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Enlightened nation: a look at the Choctaw education system

Peter Pitchlynn, or “The Snapping Turtle,” was a Choctaw chief and, in 1845, the appointed delegate to Washington DC from the Choctaw Nation. Pitchlynn worked diligently to improve the lives of the Choctaw people—a Native American people originally from the southeastern United States. He strongly believed in the importance of education, and served as the superintendent of the Choctaw Academy in 1840.

In the shortened excerpt below, Christina Snyder, author of Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson describes the education system set up by the Choctaw General Council, and its emphasis on equal education opportunities.

On 29 November 1842, ten years after a group of weary emigrants built their first schoolhouse at Wheelock, the Choctaw General Council passed an education bill that would revolutionize Indian schooling. Pitchlynn had returned to Indian Territory triumphant, having rescued Choctaw students from their namesake academy and Choctaw money from Richard Mentor Johnson. Taking control of their education funds, which then amounted to about $28,500 annually, the Choctaw General Council created one of the most extensive public school sys­tems in North America, which would serve over 12,000 Choctaws. New Superintendent of Schools Peter Pitchlynn declared to fellow Choctaws, “In this let us be united; In this let us be ambitious.”

The Choctaws demanded that they should control their own schools. To the General Council, Peter Pitchlynn argued, “The Choctaws now have intelligence enough among them to manage their own institutions without the advice and council of whitemen.” As the first superintendent, Pitchlynn was the ex-officio president of the four-member board of trustees, which included the Choctaws’ federal agent plus one member appointed by each of the three districts. The trustees created policies, set salaries, hired and fired teachers, attended annual examinations, and reviewed all expenses associated with the schools. A separate Building Committee, consisting of members of the General Council, evaluated bids from Choctaw contractors, then oversaw the construction of the new schools. The General Council members who wrote the Schools Act of 1842, mostly graduates of Choctaw Academy, sought to prevent the greed, corruption, and cronyism they saw in the management of their alma matter.

The board of trustees tried, first, to hire Choctaws as teachers and principals, but quickly found that they did not have enough personnel resources to support their planned school system. Peter Pitchlynn waged an uphill battle when he suggested that the Choctaw Nation might turn, once again, to missionaries. Distrust of missionaries was widespread in Indian Territory because many Indians believed that these outsiders had colluded with the federal government to implement removal. Pitchlynn countered by pointing out that only a minority of missionaries had supported removal, while many had defended Indian rights, going so far as to “follo[w] us to our new homes,” where “they have again established churches and schools among us…notwithstanding they have received no aid from our school funds in this country nor from the government of the United States.” Ultimately, the General Council decided to contract out the staffing of several schools, so long as the societies agreed to pay the teachers’ salaries and, more importantly, abide by the regulations set forth in the Schools Act of 1842. The General Council selected several different mission societies—one for each of the selected schools—so that no one society would dominate. Still, Choctaws were wary. Pitchlynn’s cousin Israel Folsom, a fellow member of the General Council, wrote, “Peter, let us be cautious.” Referring to the aftermath of the Panic of 1837, the first US depression, Folsom continued, “Times are hard among the whites and they are aching for the money—we will find a great many are wolves in sheep’s clothing who have bit more often than we.”

“Peter perkins pitchlynn” by George Catlin. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Choctaws took the risk because they wanted to dramatically expand schooling, to create a comprehensive educational system that would serve nearly every member of their nation.

Most Choctaws went to local schools, which came in two varieties. The first, called “neighborhood schools,” ran five days a week, while “weekend schools” served adults and children who worked during the week. Typically located in one-or two-room log cabins, these schools were built by local community members, who petitioned the General Council for funding. Soon, every town and most small villages had local schools, which focused mostly on the basics—reading, writing, and arithmetic—but, unlike white common schools or the new Choctaw academies, the teachers were nearly all Choctaw, and they instructed students mostly in their native language. Lavinia Pitchlynn, Peter’s eldest child, became a schoolteacher, presiding over both neighborhood and weekend schools near their family home at Eagletown. At the neighborhood school, Lavinia’s pupils included her brother Lycurgus and other youngsters bound for the academies as well as local children who would return to their family farms after master­ing the basics. Even more diverse were weekend schools. There, 30-year-olds sat next to small children, helping each other through spelling exercises. Because local schools were widespread and offered instruction in Choctaw, they were particularly instrumental in democratizing education.

With their new school system, c. As Israel Folsom argued to fellow members of the General Council, “Our Nation have been mistaken in thinking to improve and civilize the people by educating the boys only.” The “female school,” Folsom argued, “is more necessary for the Nation than the boys—because the girls have been neglected so long.” While the old mission system admitted girls, advanced female students had no opportunity to pursue higher education. The General Council, eager to remedy this mistake, overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution to offer girls and women equal access to co- educational neighborhood and weekend schools and to create three female academies, a number equivalent to those for males. In part, the Choctaws were influenced by American notions of republican motherhood. In his conversations with the secretary of war, Peter Pitchlynn echoed US rhetoric regarding education for women: “Intelligent mothers rear up enlightened and intelligent children, they are the first to plant good seed in the minds of the young, and make impressions the most indelible.” Choctaw leaders believed that female education was key to maintaining their status as a “civilized” and “enlightened” nation. But the empowerment of women also resonated with traditional Choctaw values, which helps explain the popularity of female schooling even among cultural conservatives. Since time out of mind, Choctaw women had been heads of household, clan mothers, farmers, political advisers, and bearers of culture. To a matrilineal people, educating women simply made sense.

Featured image credit: “Choctaw Group” by unknown author. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Eleanor

    Interesting! Totally agree that female education is the key!

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