“If the alcohol didn’t get ’em the shotgun did,” she said. I sat on the floor next to her chair as she recalled the names of the children, she remembered all of them. Mysticism and romanticism strangely stitched together by pragmatism, part security blanket, part shroud wrapped around us. The story was shadowed by something akin to shame, but more like a longing. It was the way of Native Americans.

The  Choctaw territory and highly advanced, prosperous people were systematically reduced through what began as a peaceful co-existence with European settlers in the 16th century. Agriculture and livestock trading with the French brought the cultures of my people together, but by the time the United States of America had elected its 7th president, Andrew Jackson, the Mississippi Choctaw who remained after the wars, treaties, betrayals and subsequent Indian Removal Act of 1830 were left to make an application to the newly formed federal government for permission to identify themselves and their children for consideration to be citizens. The building of the new nation had reduced their land holdings, population and trust, not their spirit. The transformation of their way of life meant only they would have to begin again.

The acceptable word for how they began again is abject poverty. The common and more accurate description is dirt poor. Once land owners of an entire region, respected and acknowledged as leaders of their community, nothing like the communities of modern times, but community encompassing a whole people, my people had been regarded with esteem, respect and honor. Over time they became fragmented to the point that they were unrecognizable to each other, even to themselves. Surviving for generations, thriving only by the grace of what was left of their spirit. Spirit that tells us even though we sometimes must give in, to never ever give up, to always hope. That same spirit fires me even now, generations later, deep in my soul with a love of this country. Deeper than patriotism, deeper than a fierce, raging desire for freedom; deeper than the root of a tree that lives, breaths, shades, shelters, and nurtures all who seek refuge within its grand and glorious expanse.

The first daughter of the first son of two people in a long line of people descended from keepers of the earth, I am proud of my heritage. Proud to know that no matter what the future holds for my country, no matter the greed, power struggle, misdirection, deception, or confusion of its people, that same spirit remains to guide us, fire us, remind us how far we have come and inspire us for how far we have to go.

We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it. – William Faulkner

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