Mon July 5, 2004
Pushmataha: A Choctaw Leader and His People
"The Life of Pushmataha" is a fascinating little piece of biography and legend. This man arrived as a teen among the Choctaw, claiming to have had no parents and no particular place of origin.
By Don Noble
Let me at the outset assure the reader that I have very little knowledge of Southeastern Native Americans, that I had never heard of either Pushmataha, the Choctaw chief, or Gideon Lincecum before reading this little book.
I was quite literally attracted by the cover portrait of Chief Pushmataha, or Push, as he was affectionately called. However, having read it, I'm glad I did, and know a few things now that I previously didn't.
First, Greg O'Brien, Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi, explains in his introduction who Lincecum was.
Gideon Lincecum, 1793-1874, together with his wife, Sarah, two small children, his parents, assorted siblings, and a few slaves moved in 1818 into the new state of Mississippi, near Columbus, on the Tombigbee River and lived in and around Columbus among the Choctaws for thirty years.
Lincecum was an intelligent, energetic man who farmed, logged, ran a trading post, was the superintendent of various academies, and, most startling of all, taught himself medicine and became a full-time physician.
For his times, Lincecum was an extremely open-minded man and grew to know and admire the Indians exceedingly. In fact, for six weeks in the early 1830s, Lincecum lived with a Choctaw medicine man and incorporated what he learned from him into his practice.
Lincecum came to believe that bleeding patients and using violent emetics, both common practice in the nineteenth century, did more harm than good, and he was "tired of killing people."
All through his thirty years in Mississippi, Lincecum observed his Choctaw neighbors closely and wrote about them. This little volume has two of his essays, one on the Choctaw mounds, the other on the life of Pushmataha.
On the mounds, it turned out that the tribe had been wandering, like Moses and the Israelites, in the Southeast for more than forty years and had carried with them, the whole time, the bones of all their ancestors, which had come to be an impossible burden.
Their wise chiefs convinced them that the best plan was to bury them all in a huge mound/grave and, most importantly, not plan to carry them on to the next place, should they be forced to move again in the future. (The mounds at Moundville, Alabama, are much older and almost certainly not for tribal bone burial.)
"The Life of Pushmataha" is a fascinating little piece of biography and legend. This man arrived as a teen among the Choctaw, claiming to have had no parents and no particular place of origin. (Legend flourishes best in mystery.)
He was a modest youth and a ferociously brave warrior and rose to chief of a tribe numbering over thirty thousand. Under his leadership the Choctaws fought alongside Andrew Jackson and against their old enemies, the Creeks.
Pushmataha finally achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Army and when he died while negotiating a treaty in Washington, D.C. was buried at Arlington with full military honors.
Lincecum writes an eloquent prose and, as it turns out, Push and the other chiefs often spoke an eloquent prose. James Fenimore Cooper was right, it seems, when he had his Mohicans speak as beautifully as members of Parliament. Apparently, they really did.
This book tells the reader some interesting things about how Indians assigned names, conducted politics, stored food, hunted, and, generally, how they lived and, most spectacularly, how they fought.
The Choctaws, like most of the tribes around them, seemed to love the warpath and at one point attacked the neighboring Ovashsashis, catching them by surprise, killed all they could find--man, woman, and child--and came home with between eight hundred and a thousand scalps.
These Native Americans may have been fine stewards of the earth, but they were also really fierce.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.