Wednesday, November 01, 2006


[Note: This review used by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission of the author.]
Tingle, Tim (Choctaw), Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges (Cherokee). Cinco Puntos Press, 2006. Unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 2-5

Crossing Bok Chitto, originally one of the stories in Tingle’s excellent collection, Walking the Choctaw Road, is now a picture book.
In the early 1800s, Mississippi’s Bok Chitto River was a boundary, dividing the home of the sovereign Choctaw Nation from the “Old South” of plantation owners and their human property. Enslaved Black people who were able to get to the Choctaw side of Bok Chitto were free. According to the story, the Choctaws built a stone path just below the muddy surface of Bok Chitto—built it up in times of flooding and built it down in times of drought. It is this unseen stone path, and the generosity of a Choctaw family, that aids an enslaved Black family to cross to freedom. 

When her momma asks Martha Tom to fill her basket with blackberries for an upcoming wedding, the little girl crosses Bok Chitto, loses her way, and encounters the calling together of a Black church secreted in the Mississippi woods. After an enslaved Black father instructs his young son how to move among the white people without being seen—“not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!”—Little Mo escorts Martha Tom past the plantation house and back to the river, where she shows him how to cross. The relationship between the two children and their respective families deepens, and when trouble comes—“it always does, in stories or in life, trouble comes”—magic is made, and the Black family is empowered to cross to freedom. 

There are two concerns with this otherwise extraordinary story. One is that, in moving the text from a short story to a picture book, the description of the Choctaw was changed from “a sovereign nation of people” to “a nation of Indian people.” “Sovereign” may be one of the most important words in Indian Country, and children old enough to read this book—or have it read to them—need to be taught its meaning. 

There is something else that needs to be considered. For people to be defined by their condition of servitude—“slaves”—is a social construct that holds the institution of slavery in place. Rather, the word “enslaved” places the responsibility for servitude on the owners rather than on the owned, and raises a level of consciousness that the word “slave” does not. 

These issues notwithstanding, Crossing Bok Chitto is an awesome story of survival, generosity, courage, kindness and love; enhanced by Jeanne Rorex Bridges’ luminous acrylic on watercolor board paintings on a subdued palette of mostly browns and greens. In an endnote, Tingle describes how this particular story came to be. Today, Choctaw families—as well as Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole—continue to tell the stories of how they aided the “runaway people of bondage. "

—Beverly Slapin


Anonymous said...

A disquieting bit of information: the Choctaw themselves were slaveholder and in the area where the book is set, the Choctaw had an agreement with the whites to each return escaped slaves.

I've also heard (have not confirmed with research) that the Choctaw were quite reluctant to emancipate their slaves. In fact, some killed their slaves rather than emancipate.

What does one do with this kind of information? Or, is it misinformation? It *is* a lovely book.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Anonymous,

Our histories as Native peoples interacting in various ways with non-Native peoples are complex. We are not monolithic. That is part of the work that I do---to break down that idea that we're one people. We aren't, and even within our specific tribal groups, there are differences. Nambe is a small pueblo, with an Upper and a Lower Village. I'm from the Upper Village. The ways that we do and did things are different from the ways that the Lower Village does things, and we're only one mile apart!

I suspect that you have correct information, but I wonder if we're in one of those very complex situations, where you'd have one Choctaw family doing this and another doing that, and still a third doing something else entirely?

I don't know, because Choctaw history is not something I've studied. If you are a researcher, please visit this blog post again, and update us with your findings.


Lee Byrd said...

I am not an expert in this field at all, but only know about the intersections between enslaved peoples and Choctaws through knowing Tim Tingle and hearing him talk about it, and then becoming interested enough to read and learn more. Additionally, I read a wonderful book by historian Tiya Miles called Ties That Bind from the U. of California. This book discusses at length these complex intertwinings through the lens of a single family, a Cherokee man named Shoeboots and his slave Doll who was also his wife. These histories are fascinating and heartbreaking and mostly hidden. The are not discussed, it seems, because they are complex, not straightforward, not simple. One family within a tribal group might have held slaves, another family within the same group may have helped free slaves.

Ben said...

I tried to post earlier – we’ll see if it works now . . .

As I'm coming to this conversation rather late, I suspect that it will probably be relegated to the rarely read archives. However, I think I can offer a few points of clarification.

Debbie is spot on that the Choctaws were/are not "monolithic." I am a Choctaw who has done research on tribal histories, ethnographies, and literary treatments. It is obvious to me that speaking of the Choctaws as a singular political group, while sometimes inevitable, is a fallacy. Even speaking of particular Choctaw factions or divisions is tricky because they changed/change so quickly over the course of history.

But, for the sake of brevity, I will make some generalizations here. Yes, there were Choctaw slaveholders -- there were also groups of Choctaws ideologically and politically opposed to slavery. Most of the Choctaw slaveholders in Mississippi (the setting of Tingle's book) were mixed blood members of the tribe who had more interaction with white communities (ie, many went to white colleges, intermarried with whites, even lived in white communities). There were far fewer full blood slaveholders, though this was probably due more to class and money issues rather than race or acculturation (though the point is debatable).

A few of the prominent mixed blood leaders, such as Greenwood Leflore (who served in the Mississippi legislature), owned a great deal of "property" including slaves. Among these Choctaw slaveholders, attitudes about African Americans were strikingly similar to those held by white Americans. And, yes, this group certainly did not offer refuge for escaped slaves. Yet, I am not certain that an agreement existed between the Mississippi Choctaw and the southern states (or federal government) concerning the return of escaped slaves. There was indeed such an agreement with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (though there was a small population within the Nation that refused to recognize it).

However, as Tingle notes there are stories from more traditional (usually full blooded) communities in Mississippi, that support the premise of Crossing Bok Chitto wherein slaves were given refuge.

At any rate, the point made by "anonymous" is a valid one which I use to complicate textual readings when I teach Crossing Bok Chitto in my Children's Literature course.