The Choctaw tribe is an American Indian Nation indigenous to the southeastern region of the United States, including parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama. Today, many members of the tribe live in Oklahoma and Mississippi. The Choctaw tribe is ethnically and linguistically linked to the Muskogean family. When Europeans formed settlements in this area near the Mississippi River in the 16th century, the Choctaw were relying upon agriculture and hunting for their survival.
Historical accounts differ about the origin of the Choctaw tribe's name. Some propose its derivation to be from Hacha hatak, which in the Muskogean dialect used by the Choctaw means "river people." Another theory is that it is an altered form of chato, the Spanish word meaning "flat" or "flattened." This refers to the custom of flattening the head, which was said to be a practice of the Choctaw tribe. An additional supposition is that "Choctaw" was the name of a leader of the tribe.
Religious beliefs and practices play a large role in the culture of the Choctaw tribe. These sacred and spiritual convictions revolve around the devout faith that humans and other living beings are inherently linked to forces in the supernatural world. Choctaws hold harmony with nature, people, and the supernatural as fundamental beliefs. Another important aspect of the Choctaw tribe that might be considered as religious beliefs is their myth of emergence. They believe that the Choctaws and some other tribes sprung forth from a mound of earth in Mississippi named Nanih Waiya or "Productive Mountain."
It was customary for the Choctaw tribe to cleanse the bones of the dead prior to placing them in "bone-houses." This work was typically done by elders within the tribe who grew their nails long specifically for this ritual. The tribe is also said to have observed the tradition of raising poles in the vicinity of newly dug graves. These poles were subsequently adorned with wreaths and other ornaments believed to assist the spirit in its ascent.
In 1830, many members of the Choctaw tribe were moved from their southwestern homelands to Oklahoma, which was called "Indian Territory" at the time. Relocated along with the Choctaws were members of the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole tribes. This massive compulsory migration proved to be fatal for many members of each tribe. Disease, famine, and violent attacks from white men and hostile American Indians were some of the hardships that ultimately overwhelmed the procession, which has become known as the "Trail of Tears."