Meet Our Elders
Our Tribal elders are a valuable source of cultural knowledge. For this reason, the Choctaw Tribal Elders Oral History Project was launched in 2016 to capture the stories & oral histories of tribal members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, who grew up in Choctaw communities during the mid-20th century. To view information and short life stories about our tribal elders, please click on their name below their photograph.
Mrs. Dora (Thomas) Nickey was born in Neshoba County, MS and raised in the Conehatta community. Her parents were Willmon Thomas and Sallie (Davis) Thomas.
Dora preserves many aspects of traditional Choctaw culture in her daily life. One distinctly visible traditional feature she continues carrying forward is Choctaw clothing. Dora’s passion for Choctaw clothing extends beyond her everyday sporting of traditional attire, she also continues to excel at making various styles of traditional Choctaw clothing for herself and others. When she’s not busy with sewing, Dora’s other hobbies include cooking, cleaning, and maintaining her yard.
“They weren’t like that [referring to today where almost everything is readily available]. They were staying as they were. I was like that too. Even with something like coffee. If there wasn’t any coffee, they would take corn meal and burn it and make coffee from it. If they had cows, they would milk it. The would get butter [& milk] and we would eat and drink from it. That’s how it was. “
Evaline Davis was born in Philadelphia, MS and raised in the Conehatta community. Her parents were Willie and Venie Hickman. Mrs. Davis has 3 brothers. Prior to working with tribe, Evaline was a factory
worker. She began working with the tribe in 1988 and is now currently an employee of the Chahta Immi Cultural Center.
Evaline enjoys creating beaded jewelry such as medallions and collar necklaces. When with her friends, she likes to reminisce on her upbringing. Evaline also enjoys Choctaw social dancing. In addition to managing her own social dance group, she is also a member of the Elderly Activity Center’s dance group.
“Underneath the tree would be a box filled with apples, oranges, candies, and such things. These were placed there intended to be as gifts to be given to one to another. Some would tie their gifts on the cedar tree. After they had done all of this . . . they would gather around the tree and pass out presents to one another.”
Susie C. Alex was born at the old Indian Hospital to her parents Jones Comby and Rosia Isaac Comby. She lived in Standing Pine community until the age of 10, when her family relocated to Pearl River for her father’s new job. She has since then remained in the Pearl River community. She has three sisters and five brothers. Susie graduated valedictorian of her class at Choctaw Central High School and continued her education at East Central Community College, the University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of Arizona. While at the University of Southern Mississippi, Susie earned her Bachelor of Science degree. For the past 46 years, Mrs. Comby has been a librarian for the Choctaw Central Middle School. In her spare time, Susie enjoys beading, cooking, and helping raise her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mix-up at the Farmers Market
“They [the farmers market] use to grow some stuff and make seedlings and then give it away, so mom told one of my brothers to go get some for her … They use to give them fertilizer and . . . some plants to grow . . . She [Susie’s mother] said ‘Be sure to get plenty of tomato plants’. Well, there he went and when he brought it . . . to the house . . . he said ‘Momma said for me to leave this with you’ and I said ‘What are they?’ . . . he says ‘Tomato plant’ and I looked at it [and said] ‘doesn’t look like tomato plant to me’ . . . Momma, when she looked at it she said ‘It’s not tomato plant’. And he said ‘Yeah, when I told them I want tomato plant that’s what [they gave to me]’ . . . He bought a whole bunch, it was eggplant! We had a lot of eggplant, we gave it away . . . Even other non-Choctaws . . . heard about it, so they came and got it. We just had to pick eggplant every day. There were long rows, so we had plenty of eggplant to give away.”
Earlene Willis was born and raised in the Mashulaville community located in Noxubee County. Her parents were Bennie Wesley and Effie Cotton Wesley. She has 4 sisters, 3 brothers, 1 half-sister, and 1 half-brother. Growing up, Earlene was only able to attend school during the winter months when she wasn’t busy helping her father. She later moved to Ohio for a few years before coming back to Mississippi after her mother passed away. Within that same year she got married and bought a house, all while raising her brothers and sisters. Her first job outside of baby sitting and housekeeping was working at a car factory. Mrs. Willis now currently works with the Agricultural Department under the Natural Resources Division.
Earlene has had the opportunity to be attend and participate in several Choctaw weddings, so she has become familiar with the process. Along with her knowledge in Choctaw wedding ceremonies, she also makes a good reference for topics such as Choctaw beliefs, Choctaw funeral customs, Choctaw clothing, and Choctaw medicine. Earlene hobbies are sewing, cooking, and farming.
