The MOWA band of Choctaw Indians occupies an area in south Washington County and north Mobile County near the southwest Alabama towns of Citronelle, Mount Vernon, and McIntosh. The band takes their name from the first two letters of Mobile and Washington counties, where members settled, straddling the county line. The group was formally recognized as a tribe by Alabama in 1979, but has not received recognition from the federal government, despite tribal members' efforts.
The MOWA's ancestors settled the area in two phases. The first occurred after a group of Choctaw fought alongside the Red Sticks during the Creek War of 1813-14 and following their defeat, fled with their families into the south Alabama swamps. The second phase occurred in the 1830s, when some south Alabama Choctaws avoided forced removal to Indian Territory and also settled in that area. These two groups became known as the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, which struggled to survive on the margins of white society. Many women sold firewood on the streets of Mobile, and men hunted and sold game and deerskins. The federal government made several failed attempts to move them west prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, when all removal activity ceased. Thus, these Choctaws evaded removal by hiding for decades in the swamps and pine barrens. In 1862 the Confederate secretary of war ordered the enlistment of Indians east of the Mississippi River. With the promise of a $50 bounty, clothes, supplies, and rifles, many Choctaw men went off to war. Most died, but their families continued to live in south Alabama virtually unnoticed.
Following the Civil War, the Choctaws' interaction with other residents of the region was limited because of racism. Laws governing race relations in the South and Alabama were written for either whites or blacks, and Indian identity generally was submerged. The Choctaws remained in the forest until the mid-1880s, when northern timber companies moved into the area to exploit Alabama's abundant pine forests. Discovering that Indian families lived there, lumber company officials enlisted the aid of L. W. McRae, a state senator from Washington County, to void Choctaw claims to the land. McRae knew the people were Choctaws, but he wanted to bring industry to the region and use them as a source of cheap labor. To facilitate the acquisition of land, he suggested calling them "Cajuns," believing that the Choctaws looked like the descendants of French-speaking Louisiana Acadians. Given this new "Cajun" identity, the Indian population was included in the U.S. Census, made to pay taxes, and although the Choctaws were nonliterate, they were able to hold title to land under the terms of the Homestead Act of 1862. Promised jobs with the timber companies, many Choctaws leased the rights to their land.
McRae worked closely with John Everett, a trusted Choctaw community leader, to help the Choctaws parcel out their land under the 1862 Homestead Act. Everett learned the timber business quickly and hired Choctaws to work shares, collecting pine sap for turpentine production. Everett kept most of the Choctaws' shares to pay the debts they incurred at his store. When property taxes came due, they had no money left, and they lost their land to Everett. However, because he needed workers, he encouraged them to stay on the land, plant gardens, and fish and hunt as they always had.
The advent of timbering required the Choctaws to relocate to logging camps. Moreover, clear-cutting gradually destroyed the forest that had supported their hunting-and-gathering way of life. Thus by 1930, their traditional culture had been largely eradicated. After Everett died, his white partner Frank Boykin (who later represented the First Congressional District as a U.S. Congressman for 27 years) took over and moved the Choctaw families out of the forest to small plots of land along county roads. Boykin threatened to alert the federal government to their presence and have them sent to the Choctaw reservation in Oklahoma if they sought employment elsewhere. This threat exploited a persistent fear by many Choctaws that they would be forcibly removed because their ancestors had been unable or unwilling to avoid removal under the terms of article 14 of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. Despite hardships, the Choctaw community persisted as a system of social relationships solidified by ceremonial gathering areas, churches, schools, cemeteries, and kin-based communities. Because of their isolation and discrimination by people outside their community, little formal education existed for the MOWA until after WWI. A few families provided instruction in their churches and assessed participating families two dollars each to pay the teacher, who boarded with the families. In 1917, the Washington County Board of Education began providing a single teacher. In 1918, the Southern Baptist Convention learned of the MOWA and arranged for missionaries to teach in the communities. By the 1920s an Alabama Baptist mission arrived in Washington County and by the 1930s, a Methodist mission opened in Mobile County. With little money and few books, the missionaries taught students of all ages in local churches or in primitive accommodations, usually walking through the woods from village to village. The Indian schools began receiving limited state and county funding in the 1940s, which marked the beginning of a separate school system for Indians. Because these schools were not accredited, Indian children had to leave the state to get a high school education. As early as the 1950s, some attended Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, an all-Indian school. Later, some MOWA youths went to the Mississippi Choctaw Reservation's Choctaw Central High School.
This three-school system—one for whites, another for African Americans, and a third for Indians—persisted until the 1960s. In 1970, local Choctaw leaders prevented the closure of their Indian schools by the county school boards because of the desire to maintain their Indian culture. They obtained a federal court order mandating that one Indian school in each county remain in operation. Federally funded Indian education programs remain today in both county public schools. Although the MOWA Choctaws kept their schools, their economic situation did not improve. Chemical companies built plants in the 1950s, but they did not bring much employment to the MOWA. In the late 1960s, tribal leaders and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission negotiated with these businesses to persuade them to hire Choctaws. Although a few received jobs with the chemical companies, most Choctaw worked for the local timber company planting pine seedlings or participated in seasonal migrant farm work.
In 1976, the American Indian Policy Review Commission described the Choctaws in Mobile and Washington counties as a "nonrecognized tribe." This provided a long-awaited opportunity to reclaim their Choctaw identity in an official capacity. In 1979, state representative J. E. Turner helped create a commission to support the needs and interests of the MOWA, and this effort led to their state recognition that year. The tribe then became eligible for services in education, healthcare, housing, childcare, and eldercare that the federal government provides for American Indians in general.
The MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians opened its first tribal office in 1980 and began seeking federal recognition. Although recognized as a tribe by the Alabama legislature in 1979 and later by the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 1991, the Bureau of Indian Affairs denied a federal acknowledgment petition in 1997. The BIA's Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) refuses to credit oral history and requires a comprehensive, documented historical account of tribal life, which distorts the history of petitioning groups, making a tribe unrecognizable to both its own members and to other Native Americans. Specifically, critics charge that the BAR's criteria for federal recognition conforms to mainstream American society's ideas of which characteristics impart lawful form to an Indian Tribe.
In the summer of 2005, they learned that their only recourse for federal recognition was with the U.S. Congress or through litigation. Alabama Congressman Jo Bonner (R-1) introduced the Mowa Band of Choctaw Indians Recognition Act in July 2005 and again in the following congressional session in April 2007. Passage of the bill would be a step toward recognition through congressional acknowledgement. As of June 2007, Bonner's bill had not been voted on by the House Committee on Natural Resources. Yet the 3,600 MOWA Choctaws persist in their efforts, convinced that federal recognition offers the best hope for improving the lives of tribal members, of whom roughly 80 percent live in poverty today.
Matte, Jacqueline Anderson. They Say the Wind Is Red: The Alabama Choctaw—Lost in Their Own Land. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2002.
———. "Extinction by Reclassification: The MOWA Choctaws of South Alabama and Their Struggle for Federal Recognition." Alabama Review 59 (July 2006): 163-204.
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