Stories from My Grandfather—The Gift of Tanchi (Corn)

WHAT’S PLAYING: Beyoncé “If I Were a Boy

Once upon a time, two Choctaw hunters were camping underneath a summer moon near the Mississippi River, when they heard a beautiful but sad sound. They walked along the river’s edge, following the sound, until they came upon a beautiful woman surrounded by a brilliant light. She wore a white dress decorated with delicate flowers, and stood on a mound of earth.

 

The hunters asked the woman what was wrong

“I am hungry,” she replied in a small, sad voice.

The men did not have much food, but they gladly gave her their entire supper. The lady ate only a little and promised to remember their kindness.

“If you will go and tell no one you saw me, I will ask my father to give you a great and wondrous gift. Return to this spot at the next moon.”

Then a gentle breeze blew by, and she was gone. Then the hunters realized that the beautiful lady was Ohoyo Osh Chisba (the Unknown Woman) and that her father was none other than Hashtali, ruler of Heaven. Filled with wonder, the hunters returned to their families and said nothing.

At the next moon, the two hunters returned to the spot but were saddened to see that Hashtali’s daughter was not there. But on the exact spot where she stood was a tall green plant with leaves that looked like the swords of the white men.

The Choctaw learned to cultivate this plant and named it tanchi.

 

And it was a great and wondrous gift indeed.

Stories from My Grandfather – Creation of the Tribes

WHAT’S PLAYING: Yothu Yindi “Yolngu Woman”

 (This is the Choctaw version of the Tower of Babel myth.)

Many generations ago, Aba, the Good Spirit Above, created man. All spoke the language of the Choctaw and understood one another. They came from the bosom of the earth, being formed of yellow clay, and no men had ever lived before them.

One day they came together and, looking upward, wondered what the clouds and the blue expanse above might be. They continued to wonder and talk among themselves and at last, determined to endeavor to reach the sky. So, they brought many rocks and began building a mound that would touch the heavens.

That night, however, the wind blew strong from above, and the rocks fell from the mound. The second morning, they began work on the mound again. But as the men slept that night, the rocks were again scattered by the winds.

Once more, on the third morning, the builders set to their task. But once more, as the men lay near the mound that night, wrapped in slumber, the winds came with so great a force that the rocks were hurled down upon them.

Daylight came and the men made their way from beneath the rocks and began to speak to one another. To their astonishment and alarm, they found that they spoke many different languages and could not understand one another.

Some continued thenceforward to speak the original tongue, the language of the Choctaw, and from these sprung the Choctaw tribe.

The others, who could not understand this language, began to fight among themselves. Finally, they separated. Those who longer spoke Choctaw scattered–some going north, others west, and other east–and formed various tribes.

And we, the Choctaw, remain the original people.

Screaming in a Dying Language

WHAT’S PLAYING: Robbie RobertsonGhost Dance

They’ve lost it, lost it,

and their children

will never even wish for it—

and I am afraid

that the whole tribe’s in trouble,

the whole tribe is lost—

because the sun keeps rising

and these days

nobody sings.

                        Aaron Kramer

 

My language is dying, and I’m afraid.

Afraid that the world will forget us. That we will forget ourselves. I’m afraid that once we’ve lost our language, we’ll lose our culture. Our identity.

I’m also angry that Fate – and the American government – was less kind to us than it should have been. 

But mostly, I’m just sad. Choctaw is my first language. The language of my ancestors. It calls up images of home and family. To lose that connection…well, it breaks my heart to think about it.

We’re not alone. The vast majority of the estimated 300 languages spoken in North American before the arrival of Christopher Columbus are endangered or extinct. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) lists Choctaw as vulnerable. At last count, there are only about 9500 people fluent in it, and the number is dwindling fast.

One question keeps rolling around in my mind: “How did we get here?”

Less than a century ago, Choctaw code talkers helped the US military to victory during WWI. Now, it seems that we’re destined for extinction.

How the fuck did this happen?

Screw that.

I’m not giving up the ghost without a fight. And thankfully, I’m not alone. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has started offering language classes online.

So to do my part, starting this week I’ll be posting Choctaw stories and legends – as told to me by my grandfather – along with a Choctaw Word of the Day.  

Will posting these stories and words prevent my language from sliding into obscurity? Probably not.

But, at least I’ll be doing my part to ensure that we are not forgotten.