Choctaw Medicine Man
“Chief Cameron Wesley was my grandpa. He was good medicine man like a doctor. People come over and they see him in the morning and throughout the day. He made medicine and gave it to them. And you know a small horn, he used that, so people come from all over for that. The older people know about him”
Many of the cultural topics and activities that Thallis is knowledgeable about is also what she enjoys sharing and doing during her free time. Though dancing and chanting are among one of her specialties, she is also well informed about Choctaw stories, Choctaw wedding ceremony, Choctaw basketry, gardening, traditional beliefs, traditional funeral customs, traditional cooking, and Choctaw clothing.
Remembering Past Choctaw Indian Fairs
“When they danced they got a silver dollar, and when they played they got a silver dollar. That’s what they use to do. They used to play [stickball] in the day because at night there would be lights. At nighttime they would make a bonfire where they danced.”
Woodlin Lewis was born and raised in the Pearl River community. His parents were Albert and Emma Lewis. He has a brother and 2 sisters. Woodlin graduated from Pearl River High School, then went on to earn his Bachelor of Arts from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. He was also elected for 3 terms totaling 12 years, to represent his community alongside other tribal councilman representatives for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Woodlin is known for the handmade traditional Choctaw crafts that he creates. Certain crafts can take months to complete from start to finish, such as with the Choctaw drum. Other items that Mr. Lewis can make include rabbit sticks, blow guns, and stickball sticks. When he’s not creating traditional crafts, Woodlin likes hunting, fishing, dancing, and chanting.
Knowing when to take the next step in making a drum
“Once you make a cylinder [body of the drum] you put it away 2 months or 3 months, something like that. If it holds up like that then you’re ready to put it together but within that time frame [if] it’s warped in or warped out, then you throw it away and start all over”
Will Wallace was born and raised in the Mashulaville community located in Macon, Mississippi. His parents were Stenard and Annie Wallace. He has 6 brothers and 1 sister. The various occupations that he has had include painting, logging, factory work, lawn maintenance, and cabinet making. In his free time Will likes visiting with his family and going fishing.
Some of the subjects that Will is knowledgeable about are Choctaw traditional beliefs, Choctaw wedding, Choctaw funeral customs, Choctaw clothing, hunting, fishing, gardening, and farming.
“They kill a lot of hogs. They do that on the weekend and on the following weekend they take it to where there’s a ball game and they cook it [for the] softball or baseball tournament. They sponsor then they cook a lot, which it used to be fun.”
Mrs. Nellie (Tubby) Billy lives in the Red Water community. Her parents were Lewis and Effie (Bell) Tubby. She is a descendant of Chief Mashulatubby. She was part of the first graduating class of Pearl River High School (Choctaw Central High School) in 1964. She attended Haskell Institute in Lawrence, KS and Tougaloo College in Madison, MS. For many years she worked as a Choctaw language teacher for preschoolers before she retired. She is an active volunteer with her church.
Mrs. Billy has a number of hobbies including collecting recipes, quilting and sewing. She is knowledgeable about traditional cooking, gardening, farming, Choctaw funeral customs, Choctaw hymns, and stories. She is a kind, dedicated, and outgoing person.
The Tall Tales of My Father
“My father used to really enjoy telling Choctaw fables (Shokka Annompa), often laughing while telling us humorous stories. Just before we went to sleep, he would like to sit and tell us stories. Sometimes he would tell a scary one. We would be sitting apart from him when he started, but as he continued, we would move closer and closer to him until we were at his feet.”
John Mingo, Jr.
Mr. John Mingo, Jr. calls the Standing Pine community home. He was born in Kemper County Mississippi to Archie and Alice (Willis) Mingo and raised in the Nanih Waiya community. He attended Pearl River Day School and attended high school in Chilocco, OK. He is an electrical engineer by trade.
Mr. Mingo is a rich source of Choctaw cultural knowledge and is skilled in making crafts like the blowgun, rabbit sticks, beading, stickball sticks, and wood carving.
Stickball Experience at the Choctaw Indian Fair
“I remember playing and enjoying stickball around the time Patsy Buffington became the first Choctaw Indian Princess (1955). And there’s some differences in the way stickball looks now and back then. Nanih Waiya had their first team, and that’s who I played with. At times, I wore a horse’s tail because of how fast I ran. I played the center, and when I ran, the horse tail would bob up and down.”
Cubert Bell, Sr.
