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The Choctaw Nation

The Choctaw of Oklahoma were the first of the five "Civilized Tribes" to reluctantly accept expulsion from their native lands in what is now the southern halves of the states of Mississippi and Alabama and move to Oklahoma (ENAT, 61-63). Although their history included a long alliance with the government of the United States and they even served under then Gen. Andrew Jackson, when time came to move the Choctaw westward, they received no consideration from the government.

As part of the "Trail of Tears" the Choctaw lost almost twenty five percent of their people to disease, starvation and predatory whites during the long march from the southeast to Oklahoma. Once there, they quickly reorganized their tribal government even though more died after arrival. The ravages of disease and starvation continued but were now compounded by attacks from hostile western Indians.

When the United States Civil War broke out in 1860 the Choctaw, as well as most of the Indians forced into the Indian Territory, sided with the Confederacy. It is during this alliance that the Choctaw became the first United States tribe to adopt a flag. That flag is documented in Dr. Whitney Smith's "Flag Book of the United States" (FBUS, 256-258) as a light blue flag bearing a red circle in the center that is edged in white. Within the red circle are a calumet, or peace pipe, a bow and three arrows representing the three subdivisions of the Choctaw Nation. These subdivisions are named for three chiefs of the Choctaw, They were Apuckshenubbee, Pushamataha and Mosholatubbee ("The Great Seal of the Choctaw Nation", The Oklahoma Chronicles, XXXIII:4, Winter 1955- 56, 357-358). That design is the basis of the national seal of the Choctaw to this very day.

A variation of the flag depicted in Dr. Smith's book appeared in"Emblem's of Southern Valor" (Joseph H. Crute, "Emblems of Southern Valor, [Louisville, KY: Harmony House, 1990], 108-109), a book by Joseph Crute published in 1990. The variation shown in that book is currently unattributed to any specific unit of the Choctaw forces in the Confederacy. It does exist in the Oklahoma Historical Society and is not the one reproduced in Dr. Smith's book. That the flag drawn in Mr. Chute's book contains two arrows, not one would lead one to suspect that it might be associated within the 2nd regiment of the Choctaw Cavalry, but Mr. Chute reports that the Choctaw's 2,000 volunteers formed the 1st and 3rd regiments. No mention is given to a 2nd regiment.

The first flag, mentioned by Dr. Smith now exists solely as a replica in the Oklahoma Historical Museum in Oklahoma City. Its use was only during the period1861- 1864, but it has continued to inspire flags for the Choctaw in Oklahoma. In the 1970s, Paramount Flag Co. of San Francisco, according to its files, filled an order for the Choctaw Nation for new flags.

This 1970s reincarnation of the Choctaw flag followed exactly the pattern shown in Dr. Smith's book, but drastically altered the colors. The field of the flag became dark red, similar to that seen in Latvian and Georgian flags. The ring around the central disc became light blue while the central disc changed to a deep yellow. The bow, arrows and peace pipe appeared in natural colors. It is not known when this flag came into use, nor when it was replaced.

It is known, however, that the Choctaw flag of the 1970s was replaced. The current flag (Sample flag provided by the Choctaw Nation, Durant, OK) follows the basic design of the preceding two, but adds more detail. The inner circle remains deep yellow, but the calumet and bow and arrows are now white edged in black. For the first time, the peace pipe shows black smoke coming from it. The light blue ring now is edged by two cords, a very narrow inner one and a wider outer one. Both cords appear in light green. The blue ring now bears a legend in black "The Great Seal of the Choctaw Nation". Finally, the deep red field has been changed into a purple color.

This flag seems to have been inspired by the drawing of the Choctaw flag "carried by the Choctaw Confederate Troops" as depicted in the 1958 sheet from the Oklahoma Historical Society entitled "Fourteen Flags Over Oklahoma" ("Official Seals of the Five Civilized Tribes", The Oklahoma Chronicles, XVIII:4, Dec., 1940, 430-431). It is also similar to one shown in old postcards depicting the "Flags of the Five Civilized Tribes" based upon gift flags form the state of Alabama. This set of flags was created in 1940 to honor the tribes that once lived in Alabama. After being displayed at the statehouse in Montgomery, they were given as gifts to the five nations. All five flags were white with full color reproductions of the pertinent seal. The postcard, however shows the flag as a bluish-purple, possibly from aging ("Fourteen Flags Plaza", Oklahoma Today, Summer 1968, 14-16). This flag, it should be noted, is the only other one that includes the writing around the seal.

One theory for the evolution of the Choctaw flag is a reverence for or dependence upon the original Choctaw flag for the design of current flags. What most people outside of the flag manufacturing business and vexillological circles never realize is the impact of light and time upon fabric. Blue dyes tend to age and in the process the color fastness of the dye is lost. A blue will slowly transform into a maroon and then into a purple. White will yellow with age and red will fade to a purple and eventually a pale blue. It is possible that the variations seen in the flag of the Choctaw people has been a recognition of the vagaries of time upon fabric and an intent by the Choctaw to continue with the exact design left to them by their ancestors. If so, it is a great example of the sanctity of the past in the culture of the modern Native American.

Special thanks to Dr. Whitney Smith of the Flag Research Center, Winchester, MA for providing much of the historical documentation on the Choctaw flag.

With the appearance of this new flag, the Choctaw Nation is one of the very few Native American peoples to have a traceable vexillological history. It is one that maintains a basic design for almost 150 years, but shows evolution and adaptation much like the Choctaw people themselves.

The Choctaw Nation sells copies of its flag. You may contact them at Choctaw Tribal Council, P.O. Drawer 1210, Durant, OK 74701 or (580) 924-8280

Don Healy, Bisbee, Az 85603