In my novel, Into the Free, Millie struggles with her father’s Choctaw heritage. In order to understand Millie and Jack, I needed to understand what being a Choctaw really meant during that time period in Mississippi. Much of that research is being incorporated into the sequel to Into the Free during which Jack’s mother, Oka, plays a greater role in Millie’s life.I am grateful to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma for helping me with translation and research for these books. I was honored to interview Andrea Pavlovsky, daughter to the Chief of the Choctaw Nation, Gregory Pyle, regarding her experience as a Choctaw in modern American society. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation.
JC: Your father is the current Chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Gregory E. Pyle. What does being Choctaw mean to you?
AP: Having a Choctaw heritage has been an important part of my life. As a young child and young adult, I had the opportunity to attend Choctaw events with my family. I am fond of those memories and I am proud of my Choctaw heritage. I am extremely proud of my father, Chief Pyle, and all that he has accomplished.
JC: What are you most proud of about your Choctaw heritage? What traditions do you cling to, and what cultural practices do you hope to pass to your children? What customs, if any, do you not agree with?
AP: As a child I enjoyed spending time at the Choctaw Capital in Tushkahoma, Oklahoma. It is located in the “Potato Hills” of Oklahoma and is a truly beautiful natural area. The tribal land includes a historical Choctaw courthouse and museum. As an adult I have spent time in this area with my husband and children and have enjoyed seeing it through their eyes. There is a Choctaw Indian Memorial honoring the “Choctaw Code Talkers.” During WWI, soldiers who were Choctaw Indians used their almost obsolete language to help bring about an end to the war. This is significant to me because these individuals were not even considered US Citizens, but there efforts were not about what they did not have. It was about doing the right thing and it was not without high risk.
JC: The Code Talkers of WWI were a famed group of Choctaw who played a vital part in America’s success during the war by translating crucial messages into the Choctaw language. This is only one example of the many Choctaw men and women who have bravely and loyally served the United States. How do most Choctaw reconcile past offenses by the early American government (forced relocation on the Trail of Tears, unfair treaties, etc.) with their current patriotism?
AP: Through the unfairness and bad decisions of others, the Choctaw people thrived in spirit by their efforts in WWI and during the forced removal of the people, the Trail of Tears. During the time of the Trail of Tears, the Choctaw people became aware of another travesty which was occurring halfway around the world in Ireland. They gathered all the funds they could and sent to those suffering in Ireland. I believe one of the most crucial aspects of any culture is to remember the past. Never forget the sacrifices. Do not dwell on the past. Use the past as a tool to strengthen us.
JC: Do the Choctaw have a reservation?
AP: The Choctaw tribe has not had land designated as “Reservation” during my lifetime. I grew up in an Oklahoma town of 10,000 people, ninety minutes from Dallas, TX.
JC: Explain to us how the Choctaw government works within the US government. What do you think the US government could learn from the way the Choctaw handle financial, legal, social, and educational issues?
AP: “Do the right thing.” That is the motto that my father has lived both at home and serving as Chief of the Choctaw Nation. I believe that if a person leads with this goal it naturally carries over to what is important, the welfare of the people. This is evident in his administration and decisions. Even as an adult with my own family, I continue to learn from my father.
JC: Tell us about your education. Have you ever felt limited by your Choctaw heritage? Have you ever felt empowered by it? What is your profession today?
AP: I am a proud graduate of Southeastern Oklahoma State University. I have been fortunate to grow up in a time that I know of no limitations having a Choctaw blood-line. I am a Quality Engineer and work in the Pharmaceutical Industry.
JC: What stereotypes (positive or negative) do you want people to overcome? What do you want us to know about the Choctaw and how can non-Choctaw help promote better cross-cultural understanding?
AP: Growing up in Southeastern Oklahoma, having Native American blood is quite common. I did not comprehend what is to not have peers surrounding me with Native American knowledge until I moved away as a young adult.
JC: Many Americans have been told they are of Native American ancestry. I have always heard that the various tribes frown upon people trying to identify their native roots. Is that true? Why or why not? And…If you’d like, tell us about the Rolls and how people can begin to research their roots.
AP: I believe the more we know of our past and culture will empower and enhance our lives. The Choctaw nation can assist with the process of pursuing a CDIB Membership (Certificate Degree of Indian Blood). The official website is Choctawnation.com.
JC: There seems to be a resurgence in efforts to preserve the Choctaw language. Do you speak the Choctaw language? Will you teach your children?
AP: I am excited that of the recent resurgence of the Choctaw language. I know a few words and phrases that I have passed on to my children.
JC: Would you mind sharing your favorite recipe for a traditional Choctaw dish?
AP: My favorite traditional Choctaw dish is Fry Bread. It is something I save for special occasions. See Recipe below.
5 c. self-rising flour
1/2 c. oil
Sweet milk, amt. to make biscuit dough
Mix flour, oil and lukewarm milk. Let dough stand and rise 1 hour. Roll the dough on board and cut with doughnut cutter. Fry the bread in skillet using oil for frying.
I enjoy fry bread as is, but it can be used as a base for a main meal (topped with lettuce, beans, & cheese) or dessert (topped with honey).
Thank you, Andrea, for taking time to share your thoughts with us. I’m honored to claim Choctaw roots in my own family and appreciate your efforts to inform others about the Choctaw Nation.