The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have inspired Mississippi College faculty, staff, and students for generations.
From their ancestors’ resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity to the kindred values of faith and family, members of the only federally recognized American Indian tribe living in Mississippi are cherished contributors to the campus culture at MC.
The Christian University’s ties to the MBCI were solidified last year when MC President Blake Thompson and MBCI Chief Cyrus Ben signed a memorandum of understanding to create a valuable tuition assistance program for Choctaw students. The agreement also established a cultural exchange between the institutions that culminated last spring in “Choctaw Expressions,” an educational display of the present-day Choctaw people’s customs.
Inclement weather forced the event indoors, and while the rain couldn’t dampen the excitement of the festivities, it prevented the inaugural event from reaching its full potential on the MC campus.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 29, the MC family and members of the Clinton community will have another opportunity to participate in the splendor of the Choctaw culture.
Weather permitting, the bucolic Quad at MC will be transformed into an authentic Choctaw festival with all of the sights, sounds, and scents of traditional tribal celebrations. Participants can enjoy the delicate artistry of skilled jewelry makers and basket weavers, the lively shouts and graceful movements of brilliantly clad community dancers, the dynamic skill and coordination of athletic stickball players, and the tantalizing smells and original flavors of traditional Choctaw dishes during the exhibition moved to November to help commemorate Native American Heritage Month.
For individuals of Choctaw lineage like Lauren Ben, an MC alumna and first-year graduate student in MC’s Administration of Justice Program from Choctaw, Mississippi, there’s no better way to share the best parts of her heritage with her classmates than the event sponsored by MC’s Multicultural Student Association and the MBCI Cultural Affairs Program.
“November is Native American Heritage Month, so this is the perfect time to show the culture of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians,” said Ben. “Not only will it showcase my culture, but it is also a reminder that Native Americans still exist.
“Many people do not know anything about Native Americans, much less Choctaws. Some see Native American culture as a form of entertainment. This is a chance to help people understand what it means to be a Mississippi Choctaw.”
Ben’s fellow MBCI member Afton Johnson, a junior kinesiology major from Conehatta in Newton County, Mississippi, said events like Choctaw Expressions help students understand why the name “Choctaws” is special.
“You cannot use the name Choctaws and not have any representation of the culture that shows why the name is being used,” said Johnson, who participates in the Choctaw Chorus at MC. “It’s important to keep the relationship with my Tribe active because of the name this private institution is using.
“Choctaw Expressions is welcome exposure for my people. It shows those outside of the Tribe that we are still here, we are still strong, and we will continue to survive. My culture needs preserving, and this spotlight may be one way for our people to help revive it.”
The celebration will begin at 1 p.m. with a demonstration by Choctaw dancers, followed by a storytelling session hosted by the Choctaw Tribal Language Program. Sequita Phillips and Abbigail Jefferson will show the ins and outs of stickball, Nalani LuzMaria Thompson, the 2023-24 Choctaw Indian Princess, will greet attendees, the Boys and Girls Club Social Dancers will perform, Eleanor Chickaway will give a demonstration of Choctaw basket weaving, and Shaya Hicks will offer an exhibition of Choctaw beading. Choctaw baskets, beadwork, and concessions – including mouth-watering Indian tacos – will be available for sale.
Camryn Johnson, an admissions counselor from Byram, attended the first Choctaw Expressions in the spring and learned much about Choctaw culture.
“I particularly enjoyed the interactive aspect of the event,” said Johnson, who started the Multicultural Student Association at MC. “Choctaw Expressions wasn’t just an event for MBCI members to show us their culture – they intentionally involved participants. For example, they pulled me from the crowd to participate in the dance.
“I learned that stickball is not as easy as it looks, and I had the opportunity to talk to the Choctaw Indian Princess and learn more about the pageant. Overall, I learned the importance of remaining open to learning about another culture’s cuisine, customs, and activities.”
Ben said she took pride in the demonstrations of her culture at the spring event.
“I loved seeing the expressions of fascination on everyone’s faces,” Ben said. “I liked that other tribal members were able to dance our traditional dances. I never thought there would be a time when our chanters and Choctaw drum would be the center of attention on the Mississippi College campus.
“This type of visibility shows how important the Choctaw culture is to MC.”
This fall, MC unveiled its new on-field personality: Tushka, a majestic Eagle adorned in blue and gold feathers and important symbols of Choctaw culture. Chosen by the Mississippi College student body, the name means “warrior” in the Choctaw language.
Symbols like Tushka, the MBCI flag flown at Robinson-Hale Stadium, and the Choctaw drum that heralds the arrival of MC’s athletic teams, and other valued MC traditions are important, Camryn Johnson said – but not as important as the people and the stories they represent.
“It’s important that MC recognizes those who make up this University and to celebrate them,” she said. “The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has been an inspiration for MC for over 100 years – our physical campus, the “Choctaws” mascot, the values, the traditions, and all the MC alumni.
“God made us all different, but we make up one body. When we take the time to recognize each part, we become more knowledgeable about how to love one another. As a Christian University, we have a higher calling to do this through recognizing Native American Heritage Month.”
Ben said the MC-MBCI relationship – and events like Choctaw Expressions – do more than simply acknowledge the Choctaw people are still in Mississippi. It allows today’s Choctaws to do what their ancestors weren’t able or allowed to do: share their culture with others.
“MC embraces the Choctaw culture with respect,” she said. “I would like to see MC continue educating its students about the Choctaw culture and hosting more events like Choctaw Expressions.
“I grew up going to a tribal school, but I am glad to see a little bit of home on the MC campus. Just like Chief Ben said at last spring’s Commencement, ‘Choctaw by blood and Choctaw by education.’ I am proud of both.”
For more information about Choctaw Expressions, click here.