this tribute.
I believe that my mother would have liked you to know about her family—to know things that should be remembered. I believe she would have asked me, as her eldest son, to tell you.
It was, I suppose, in first or second grade that I was first required to commit to memory and to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, and the names of the Five Civilized Tribes. Only later did it occur to me that not every young scholar in the United States was so well versed in exactly which five tribes were deemed “civilized” as were my classmates and I at Andrew Johnson Elementary in suburban Oklahoma City. I assumed that fresh young people all across America pledged and prayed and chanted “Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole” just as proudly and as loudly as did I.
I am very light-skinned—over the past couple of decades I have spent a good deal of time and money having skin cancer and pre-cancerous lesions removed, mostly from my face. My hair color has transitioned from orange (when I was born, I’m told), to white-blond (as a kid reciting things in elementary school), to reddish-brown (high school and Marine Corps), to raccoon-like multi-colored, to gray. (I do not mind that my hair is gray. A former Principal Chief of the Choctaw Nation told me once that I shouldn’t mind what my hair turned, just as long as it didn’t turn loose.) My eyes are blue.
To see a photograph of my mother as a young girl you would not likely question her Indian-ness. The same applies with increasing certainty to my grandmother, to her father, to his father (the latter I understand to have sported braids and, when astride a horse and under the influence of strong drink which was not unusual, would frighten women and children—and while that story may not be entirely accurate, I hope that it is), and, I trust, on back to a Choctaw woman named Otemansha, peace be upon her.
The Dawes Commission was organized in 1893 to establish a Roll of American Indians residing in Indian Territory between 1899 and 1907.
My late grandmother Ruth Adella Foster is listed Number 15,137 as of March 26, 1904, on the Dawes Commission Rolls as an “Original Enrollee” of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. As are her father and her two older brothers—her mother is enrolled as an “I.W.” or “Intermarried White.” My grandmother had a younger brother who was born after the Rolls had closed and so, to his eternal dismay, was not considered an Original Enrollee. E.A. Foster, Jr., was his name—we knew him as “Uncle Manny”—and he researched exhaustively the Foster family lineage, to wit:
My four-greats grandmother was referred to generally in documents I possess as, “the Choctaw woman, wife of William Foster” in Mississippi. In a couple of documents of court proceedings, she is called “O-Te-Man-Sha,” which I presume was a phonetic attempt to spell her Choctaw language name.
Otemansha was of the “Sixtown” Tribe or Clan of Choctaw Indians. Oklahoma Historian Angie Debo says that “Sixtown Indians, Okla Hannali, spoke a distinctive dialect, tattooed blue marks around their mouths, and were shorter and heavier in build than the other Choctaws.” (Debo, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, 1934, p.20)
When Andrew Jackson determined that the Southeastern Tribes should be removed from their homelands to what is now Oklahoma, so as to better facilitate the white folks who wanted more land, it was the Choctaw Tribe that was chosen to be among the first to go on what they called The Long Sad Walk. Those upstart Cherokees with their Trail of Tears came later. I understand that the Choctaws were chosen to be the first removed because they were deemed least likely to protest—they had already begun to assimilate and there were farmers and store-keepers and teachers among them.
There were, to be sure, different levels of assimilation. I remember one of my uncles telling about how our Choctaw ancestor, Otemansha, had held an important position in the Sixtown Clan back in Mississippi—that she had been a “Bone Picker.” At the time I didn’t know what a Bone Picker was and I don’t recall that my uncle told me. Had he done so, I feel certain that as a young boy I would have remembered so gruesome were the duties of that high office in Choctaw culture. If Otemansha were a “Bone Picker,” she was, indeed, an honored person and would have performed important duties in the funerary practices of her community at the time. She would likely have had distinctive tattoos that identified her position and her thumb and index fingernails would have been long and thick. For when a Choctaw Indian died, he or she was wrapped securely in robes and placed upon a wooden scaffold near the house and left to rot for a number of months. When the appropriate time had passed the “Bone Picker” came and removed what flesh remained on the deceased’s bones by using his or her fingernails. The bones were then placed in boxes and stored in a “Bone House” until such time as there were enough bones from the community to bury in a mound. To be sure, I have no real evidence that I am descended from “Bone Pickers”—only a story told by a long deceased uncle. But I hope the story was true. I like thinking of this woman without whom I would/could never have been born—I like thinking about her place in her community.
In preparation for Removal, in September of 1830, at a place near what is now Philadelphia, Mississippi, the making and signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek took place. The Choctaw tribe ceded almost eleven million acres and agreed to remove to Indian Territory in what is now Southeastern Oklahoma. Among the nearly two-hundred signatories of that Treaty appear the signatures of my ancestors, brothers William and Hugh Foster, and the “X” of their brother Thomas.
Choctaws who wished to remain in Mississippi were offered 640 acres of land and Mississippi citizenship if they would sign up with Indian Agent William Ward. Colonel Ward, as it turned out, was not an honest man. When the deadline came for signing on to what is known as Ward’s Register, only sixty-nine heads of Indian families had done so. Otemansha was one of thirty full-blood Indians to sign; her sons James, William, and Hugh Foster (the latter two having also signed the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty, you’ll recall) were three of twenty-four so-called “half-breeds”; fifteen of the signers were white men with Choctaw wives. (Clara Sue Kidwell, The Choctaws in Oklahoma)
Possibly owing to the fact that traditional Choctaw people, when they moved or relocated, were bound by tradition to take the bones of their ancestors with them, Otemansha refused ever to leave her Mississippi home, as did her son James, who is my three-greats grandfather. James died in Mississippi in 1833 at about the age of twenty-eight. Otemansha died some four years later and is buried near the Pearl River. Hugh Foster was reportedly “killed by a white man” and is buried at Skullyville, Oklahoma.
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which was ratified by Congress February 25, 1831, promised, among other things, autonomy of “the Choctaw Nation of Red People and all their descendants [emphasis mine]” to be secured from laws of U.S. states and territories forever.
I like knowing that I am a direct descendant of a woman who may have used her fingernails to scrape clean the bones of dead people.
Ron Querry is a renowned author of two novels about contemporary American Indian life in the southwest, non-fiction works, and countless articles in magazines and newspapers. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org