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David Folsom and the Emergence of Choctaw Nationalism

Thorne, Barry Eugene

Few historians have used nationalism as a concept relevant to Native Americans. Because of this oversight there is a need for re-evaluation. During the early nineteenth century the Choctaw Indians of present day Mississippi displayed a strong nationalistic movement that resulted in the overthrow of the old political order and the institution of constitutional government. In all, they passed from a chieftaincy form of organization to a national one with elected officials.1 What constitutes nationalism has generated much scholarly debate. Its definition has varied from time to time and scholar to scholar. Yet there are certain beliefs and conditions that most academicians agree point to the existence of nationalism. These can be summarized as: 1. A national territory with clearly defined boundaries. 2. Shared cultural characteristics such as language, customs, manners, and social institutions which the nation wants to preserve. 3. The desire for an independent or sovereign government based on the principle of selfdetermination and loyalty to self-rule. 4. A shared belief in a common history or ethnic identity. 5. Love and esteem for fellow nationals over and above that of "foreigners." 6. A devotion to the national entity. 7. A pride in the past achievements and sorrow for past defeats of the nation. 8. A shared disregard for other nations. This may take the form of hostility if those nations become threatening. In the early nineteenth century, the Choctaws demonstrated all these characteristics to some extent.2 One of the first Choctaw nationalists was David Folsom, and his life illustrates the development and early growth of Choctaw nationalism. He was the leader of a rising group of comparatively wealthy first generation mixed-bloods who were bicultural in outlook but considered themselves Choctaws. Folsom was more conscious of American society than most of his contemporaries. Viewing the progress of mankind from a rational perspective, he saw Choctaw society as a historical reality which the white man threatened to destroy. Folsom belonged to both of the societies which were confronting one another and he experienced inwardly the clash between the two. Both were a part of him, and the destruction of one of them meant the symbolic annihilation of a part of himself. His resolution of this conflict turned him into a "new man." David Folsom derived his identification as a Choctaw from a new kind of understanding. Whereas traditionally the Choctaws justified their existence through myth, Folsom replaced this with the Lockean concept of "human rights." His most significant contribution to Choctaw thought was the idea that the Choctaws inherently possessed rights and deserved justice because they were human beings. The Anglo challenge to their rights gave rise to the concept of Choctaw solidarity, on which he based his political career. The logical fulfillment of this mode of thought was the creation of a Choctaw Nation in which nationalism would replace myth as a means to sanctify the existence of the Choctaw people. To accomplish his goals Folsom developed a program which stressed the preservation of the "national homeland" and self-strengthening through education, the development of industry, and rigid morality. He enlisted Christian missionaries as allies in the task of transforming a people who were uneducated, by Anglo standards, into citizens of a modern republican state. His staunch defense of the Choctaw territory in present-day Mississippi contributed most to the success of the Choctaw Christian nationalist movement. By offering the best strategy for preserving Choctaw sovereignty over their mythical homeland, he received the support of many who still thought in mythical terms despite the fact that his movement opposed such modes of thought.