Mr. Cubert Bell, Sr. lives in Henning, TN. He was born in Philadelphia, MS to Willie and Lillie (Willis) Bell. He is a veteran of the US Marine Corps. Before he retired he worked at a few businesses including Firestone Tires and Sears Automotive. He served as Community Center Director in Ripley, TN, and was employed as Assistant Director and tour guide at the Chuccalissa Museum, in Memphis, Tennessee.
A Passion To Learn To Read In Choctaw
“I was probably 7 or 8 years old, my grandmother and uncles would get letters from the homeland (Mississippi) all written in Choctaw, so you know, when they got through reading it, I would look at it, but I couldn’t tell what it said. So I fussed and fussed about it, and finally one of my uncles decided that he would start a Friday night Choctaw writing class. That’s how I became proficient in reading and writing in Choctaw and able to teach it as well.”
Mr. Williamson Isaac is a life-long resident of the Pearl River community in Neshoba County. His parents are the late Hugh and Celia (Farmer) Isaac. He attended Pearl River High School.
Mr. Isaac currently works in ground maintenance at Choctaw Health Department. He attends Hope Indian Baptist Church and serves as a Deacon. One of his favorite past times is singing Choctaw hymns. People who know him describe him as being a kind and dedicated individual. He’s also a talented musician and guitarist.
Waking To Heavenly Music
“My father was a godly man. He was always studying the Bible. He was a deacon, and then later became a preacher. One of my fondest memories was my father waking us up every morning to his singing Choctaw Hymns and quoting scripture in Choctaw. He wanted God to guide our day.”
Mr. George Richardson Isaac resides in the Pearl River community. He was born at the Old Indian Hospital in Philadelphia, MS to the late Hugh and Celia (Farmer) Isaac. He attended Pearl River High School. Mr. Isaac is also a Deacon at Hope Indian Baptist Church.
Mr. Isaac enjoys outdoor activities like fishing, hunting, gardening and farming, and has a fondness for singing Choctaw hymns.
Practice makes perfect
“When there was a revival, the elders in the church would sing, and I would sit and listen to them sing. Sometimes I would bring a small recorder and record them, and later I would play the tape and sing along. If I messed up on a song, I would just play it back again and do it over. Sometimes I would hear a new song, and I would learn one stanza at a time until I learned it. I would listen to the tapes I made and that’s how I learned the hymn songs.”
Ms. Peggy S. Thompson lives in the Pearl River community. She was born at the Old Indian Hospital in Philadelphia, MS, in Neshoba County. She is the daughter of Steve and Oneva B. Thompson. Ms. Thompson attended Bogue Chitto Elementary School and graduated from Choctaw Central High School. She went on to attend East Central Community College and Mississippi State University, Meridian campus. She has worked in a variety of occupations with the Choctaw tribe and tribal schools.
Peggy’s hobbies include arts and crafts, in particularly sewing and beading. She also enjoys baking, Choctaw chants and dancing. She is knowledgeable about Choctaw weddings, traditional beliefs, dances, medicine, and clothing.
A Grandmother’s Legacy – Passing on Her Knowledge
“As a Grandmother, she taught me things like quilting. She did a lot of quilt work. She made a lot of Choctaw Dolls out of rags, and that’s where she taught me how to do the Choctaw traditional trim work on the dresses. That’s how I learned how to sew from her; by making Choctaw doll dresses.”
Mr. Harold “Doc” Comby lives in the Pearl River community. He was born in the Standing Pine community and raised in the Pearl River community. His parents were Jones and Rosia (Isaac) Comby. He attended Pearl River Day School and Choctaw Central High School. He attended several different colleges and universities in the state of Mississippi.
Mr. Comby enjoys making a number of Choctaw traditional crafts like stickball sticks, beading, the Choctaw drum used at stickball games, and the Choctaw sash. Harold enjoys being an emcee at powwows and festivities. He is also knowledgeable about many Choctaw traditional beliefs & practices, and is dedicated to cultural preservation.
Words Of Wisdom On Coveting From My Parents
“My parents used to say, if it’s material things, it’s going to deteriorate, so why fight over it. Always put people first. You can always replace a chair, or a pickup truck, but you can’t replace a person. I think these are things we need to teach our folks, especially the young, so they will have an identity of who they are, and be proud of who they are.”
Ms. Pearlie Thomas lives in the Bogue Homa community. She was raised in Conehatta, MS. She attended Conehatta Boarding school. She is currently employed as a Recreation/Community Youth Service Aide at the Bogue Homa Community Center.
Ms. Thomas’ hobbies are sewing Choctaw traditional dresses and shirts, beading, and playing softball. She is knowledgeable in Choctaw cultural arts such as traditional dances, basketry, and cooking. With her many talents and skills she has helped other tribal members learn about the Choctaw culture.
