Department of History
My dissertation project examines the various ways that Choctaws understood, debated, and legitimized power between the early eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Choctaw social and political structures endured significant strain, as successive Native American nations and colonial regimes attempted to ally with, weaken, or entirely obliterate the nation. Leaders of the nation attempted to juggle a Choctaw domestic political arena which was defined by locality and decentralization of decision making and an international one in which Euro/American negotiators increasingly demanded a single “Choctaw” voice to negotiate with. Choctaw elites required legitimacy in both spaces to rule effectively, but found the line increasingly difficult to walk, as contradictory and at times irreconcilable differences between negotiating partners developed. Some Choctaws, like the renowned leader Peter Pitchlynn, proved themselves impressive international negotiators, but struggled to translate that into domestic politics in the form of winning elections. Likewise, a number of the most powerful domestic chiefs did not attend international treaties or negotiate with outsiders but maintained the steadfast loyalty of their people.
Although the methods of securing legitimacy shifted dynamically over the course of two centuries, Choctaws had deep-seated understandings of the purposes that power could be put to. Although a relatively large, powerful, and populous nation in the southeast, Choctaws did not engage in campaigns of territorial expansion. Rather, they sought to establish patterns of international interdependency, with the intention of establishing functional relationships with outsiders and maintaining Choctaw national sovereignty. Attempting to incorporate newcomers and smaller refugee populations into a regional framework of mutual respect and negotiation that would keep the balance between all parties became a long-term goal of Choctaw leaders, and a primary marker of successful leadership.