Learning the Art of Basket Making
“My mother taught me a few things, like putting together the bottom part of the basket (patali) but for the rest, like the sides and design of the basket, I would go to Martha Jim (a close family friend) for help. If I happened to get stuck on a direction to weave the basket, Martha would show me on which direction to take. Martha also showed me how to do the diamond design on the basket. My mother also showed me a pattern and said ‘If you go by this, it will turn out the same.’ I kept trying until I learned how to do it.”
Mr. Grover Chitto lives in the Conehatta community. He was born in Walnut Grove, MS and raised in Chicago, IL. His parents were Jefferson and Bernice Chitto. He attended Lakeview High School. Grover enjoys playing chess. He is knowledgeable about Choctaw basketry, beading, hunting, gardening, fishing, cooking, and Choctaw dances.
Mrs. Melba Jean (Bell) Smith lives in the Pearl River community. She was born and raised in Neshoba County on the Choctaw Reservation. Her parents are Frank K. Bell, Sr. and Ivenia (Lewis) Bell. She attended Pearl River Indian School and graduated from Choctaw Central High School. She attended East Central Community College. Her occupation is Patient Benefits Director at Choctaw Health Center. Melba has a vast knowledge of past cultural traditions and is proud of her Choctaw heritage.
A Family Feast
“I remember when it was winter, and there were no stores to go to, families would gather to hunt and to eat together. The men did the hunting, mostly rabbits and squirrels, and the women would gather at an appointed place and prepare to cook. Even if it was cold, we would gather together.”
Billy G. Chickaway was born in Neshoba County. He was raised in the Tucker Community and currently lives in the Conehatta Community. His parents were Henry and Annie Chickaway. He attended Tucker Day School, Ardmore High School in Oklahoma, and Choctaw Central High School in Choctaw, MS. He also attended various colleges in the state of Mississippi. He has worked in management positions in several entities and is now a Benefits Director for Pearl River Resort. Billy served his people in the Tribal Council in two consecutive terms. He is a retired veteran of the Air National Guard-186 Air Refueling Wing in Meridian, MS. He reached the rank of Master Sergeant. Billy has a vast knowledge of Choctaw culture.
A Lesson From Morning Chores
“I remember as a youth that we had to hoe the garden before going off to school. We would go in the garden and do what the Choctaws call ‘Okchali’. That’s putting dirt in and around the plant and getting rid of the weeds. One time I was hoeing the garden and I accidently cut a plant. I looked around, checking if anybody saw me, and then I put the plant back into the ground and went on my merry way. Later on, my grandmother was working in the garden and came across the plant I had cut and saw that it had wilted and died. After I came back home from school, she asked if I had cut a plant. I told her I did cut it, but i replanted it. She told me the plant had died. I went to see for myself. I told her I will try not to do it again. It was a teaching moment where she talked to me and showed me that these things (vegetables) will keep you alive, so you need to take care of it, I learned my lesson.”
Mr. Richard Thompson was born and raised in Philadelphia, MS, and resides in Tucker community. His parents were Tubby and Palonia (Willis) Thompson. He attended Tucker Day School, Chilocco Indian School, Foothill Community College, DeAnza Community College, and Bay Valley Technical School. He lived in California for 45 years and was employed as an electrical engineer. Mr. Thompson is a Veteran of the Army Reserves and National Guard. He enjoys different sports and electronics. Working on his farm as a youth helped him to develop a strong work ethic. His leisure time included hunting, and fishing.
Keys To Hunting
“[To hunt] you gotta be real patient. You gotta be… You need [to know] a lot of things that animals do…they don’t come around the middle of the day. They only come around evening time or early morning. I needed [that] kind of training, which I learned from my uncle, father, grandfather. …That training made me a very good hunter.”
Donna Williams is from the Bogue Chitto community. Ms. Williams learned the traditional techniques in preparing corn from her mother Mable Jackson and her uncle John Levi Bell. She’s one of the few that prepares and cooks hominy using the traditional method for her family on special occasions.
Donna took up the tradition of hominy making at the encouragement of John Levi Bell. “When Momma used to do it I would watch and helped out, but I never did it all by myself until John Levi got me started and brought this wood mortar to me.”
RJ Willis (1934-2020)
RJ Willis was born in Neshoba county to Cowin and Mollie Sissy Coleman (Tubby) Willis. Prior to his passing, RJ resided in the Pearl River Community. He attended Pearl River Indian School. Mr. Willis was employed at Weyerhaeuser Plywood for 20 years. He is knowledgeable about Choctaw chants, games and farming. Mr. Willis is a self-taught musician.
Drawn To His Fiddle
“My father used to play the fiddle, and when he didn’t see me, I would find it and play with it. When he caught me with it, he would get on to me and say ‘Don’t touch it, you might break it.’ But I was always drawn to his fiddle, so when he went to work, I would try to play it. When I got a little older, I started to teach myself to play by listening to country shows on the radio and to other Choctaw fiddlers.”
Roger Smith (1947-2019)
Roger Richardson Smith was born to Clement and Mallie (Solomon) Smith and raised in the Conehatta Community. He attended Conehatta Elementary School and Choctaw Central High School. Mr. Smith worked in a variety of occupations like sharecropping, driving for Dallas Transit in Dallas, TX, BIA road maintenance and construction, a truck driver for KLLM, and a 911 dispatcher for Choctaw fire and ambulance. He also served in the United States Army. As a youth, Roger learned how to hunt with Choctaw Rabbit Sticks and would join his relatives on rabbit hunts.
“We didn’t have car so we (relatives) would walk to where we were going to hunt. My uncle usually came with us and he had a lot of hunting dogs. When the dogs spotted a rabbit, we would get ready because a rabbit usually circles back around to where he started to run. Sometimes we got’em, sometimes we didn’t. that’s the way it was.”
Bobby Joe (1953-2019)
Bobby Joe was born in Kemper County Mississippi. His parents were Effie Joe and Henry Joe. He attended Bok Ćito School. He worked a variety of jobs, and was employed for 17 years at U.S. Motors. Bobby enjoyed hunting small game as a youth. He learned to Chant from his Father (Henry Joe) and Prentiss Jackson. He was an ardent teacher in Choctaw Dances and Songs. He loved to share his knowledge of Choctaw Traditions.
My Father’s Influence
“My daddy was a Chanter. I learned to sing by listening to him. I remember when I was younger he was asked to chant for a group at the Choctaw Fair. I got interested by watching him chant.”
Laline Farve (1933-2018)
Mrs. Laline Farve was the daughter of Johnny and Mammie Lewis. Laline lived in Conehatta, Mississippi in her early years. Later in life she became a resident of the Standing Pine community. For her education, she attended the Conehatta Elementary school until the third grade. Throughout her life she worked in a variety of jobs to make a living for herself and her family. Spending time with friends at the Choctaw Elderly Center was one of Laline’s favorite pass time. She was also a skillful seamstress who also enjoyed making traditional Choctaw clothing.
Fun Playing Washers
“I remember they would play washer throw, somebody would set a time, and they would play into the night, sometimes almost til morning.”
Elizabeth Allen (1947-2018)
Elizabeth Allen was a lifetime resident of the Bogue Chitto community. Her parents were the late John Levi Bell and Maggie Wallace Bell. She was raised in a family that practiced many Choctaw traditions. She was best known for her desire to share her heritage with the younger generation. She credited her father for instilling her with strong family values, work ethic, and the love for Choctaw culture.
We Ate What We Raised
“When we were children, Daddy [used] to do that – he was a cotton planter and corn planter. He [used] to plant a garden and it was from the garden we ate. And [we did] not go to store. Not like how we eat today.”
Thelma Barnes (1942-2018)
Mrs. Thelma R. (Jim) Barnes was born and raised in Philadelphia, MS, and attended Pearl River High School. She resided in the Pearl River community. She was the daughter of Vernon and Elsie (Willis) Jim.
Mrs. Barnes was a veteran of the US Army Reserves. Before retiring, she worked as a nurse at the Choctaw Health Center in Choctaw, MS.
Mrs. Barnes enjoyed a variety of hobbies including sewing, beading, reading, and cooking. She loved to sing Choctaw hymns. Mrs. Barnes was a well-rounded individual who lives with passion, dedication, and grace.
Judie Isaac (1942-2017)
Ms. Judie Lene Isaac was a resident of the Pearl River community. Her parents were Wilburn and Mealie Isaac. She attended Tucker Day School and Pearl River High School. She worked as 4-H coordinator for 15 years, Choctaw Indian Fair Program assistant for 20 years, and also worked as Activity Coordinator for the Choctaw Elderly Center for six years. She was strong in her traditional beliefs and enjoyed expressing her knowledge of the past.
Memories Of Past Choctaws Celebration
“The elders use to say that there would be a gathering, where they would slaughter a cow for the feast. They would also play stickball all day. In the evening, they would start dancing the Choctaw dances. It was told to me that they would dance all night. They said they would dance so much that they left deep impression on the ground they dance on.”